October is unfortunately for a lot of people the beginning of cold season. Regardless of the fact that I know the air recirculation and filtering on British Airways is highly effective, I will probably wear a mask for the majority of my upcoming flight to Heathrow, simply because sitting in one spot for eight hours has never struck me as a particularly healthy place to be.
In the eighteenth century, of course, we didn’t understand that disease was the result of viruses and bacteria. People thought contagions were caused by ‘bad air’ (the word malaria literally means ‘bad air’). We weren’t entirely wrong, were we? We just didn’t know what made the air bad; in general, we thought it was miasmas: rotting vegetation and open cesspits and things of that nature. But regardless of what we thought caused it, illness was commonplace and unavoidable. And unless you felt like you were at death’s door, you just got on with it.
In my last newsletter I wrote about humoural medicine. It was still the most widely used method of ‘diagnosing’ illness. But apart from humoural theory, people had a home pharmacopeia of remedies that were based on their perceived effectiveness. I wrote ‘perceived’ because there isn’t really any way to assess how well they worked or didn’t… but just recently in the United States an independent advisory committee to the US Food and Drug Administration agreed that phenylephrine, a popular ingredient in many over-the-counter allergy and cold medicines, is ineffective in oral preparations. Yet we have been buying cold-relief products containing phenylephrine for years, because we perceived that they work.
Most households probably had some sort of layman’s medical text on hand. My copy of William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines, was printed in 1800 and is the seventeenth edition — there were many subsequent editions. It contains a lot of the same advice that your own doctor would advocate today. However, many of the ‘simple medicines’ aren’t at all familiar.
In the eighteenth century we thought that colds were caused by ‘obstructed perspiration’. The theory was that provoking a gentle sweat was the trick to getting over a cold. Putting the patient to bed when symptoms first appeared, keeping him warm, and limiting his diet to light fare and ‘warm, diluting liquor’ were the recommended regimen. By ‘liquor’, Buchan doesn’t mean alcohol. He warns, ‘Many attempt to cure a cold, by getting drunk: but this, to say no worse of it, is a very hazardous experiment. No doubt it may sometimes succeed, by suddenly restoring the perspiration; but when there is any degree of inflammation, which is frequently the case, strong liquors, instead of removing the malady, will increase it. By this means a common cold may be converted into an inflammatory fever.’
After an initial day in bed, the recommendation was for the patient to resume gentle activity if they felt well enough. If the cold didn’t respond to such treatment, or was accompanied by fever and a rapid pulse, then the practitioner might proceed to bleeding and applying a blistering plaster to the patient’s back, to cool the pulse and draw off the excess of phlegm.
Buchan is talking about treating the cause of the cold, as it was understood. He says little about treating the symptoms.
The personal medicine chest thought to have belonged to Lord Nelson contained several medications that might have been used to treat cold symptoms. Camphor and Friar’s Balsam could both be added to a vapor bath to relieve congestion, and Friar’s Balsam could also be used as a cough remedy. Incidentally, you can still buy Friar’s Balsam, and syrup of squills (which the medicine chest did not appear to contain) is still used in commercial cough mixtures as an expectorant. Spirits of Sal Volatile was a distillation of what we would call ‘smelling salts’. Inhaling them might also relieve congestion. Salts of Hartshorn, a related preparation, could be used in a ‘sweating draught’ to try to provoke the gentle perspiration thought to cure colds. Lavender might be used for bronchial congestion.
Nelson was fairly abstemious, but I imagine more than a few naval officers treated a cold with a toddy, a combination of rum, hot water, and sugar. It might not have helped the cold, but it undoubtedly made him feel better!
I’ll leave you with a comforting recipe, a modern take on a hot toddy. Dr Buchan almost certainly would not approve, but one can’t hurt… right?
From Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England by Colin Hirsch
Hot Buttered (Maple) Rum
2-3 cardamom pods
1 pat of unsalted butter (cultured butter works especially well)
a few slices of peeled fresh ginger
1 tsp of light brown sugar, or more to taste
pinch of orange zest, or orange twist
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of cinnamon, or a cinnamon stick
1 dram of (maple) rum, to desired strength
a few drops of vanilla (optional)
Add cardamom pods to bottom of a tall mug and muddle slightly with a pestle or other blunt kitchen tool. Add butter, ginger, sugar, orange zest, and spices. In a separate mug, combine rum and hot water and then pour over spice mixture. Stir to dissolve butter and sugar, add a few drops of vanilla if desired and serve.