The delights of Daffy

Daffy’s Elixir, also called the Elixir Salutis or elixir of health, is one of the most famous proprietary medicines and was in manufacture until the twentieth century. It has been described as the first branded product, although its origins are somewhat obscure. It is most associated with Anthony Daffy of London, but was probably invented in the late seventeenth century by a relation who was most likely his uncle, the clergyman Thomas Daffy from Leicestershire, whose daughter Katherine was still advertising it for sale in the early eighteenth century, in rivalry with Anthony’s son Elias and other manufacturers.

It was said to ‘exceed all the medicines yet discovered’ and to be applicable for innumerable ailments, including rheumatism, gout, scurvy, green sickness (a form of anaemia common in young women that was believed at the time to be ’caused’ by celibacy) and even the King’s Evil (an infection in the lymph nodes which was popularly believed to be capable of cure only by the royal touch). A rather more alarming use is recorded in a letter from the poet Elizabeth Carter to the ‘queen of the bluestockings’, Elizabeth Montagu:

In eating the bread at different times, some pins were discovered… There were two rolls, and a quartern loaf; in each of which were found pins of various sizes, some pretty large. It was some days after the children had eat the bread, before they were seized with internal pains and prickings. Mrs. Nixon gave them Daffy’s Elixir, which brought away pins from them all: I have forgot the number from each, but the whole amounted to about sixty pins and one needle.

The exact formula for the Elixir was initially kept a secret, the remedy was not patented and no recipe survives that can be traced to either Thomas or Anthony. Indeed, their versions may not have been the same, one of Anthony’s pamphlets commenting that his experience had led him to

add a considerable number of Ingredients unto that Receipt… and did also much vary from the said Receipt, both in the Quantities and Qualities of those Ingredients… And I do further affirm, that neither my said Friend, himself, (from whom, at first, I had the said Receipt) or any other man (my self only excepted) either doth, or at any time did know all the Ingredients, (much less, their quantities).

This, of course, was nothing unusual for manufacturers of proprietary medicines, particularly at a time when the manufacture of remedies at home was still quite common. However, it means that we cannot now be sure which of the numerous varieties that have come down to us is the most accurate or authentic. Hannah Woolley published a version in 1696 that she claimed was given by Daffy to Sir Richard Ford when Lord Mayor, which if true would date it to 1670–71; although given that the first advertisement for the Elixir only dates from 1673, that seems unlikely. What is also interesting is that despite the claimed secrecy and the availability of the remedy to buy, numerous recipes appear in manuscript collections.

Daffy’s Elixir was made by infusing various ingredients in alcohol, including one or more purgatives with spices and sweeteners. The most common recipe that Haycock and Wallis identified in their research into Anthony Daffy’s account book was written down by Elias Ashmole in the seventeenth century and consisted of the following ingredients:

Aqua vitae
Caraway seeds
Coriander seeds
Elecampane roots

The same ingredients were used in the recipe included in the Pharmacopeia Londinensis of 1721. However, an eighteenth-century manuscript recipe titled ‘Dr Daffys Elixar from his owne hand’ is quite different, incorporating rhubarb, saffron and cochineal but no elecampane, guiacum or caraway. Although it would undoubtedly have been colourful, the omission of elecampane (an antiseptic) and guiacum (which was often used to treat syphilis) would have meant that the ingredients were rather less active. My own research has so far identified over 50 recipes with the number of ingredients varying between 4 and 13. The four ingredients were most commonly raisins, senna, carraway seeds and a spirit (most often brandy), but one recipe contained merely senna and jalap (both purgatives), coriander seeds and gin, which must have been both revolting and explosive.

The Ladies’ Friend, and Family Physical Library notes: ‘This is an agreeable Purge [if there is such a thing!], and nothing more can be useful than to keep it ready made for family use.’ If it was taken after overindulgence in alcohol – since, as one source has it, ‘It is a proper purge for drunkards, and is a great formula to old women habituated to drams’ – the effect was presumably akin to a hair of the dog, given the amount of alcohol it contained.

Dr Allen’s Synopsis Medicinae notes the ubiquity of recipes for the elixir by the 1730s, claiming: ‘There are yet some Medicines mightily cried up… amongst which of late the most famous are Daffy’s Elixir, now public enough.’ The fact that recipes were circulating from the late seventeenth century makes it all the more surprising that a marriage settlement between Daniel Austin and Anne Sandford in 1747 featured the recipe for Daffy’s Elixir as a valuable piece of property, stating ‘Daniel Austin was in possession of a receipt for making a composition liquor called Daffys Elixir, the profits from the sale of which had over the several years past amounted to £100 and more.’ This recipe was given to Anne’s brothers in exchange for £300 and the undertaking that after Daniel’s death the profits would pay for an annuity for his wife of £60.

Daffy’s Elixir is thus an interesting example of the intersection and interplay of the domestic and the commercial in the eighteenth-century medical marketplace. It is just one of many proprietary and patent medicines that were recorded in recipe form in manuscript collections, others including Lucatelli’s Balsam and the Lady Alleyn’s Water. There were also remedies for such problems as the bite of a mad dog, which were not only used domestically but also sold in small cottage industry initiatives. The very number of recipes indicate at the very least curiosity about the ingredients in the medicines people were taking so enthusiastically at this time, as well as an active market in ingredients and information.

This is an edited version of a paper given at the Medicine at the Margins conference, University of Glamorgan, 15 April 2011.

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