Posted tagged ‘patent medicine’

Blog Post 173 – Spring Tonics

February 21, 2013

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Ah! Spring is in the air! The warm breezes, the crisp blue skies, the flowers poking their heads from beneath the stiff and frosty soil…wait, never mind. It’s still winter, isn’t it? But I did see a few daffodils showing their buttery yellow tops recently, so spring can’t be too far away. That brings me to the topic of the day: spring tonics. These are potions, concoctions, teas, tisanes, and other preparations which are taken not to react to a medical problem (although some do claim to treat a specific disorder) but to provide general or specific proactive health support. I make the standard disclaimer before we begin that this is not a medical blog and nothing herein should be construed as medical advice; it is provided in a historical and folkloric context only and any medical treatments should only be undertaken with the advice of a trained physician.

Tonics of one kind or another can be found in many places, but I will specifically be looking at the mountain traditions of eastern North America today (the Ozarks and Appalachians). This region has a long history with tonics as part of its medical culture, and even in its economy (which we’ll get to in a bit). Just what is a spring tonic, though? Let’s look to the sourcebook series on Appalachia, The Foxfire Books for a definition:

“After a long winter, spring was the time to refresh the spirit and tone up the system with a tonic. The mountain people used teas and beverages as tonics. They would gather the roots or barks in the proper season, dry them, store them in a dry place, and use them as they wanted them. People used sugar, honey, or syrup to sweeten the teas. Common spring tonics were sassafras, spice bush, and sweet birch” (Foxfire 2, 49).

The book says they were used to treat everything from digestive disorders to gout, sore eyes, skin problems, and liver ailments. They were usually used by making a strong tea (or tisane) and sweetening to taste. Spring greens could also have a tonic/purifying effect, such as wild asparagus, dandelions, dock, poke, wild onion, ramps, and nettles. So the simple answer is that a tonic is a plant based, preventative medical remedy aimed at improving overall health. They are frequently taken in the spring, but in some cases might be used throughout the year.
What kind of tonics were—and in some cases are—common in the mountains. One of the most widely used was sassafrass, which we’ve looked at before. According to Appalachian healer Emogene Nicholas Slaughter:

“We always have a spring tonic of sassafras tea. The red is the best. It makes the best tea. It’s the same thing but in different localities the roots are different because of the soil. I get mine generally over here along the river, and it’s the red roots but I can go back up here against the mountain on the north side of the hill and it’s the white roots. The old people always say that it (spring tonic) thins your blood after the wintertime you know. Cleared out the blood stream. Just makes you feel better. I really feel that it does” (Milne 94)

As you can see, even the specific location from which the roots were dug could have an impact on the healing quality of the tonic. Folklorist Vance Randolph recorded the use of sassafras and similar roots in Ozark tonics:

“Many Ozark people make a tea from the bark of the spicebush (Benzoin aestivale) in March and April.  They drink this just as they do sassafras tea and regard it as a tonic and blood thinner. It tastes quite as good as sassafras, I think. Some old folks say that in pioneer days the spicebush was used to season game it softened the wild taste of venison and bear meat. Spicebush twigs are still used as a mat beneath a possum, when the Ozark housewife bakes the animal in a covered pan or a Dutch oven. Choctaw-root or dogbane (Apocynum) is also made into a tea, mildly laxative, which is said to “thin the blood an’ tone up the system.” I have never tasted this but have met men who say that it is better than either sassafras or spicebush. Some yarb doctors fortify their choctaw-root with wild-cherry bark and ‘anvil dust,’ whatever that may be” (Randolph 105)

Randolph also identifies wild-cherry preparations which would be used to make “bitters,” similar to those used in making cocktails but specifically focused on health benefits. He also mentions the purple coneflower (Echinacea), which has been touted in contemporary times as an immunity booster.

Sassafras and spicebush were far from the only spring tonic taken regularly in the mountains. Here are some other examples of spring tonics:

  • Seventy-seven willow leaves boiled down in water to a pint of liquid is a good chills tonic (Hyatt 109)
  • Ginseng, which we’ve covered in another post, was reputed to have a number of tonic properties
  • To regulate the flow in menstruation, boil the inside bark of a sweet- apple tree and use as a tonic: if flowing too much, the bark must be scraped upwards from the tree; if too little, downwards (Hyatt 111)
  • “An amateur herbalist at Pineville, Missouri, told me that a tonic mixture of whiskey, tansy, and ragweed leaves was indicated in all such cases ; “I take it every day myself,” said he, “an* it agrees with me fine. I aint had the hiccoughs but once in fourteen year!” (Randolph 100)
  • A strong tea of red-clover blossoms is highly regarded in some quarters as a blood purifier and general tonic. It is used in the treatment of whooping cough, too, but if the whooping cough is really bad nothing will help it but mare’s milk. Many a father has been routed out in the night to ride to some farm where a mare has lately foaled (Randolph 105)
  • “Bloodroot or red puccoon (Sanguinaria) is also supposed to be a great blood remedy, apparently because it has bloodred sap. By the same token a leaf shaped like a kidney, or a liver, or an ovary, or what not is supposed to designate a remedy for disorders of the organ which it resembles. The yarb doctors are all familiar with this principle, but they don’t seem to take it very seriously or follow it consistently.” (Randolph 105-6)
  • “Ginseng plus black cherry and yellowroot made a potent tonic, especially with the addition of some home made whiskey” (Foxfire 3, 247)
  • “Corn whiskey was a common cure for many ailments, many of which were feigned, people say. A mixture of whiskey and honey was used to treat toothaches, sore throats, and minor stomach ailments” (Montell 103)

Whiskey played a major role in the decoction of tonics, as you can see in some of the above examples. Likewise strong solvents like vinegar could be used to draw out the wonderful properties of plants and create a powerful tonic. We touched on this in our post on Four Thieves Vinegar, for example. At the top of this article you can see an example of a brochure for a vinegar-based tonic (I picked this up at a nearby Amish market). The inside portion is below:

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Several of the tonics we’ve mentioned so far specifically speak of their effect on the blood, either as “blood-thinners” or “blood toners.” These preparations were supposed to help undo the sluggishness and thickening that occurred during the winter within the body.

“Tonics known as ‘blood toners’ or ‘blood builders’ were used mainly in the spring to restore vital properties to the blood. One of the most popular was sulfur and molasses. ‘Blood purifiers’ or ‘blood thinners’ were also used in the spring and during episodes of sickness to clear the blood and organs of toxic waste, or what Southern Appalachians termed ‘pizins’” (Cavendar 65)

They also made herbal bitters which helped digestion and purified the blood. Eventually, tonics were commercialized and turned into wonder pills and patent medicines. Some examples of the many patent medicines available throughout the early twentieth century: Dr. Enuf, Peuna, Dr. Simmons’ Liver Regulator, Dr. Thatcher’s Liver & Blood Syrup, Dr. Taylor’s Family Cordial, and Thedford’s Black Draught. Some, like Dr. Enuf, were essentially caffeine and sugar energy pills claiming marvelous properties. Some legitimately helped. Most were made not in the mountains, but in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, or Baltimore. The Chattanooga Medicine Company made two successful medicines, however: Wine of Cardui for ‘female complaints,’ and the laxative Black Draught (Cavendar 72-3). These patent medicines (which I may cover in another post at some point) had a huge impact on Appalachian economies, especially for people trying to get out of the farming life:

“The J.R. Watkins Medical Company, founded in 1868 in Winona, Minnesota…enjoyed great success in selling their medicines in Southern Appalachia…[They] offered men, and later women, the opportunity to have their own business by becoming local sales representatives. For many, it was a way to escape farming life and become prosperous. A 1916 issue of the Watkins Almanac has a picture of a man in a hat and overalls standing beside a horse-drawn plow. His head is turned toward a Watkins truck rolling down a road in the distance. Beneath the picture is the caption ‘I wish I were a Watkins Man.’ The company’s recruitment efforts were successful, for in 1911 it had over 2,500 sales representatives across the nation. Sales representatives not only operated in towns and cities but also served the remote rural communities on horseback. Families in the rural communities often provided food and lodging for the ‘Watkins man’…Watkins Blood and Skin Purifier, for example, was recommended [in their almanacs, another source of revenue and advertisement as well as a pharmacopeia for the rural Appalachian] as a curative or preventative for influenza, catarrh, headache, boils, acne, blackheads, ‘change of life’ (menopause), languor, and diarrhea because these disorders were all thought to be caused or complicated by defiled or weak blood” (Cavendar 74-5)

As medicine became restricted and patent medicines came under increasing scientific and legal scrutiny, these “Watkins men” and their ilk slowly disappeared, but the tonics have remained popular up to the present day (as illustrated by the Yoder’s Good Health brochure above).

Some tonics also got administered to animals for their general benefit, too: “Ordinary soft soap made with wood ashes is regarded as a sort of universal tonic for hogs, so the hillman just mixes a little soap with the hog feed occasionally. ‘Soap will cure a hog no matter what ails him, if you git it to him in time,” said one of my neighbors’”(Randolph 50). In some cases, plant materials were completely unnecessary and a tonic could be made by simply using water from a natural mineral spring. I hope to cover the many miracle curing hot springs at some point in the future, but I’ll briefly mention one such spring due to its connection to tonics:

“The unique sulphur spring was promoted as a cure for a variety of illnesses, but especially for influenza…promoters boasted that one could drink the waters and bathe in them for a few weeks each summer and thus prevent catching the dreaded disease during the winter months. The water was even bottled for a while and distributed throughout the nation as a cure-all” (Steele, 63)

If you’re already seeing the word “tonic” connected to the spring water and you’re thinking cocktails, you’re in good company. Tonic water, the kind you mix with really good Old Tom gin (am I showing a bias there?), comes out of the tonic-brewing tradition. Happy hour for your health, anyone?

I hope this has been a nice—if brief—look at spring tonics in their various forms. If you know of tonic recipes or variations I’ve missed, feel free to post them in the comments section below!
Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Sources

  1. Cavendar, Anthony. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia (2003).
  2. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois (1935, 1965).
  3. Milne, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery (2007).
  4. Montell, William L .Upper Cumberland Country (1993).
  5. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (1964).
  6. Steele, Phillip.Ozark Tales & Superstitions (1983).
  7. Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 2 (1973).
  8. Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 3 (1975).
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Blog Post 60 – Appalachian Mountain Magic, Part III

May 14, 2010

Today I’m finishing up the introduction to the magic of Appalachia by looking at “yarb Doctors” and some of the other magical oddities of the mountains.

Yarb Doctors
The final part of the mountain magical triumvirate is the “Yarb Doctor.”  These are often seen as the male counterparts to the Granny women already discussed.  These were folks who knew enough herbal medicine to make cures and remedies for all manner of ailments.  Vance Randolph describes them thusly:

“Besides the regular and irregular physicians, who live mostly in the villages, the backwoods country swarms with ‘yarb doctors’…who have never studied medicine at all. Some of these nature doctors are women, others are preachers who do a little doctorin’ on the side, and many of them are unable to read or write. They rely mainly upon herbs, barks, roots, and the like. For internal medication these substances are steeped in hot water, and “horse doses” of the resulting teas are administered at frequent intervals. In some cases the tea is boiled down to a thick paste called ooze, or mixed with strained honey to make a syrup” (OM&F, p.92)

Often, this is what we think of when we talk about “snake oil salesmen.”  The yarb Doctor basically dealt in herbal formulas for treating common ailments.  Some of these formulas became fairly well-known.  When a particular yarb Doctor’s formula reached a particular level of renown (and often even if it didn’t and an unscrupulous “doctor” was simply chasing a dollar) these medicines would become a famous “patent medicine.”   This is not to say that the yarb Doctor (variously known as an “herb doctor,” “rubbing doctor,” or “nature doctor”) was simply a quack making money off of ignorant mountain folk.  In most cases, these were locals with a knack for making formulas and medicines from the indigenous flora of the area, including roots, barks, flowers, and leaves.  Some of the mixtures are still in use today, albeit changed much from their original purpose.  Root beer is a prime example of what happens when you make a patent medicine out of sarsaparilla and sassafras roots and mix it with a little sugar and soda water.  Appalachian yarb Doctors had good reason to make medicines:  they lived in the pharmaceutical breadbasket of the country.  According to Dave Tabler’s Appalachian History blog:

“Big Pharma had not yet perfected the widespread manufacture of synthetic drugs in 1932. Instead, the industry relied on ‘western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee [to] furnish 75% of the crude botanical drugs which the continent of North America supplies to the drug markets of the world,’ according to an article in Economic Geography that summer”

The remedies proffered by yarb Doctors were not limited only to plants and their components, but often included a few more unusual ingredients.   For example, dealing with a toothache was a common enough problem in the mountains, where access to regular dental care was limited or non-existent:

“There were many treatments for a toothache.  Some of the more common ones were holding tobacco smoke, a sip of red oak bark decoction, or whiskey in the mouth; chewing ragweed leaves; applying cinnamon or clove oil, camphor, or persimmon juice to the tooth and gum; placing a ball of cotton soaked in paregoric, camphor, turpentine, or kerosene on top of the tooth; and holding a bag of warm ashes or salt against the cheek.  If a large cavity was present, it was stuffed with soda, salt, cow manure, spider webs, aspirin, burned alum, dried and pulverized buckeye skin, or crushed puff-balls” (FMSA, p.107)

There are a number of remedies used by these mountain medicine men which are still in common practice.  Clove oil, for example, is still used to numb the pain of a toothache.  Some methods, though, such as packing a cavity with cow dung, seem to have fallen by the wayside (I’ll not say whether I think that a good or bad thing, though I’m less than eager to put cow dung in my own mouth if I’m being entirely honest).

Other Aspects of Mountain Magic
There are, of course, many areas of mountain magic which don’t fall neatly into the three categories I’ve laid out here.  yarb Doctors and Granny women had much in common and there is a great deal of crossover in their particular lines of work.  Likewise, one who could dowse for water could usually also perform some other occult action, such as simple curing.  I have an in-law whose great-grandfather (the seventh son of a seventh son, no less) could dowse and “buy” warts off of people in order to effect a cure, for example.

Other aspects of mountain magic have already been touched on in this blog.  Some of the areas we’ve covered here which have a huge place in the folk magical practices of Appalachian peoples include:

One of the biggest areas I’ve not yet covered in detail is the Appalachian preoccupation with death, dying, corpses, and graveyards.  Edain McCoy’s In a Graveyard at Midnight includes a great deal of this lore in her chapter on “Death, Dying, and ‘Haints,’” which focuses mostly on the rituals surrounding death and burial as well as protection from the dead.  At some point, I’ll be doing a bit more on this topic, but for now I think the most important thing to note is that death and birth were—and are—the two most important events in a human life, and the mountain folk treated them with respect, awe, and not a little fear.

A final area of interest for mountain dwellers where the occult was concerned had to do with divining the future.  Rather than foreseeing events having to do with money or fame or anything like that, almost all Appalachian divinations performed in the home had to do with love.  This is, again, a topic I’ll be delving into with more depth at another time.  But often the “games” played by young girls in the mountains revolved almost entirely around divining the name, appearance, or attributes of a future husband.  And there are also plenty of tales which deal with the terrible consequences of treating these sorts of divinations lightly (such as the story of the “dumb supper” which eventually leads to a young girl’s brutal murder).  Suffice to say, Appalachian folk know that life has its dark side, and they aren’t afraid to talk about it.

That’s it for mountain magic this week.  I hope this has been a useful introduction.  This, like many of the other topics here, only scratches the surface, and I hope to return and look at Granny women, yarb Doctors, dowsers, power doctors, signs and omens, death lore, and just about everything in more depth at a later date.  But for now, I’ll wish you a happy weekend.
Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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