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:
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,
- Cavendar, Anthony. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia (2003).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois (1935, 1965).
- Milne, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery (2007).
- Montell, William L .Upper Cumberland Country (1993).
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (1964).
- Steele, Phillip.Ozark Tales & Superstitions (1983).
- Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 2 (1973).
- Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 3 (1975).