Caroline Powys

This is a modified version of the paper I gave at the Centre for the Study of the Home workshop today.

If you lived during the eighteenth century and you were ill, what did you do? Assuming that you were at least of middling rank so you had money to spend, you had a number of choices. You might call in a physician or surgeon, who would visit you at home, although in country areas he – and it always was a he – might be some hours’ ride away. You might visit an apothecary for some pills or potions. Apothecaries not only dispensed medicine but prescribed it and conducted simple operations, and can be seen as the forerunner of the modern GP. You might purchase a proprietary remedy from a peddler or travelling quack, or you might resort to your medicine chest, stocked with proprietary remedies such as sal volatile or smelling salts and tincture of rhubarb, used as a purgative. Another alternative was what might be considered, after Sara Pennell, a virtual medicine chest: the family remedy book.

Manuscript recipe books have survived from many periods and in many forms. In addition to culinary recipes, in the days before one could easily obtain medicine for almost any complaint off the shelf, people kept recipes for medicines that they could manufacture at home. Some remedy books are beautifully bound, meticulously written out and indexed, and so pristine that they barely appear to have been used; others are little more than scraps of paper or notebooks written in different hands and at different times, with crossings out and markings in the margins. Unfortunately many of these manuscripts have become divorced from any other information about their compilers, so what we have are little more than hints about how they might have been used and why particular recipes were kept, sometimes several for the same complaint.

Most of the work that has been done on manuscript recipe collections has focused on the 17th century or earlier. The 18th century was a time of transition in healthcare, with a greater availability and use of physicians and apothecaries, as well as patent medicines. Nevertheless, many recipe books exist that can be dated to that time, and the aim of my research is to trace their role and usage in the domestic context at a period when there was both greater professionalisation and commercialisation of medicine.

In order to help compile a fuller picture of the use of medical recipe collections, I have identified a number of manuscripts where biographical information and family papers also exist. One such was compiled by Caroline Powys. Caroline was born in 1738, the daughter of John Girle, who was Surgeon in Chief at St Thomas’s Hospital. In 1762 she married Philip Lybbe Powys of Hardwick House in Oxfordshire, who became a JP and Deputy Lieutenant of the county. Caroline was friends with Cassandra Leigh, who became Jane Austen’s mother, and one of Austen’s biographers describes Caroline as ‘short, plump [and] jolly’ and Philip as ‘tall [and] handsome’. They had four children, one of whom died at nine months, and nineteen grandchildren.

Caroline PowysThirteen volumes of Caroline’s journal have survived; a 19th-century edited version contains extracts from a further seven volumes and various family papers, which have since been lost. There is also a bound and carefully handwritten recipe book, which gives us a fascinating snapshot of an 18th-century gentlewoman’s life. The first page of the index includes cookery, especially pastries and preserving; small-scale medical preparations, such as calves’ foot jelly, often served to invalids, and saline draughts; domestic maintenance, for example recipes for grease removal and paint; and decorative arts, including shell work and Japanning. There is no definitive evidence that Caroline herself made up any of these remedies, although there are occasional additions indicating omissions or improvements, one recipe marked ‘most excellent’, and a complicated recipe for lavender drops with the annotation: ‘I have a little of these lavender drops now of my father Powys made by the above receipt which are far superior to any one buys.’ The rest of the recipes are quite simple, so it is feasible that either Caroline or her housekeeper did manufacture them. Most of them are for a limited range of conditions, a number of which are noted in the journals; this contrasts with some other recipe collections that have multiple remedies for every condition imaginable.

The sources of most of Caroline’s recipes are listed. There is a note at the beginning that ‘All the following receipts I had either from the Ladies themselves or from old family manuscript ones’. With the exception of one attributed to her cousin, Mrs Wheatley, the earlier recipes are from people not mentioned in the diaries or a published source (Sir William Temple), while the later ones, most of which are dated, come mainly from friends or relatives whose names occur in the journals. This suggests how the book may have been compiled: Caroline copied out older family recipes first, then added to the book on later occasions as she developed her own social network and was given recipes by other people. Both culinary and medicinal recipes constituted a form of social currency, used for bestowing favours and as gifts.  The origins or donors of the recipes also situate the manuscript socially, among what Caroline calls ‘our most agreeable and sociable Neighbourhood‘ of gentry and minor aristocrats on the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border, where there was ‘a constant repetition of dinners at each mansion within 7 or 8 miles round’.

Reading the journal and the recipe book together enriches the picture of domestic medicine we can obtain. For instance, smallpox was the most dreaded illness at the time: it could be fatal and there was a risk of disfigurement. Philip Powys showed the marks of smallpox, which his wife describes as giving him ‘a good rough manly face’, and in the recipe book there is a ‘Cold Cream for Childrens faces after small pox’.

2 ounces best spermaceti 4 oz (viz 8 tablespoonfulls) Trotter oyl (oyl of almonds much sweeter) 20 grains of Camphire pounded, put these in a silver saucepan when melted pour it into a bason of water, and beat it in different waters full 3/4 of an hour, when it will be a nice cream, pour off the common water and beat it in 4 spoonfuls of orrange flower water put in a deep gallipot leave the orrange flower water at top it keeps it tie it down with a blader and do it over the skin every night with a soft Napkin.

NB never wash childrens faces of a day, but going to bed a soft piece of dry flanel is excellent to clean if hot or dusty. 1/2 oz virgins wax omited above.

Spermaceti is wax from a sperm whale’s head cavity, in contrast to ambergris, also used in medicines, which was from the intestines. Trotter oil is obtained by purifying the shin bones and feet of cattle, and was for dry skin. Camphire is camphor, used to soothe itching. I think the orange flower water was just for perfume, although neroli oil is obtained from the same plant and was used to relieve stress.

Inoculation against the disease was possible from 1718, when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced the practice from Turkey, and had become widespread by the 1740s, although smallpox remained endemic in urban areas. All Caroline’s surviving children and at least three of the grandchildren were inoculated; there is no mention of whether the family switched to vaccination when that was introduced at the very end of the century.

The journal also notes illnesses suffered by various members of the family, including whooping cough, scarlet fever, measles, gout and consumption. Caroline also mentions several times suffering from rheumatism, saying she was ‘so bad with the Rheumatism in my right hand had hardly any use of it for many weeks’ and towards the end of her life it was so bad she was unable to write. The evidence from the diaries thus allows us to be sure that some of the remedies in the manuscript were collected for conditions or illnesses that the family experienced, for instance the various recipes for rheumatism, ranging from mustard whey – made by boiling mustard seeds in milk – to a tablespoon of mustard seeds in wine or water (mustard is anti-inflammatory), or mouthwashes made from guaiacam chips (to stimulate circulation) or bugbane (snakeroot) tea (another anti-inflammatory).

Furthermore, the journal illustrates that given the prevalence of illnesses of all kinds, the predominant concern was to avoid being ill in the first place. In Roy Porter’s apt phrase, ‘People took care before they took physic.’ The proverb ‘Prevention is better than cure’ dates back at least to the seventeenth century and there was a growing tradition of preventive medicine to avoid what might be called dis-ease, including attention to diet, exercise and a healthy environment. That Caroline, herself the daughter of a medical man, was aware this was important is indicated in her description of her father-in-law on his death: ‘he lived to seventy-five years of age without knowing what illness was till that which carried him off, for by great temperance and great exersise, he was certain of a great share of health.’

Caroline’s most frequent complaint was a cold, sometimes described as ‘violent’ and lasting for weeks or even months. She noted down a number of recipes for colds and fevers, coughs and sore throats, one in particular still familiar to us today: ‘a large spoonful of Honey to a pint of water a little lemon juice (& a little rum if liked)’. Mrs Floyd’s remedy for a cold or hoarseness is rather more unpleasant:

two oz of Kidney suet of a weather Sheep shred very fine, put it into a pint of Cold Milk, let it boil a good while, then strain it thr’o a Lawn Sieve, take a few large spoonfulls now & then stirring it, always take some going to Bed.

Caroline did consult physicians, although she was careful to choose one she knew socially: ‘Dr Mapleton who had formerly been a near neighbour to us’. He recommended various treatments, including bleeding and cupping, the latter drawing blood from a particular area. Phlebotomy was a standard and fashionable treatment for many conditions, including fever, headaches and inflammation. Caroline also resorted to blisters, using a hot plaster to cause a blister on the skin, which would then force the illness from the body and could be drained. She writes: ‘I who have terrible Rheumatics was seized with such a violent pain in my face, I could get no sleep for many nights, but at last by a Blister was perfectly cured of the most dreadful I think of all pains.’ However, she most often consulted the family’s apothecary, Mr Coulson, whom she also knew socially, noting in her journal dinners with him and his wife. Coulson inoculated at least one of the grandchildren against smallpox, helped with childbirth and was summoned in emergencies to various family members. Coulson was even taken from Oxfordshire to Southampton when one of the sons-in-law fell ill, because ‘we thought Mr Powys taking the apothecary who he had a high opinion of was the best thing we could do’.

Thus we can see that taken together, Caroline Powys’s journal and her manuscript recipe book offer a glimpse into domestic medicine in a genteel family in the last few decades of the eighteenth century. The journals paint a picture of a woman who evidenced what Amanda Vickery calls ‘loving domesticity’, who ensured that her family and their health were taken care of, who for instance respected her husband’s choice of apothecary but also took an active part in managing both their regimen and their illnesses. The ailments meticulously noted in the journals and the commentary on daily life give us evidence that correlates with the type of remedies that she chose to note down and preserve, in a way that breathes life into what might otherwise be a more mundane document.


5 thoughts on “Caroline Powys

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