Cough, cough

Someone said to me at a conference yesterday, ‘Oh, are you the one that writes that blog.’ My answer should have been, ‘Well yes, occasionally’… Writing a chapter has rather got in the way recently.

But surrounded as I seem to be today by people coughing, I thought I’d follow up my previous post on colds by a companion one on coughs. What were the eighteenth-century equivalents of Benylin or Covonia?

Lady Ellis recommends:

Take 3 ounces of oyle of almonds new drawn, one ounce & half of syrrup of jujubs,1 one ounce half of the syrrup of Maiden haire2; grinde these together in a marble mortar with a little white sugar candy till it look’s very white, take it often upon a licorise stick.3

Many remedy books advise turnip water:

Take halfe a pack of Turnips, one quarter of a pound of Elliocompain Root, ten pippins. Pair them and slice them and put them into a Rose still and still them altogether. Tak the Water and boyl it to a surrup and drink of it for a Cough, in the boyling of the surrup you may put in a litle liquorish and sweet Fenel seeds.4

If the cough is ‘violent’, Dr Dell’s remedy was:

Two spoonfull of sweet Oyl, Four spoonfulls of Penny Royal5 Water and 20 Drips of spirits of Hartshorn.6

And for children one recipe was this:

Take of Syrrup of violets7 of Jujebes & popys of each an ounce popy water 3 ounces, Aqua mirabilis8 & small cinamon water of each 1 Dram, mingle all these together & take 2 or 3 spoonfulls 3 or 4 times a day when the cough, & at night going to bed, grown persons more.9

That sounds quite pleasant, and was presumably sleep inducing – although perhaps not a good idea to take too much of it, since syrup of violets was also employed as a laxative!

1 Jujubes secrete a plant gum that is soothing to the throat.

2 G. Smith tell us that this was a sweet syrup made from maidenhair fern and was ‘frequently, in the summer season, called for by gentlemen at the coffee-houses’ (G. Smith (1799), The Laboratory, or, School of Arts, London: C. Whittingham, p. 236).

3 Liquorice is still used in cough syrups today. Wellcome Library, MS 7892.

4 Wellcome Library, MS 144.

5 Pennyroyal is a kind of mint, used for breathing problems, but presumably not for pregnant women, since it was a common abortifacient.

6 Spirits of hartshorn was a distillation of horn shavings that produced ammonia. Wellcome Library, MS 7851.

7 Syrup of violets was used to soothe inflammation.

8 Aqua mirabilis was a medicinal water made, according to Samuel Johnson, from cardamom, cloves, cubeb galingal, ginger, mace and nutmeg soaked in spirit of wine.

9 Wellcome Library, MS 1320.