Cherry ripe

CherriesWe have five cherry trees in the garden here, and at the moment we’re positively deluged with plump, sweet fruit. Cherries are touted today as something of a wonder food, full of antioxidants, Vitamins A and C and melatonin. Nowadays it’s the tart version that seems to be preferred for its medicinal properties, but in the eighteenth century it was black cherries that were used, often as black cherry water.

Hester Combe’s fairly straightforward recipe for cherry water runs:

Take 2 quarts of whit[e] wine or sack, steep in 4 ounces of sinemon [cinnamon], and 6 pound of black cherries stoned, for 3 or 4 days then [di]still them in a cold still: you may sweten it with a little fine sugar, this water may be drunk in burning fevers when other cordials ar[e] to[o] hot.[1]

Another, anonymous recipe for black cherry wine to be used for convulsions is less simple:

Take what quantity of black cherrys you please[,] put them into a bason stalked[,] break them with your hand, & put them into a cotton bag and hang them up over a bason … squeezing them often untill all the juce be drained: then let it stand a while and settle. but scum of[f] the froth, then let it stand 12 hours at the least then strain it of[f] gently from the bottom and to every part of juice put in 3 quarters of a pound of fine lofe sugher be[a]ten fine[,] keepeing it stiring till it tis all dissolved so that it may not settle then let it stand uncovered an hour and then bottle it up for your use. Leave some roome for it will worke[,] when it hath done working [fermenting] tye it doune close[,] set it in a coole seller [cellar] in glase bottles. When you take of this cherey wine for fitts put to it a little whit[e] wine or ordinary cherry water.[2]

Black cherry water was also said to be good for melancholy and ‘for the passion or tremblinge of the heart’,[3] for ‘a surfeit or any stopping in the stomach’[4] and for the gout (consumption of cherries is recommended for gout sufferers today, to reduce the level of uric acid in the blood and lessen inflammation).

Or if you have a cold, you might want to try this rather pleasant sounding remedy:

Half an oun[ce] of Spanish liquorish, half an oun[ce] of black sugar candy, half a pint of pennyroyal water, half a pint of black cherry water: stir all together over the fire till it’s disolved. Take a spoonfull any time when your cough is troublesome.[5]

[1] MS 45198, British Library.

[2] Add MS 49373, British Library.

[3] MS 3712, Wellcome Library.

[4] MS 4054, Wellcome Library.

[5] MS 2767, Wellcome Library.



Oh so sleepy

In addition to suffering from gout, Sir Edward Filmer was prone to excessive sleepiness. His brother Beversham Filmer wrote to him on March 30, 1754:

I shall be heartily glad to have an account of your perfect recovery & particularly if the Docter could any way take off your sleepiness which you have been subject to some years.

An ardent keeper of lists, Sir Edward noted down in his medicinal notebook ‘Mr Dorringtons Rules to Prevent Sleepyness’:

  1. Never to eat to the utmost extention of your stomach [or, as we used to call it as kids, tummy touching table]
  2. Divert yourself as much as you can
  3. Bleed often & always keep your body open
  4. Eat no suppers
  5. Use a sharp stimulating snuff
  6. To ride, or walk, as much as you can
  7. When sleep is the effect of exercise it is natural
  8. Don’t indulge it after dinner [in the eighteenth century this was a late lunch], tho you may possibly fall into it a little without much hurt in very hot weather

So there you are – you can sleep in the middle of the day when you’ve been out exercising, but woe betide those who indulge in a little post-prandial somnolence!


From little swellings giant problems do grow…

Here is a rather gruesome tale of eighteenth-century medicine making a problem worse. Beversham Filmer was a younger brother of Sir Edward Filmer, 3rd baronet, of East Sutton in Kent. He was a barrister and is described in The Baronetage of England as ‘one of the most able conveyancers this kingdom has produced’. In 1750 he consulted Mr Webb, a London surgeon, about ‘a small swelling upon the buttock’. The story is told in letters to Sir Edward from Beversham and from Christopher Hargrave, his servant.

From Bev. Filmer to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 6 1750

Dear Brother

… I have consulted Mr Webb the surgeon about my swelling and as soon he saw it he said there matter in it & advised to have opened and as it lay deep he first laid a little caustic to deaden the flesh and then made an incision & lett out a tea cup full of blood & corrupition I am in more pain to day then when the operation was performed you will see by my writing that my hand shakes so I fear you cannot red it therefore I must conclude from your most affec brother & your humble servant

B Filmer

From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 9 1750


My Master has just now been fav’d with yours, & is concern’d that his illness has made you & the Family so uneasy, he has been in great pain since he wrote to you, but I think is rather easier, tho’ yet the part that was cut is very painful when ever he stirs, and is oblig’d either to sit on a cushion, with a great hole cut thro’ it, or lye on a couch, the greatest part of the day, but the surgeon assures him, that he is in a fair way of doing well, tho’ it will be some time before he can go about…

From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 11 1750

Mr Webb the Surgeon, has assur’d my Master to day, that the part that was cut, is in as fine a way, as he could possibly expect, and that the pain will be less every day, & that the matter will soon thicken, which I shall be very glad of, for my Master was in great pain all yesterday, & is in a good deal now, tho’ I think his Spirits are something better, & if Mr Webb had not found him so, he did design to have had a Physician to day, but now thinks there is no occasion, I hope by next Saturday’s Post, to send you an account of my Master being easier, for till the Pain ceases, & the discharges lessen, he can’t have much comfort from the assurances which Mr Webb gives him, tho’ I really believe he speaks as he thinks, & has assur’d me of the same, when my Master was not present, tho’ he owns that he did not expect him to feel much Pain, & attributes it to some bad habit of the body, for the discharges have been so large, that it supris’d Mr Webb very much & I hope neither you, nor any of the Family will be too much alarm’d at what I have wrote, & you may depend on it, that I won’t deceive you, in the accounts that I send, by making my Master’s case better, than I really apprehend it to be…

Copy of letter from Mr Webb, Oct 13 1750

In compliance with your request, I send you this account of Mr Filmer’s case, who has been so unfortunate to have two complaints unhappily complicated, the first external (and the only apparent one) was a small swelling upon the buttock, which was so situated & of such a kind, as cou’d furnish no occasion for fear, but since that was open’d, a large collection of matter has formed very deep under the great muscles of the thigh, & made it self a passage into the opening that was made to discharge the contents of the little swelling & as the discharge of matter for these two days past is in great abundance & the seat of the mischief very deep, I cannot say that I am without apprehensions, that the case will prove tedious & troublesome. I have therefore desir’d Mr Filmer that some other person of character may be consulted, & Mr Sharpe is the gentleman appointed, who is to meet me to morrow morning.

From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 13 1750

As my Master’s pain, has continued as great as ever, I desir’d Mr Webb wd let me know how his case is, that I might acquaint you with it, & this afternoon he wrote to me, & the above is a copy of his letter, I was in hopes to have been able to have sent you a more favourable account, & shall be glad if I can do it by Monday’s Post, please not to take any notice of this letter, nor Mr Webb’s, when you write to my Master, unless he grows better, for fear of affecting his Spirits too much, for the great pain he has endur’d, has made him very low spirited, & indeed wd have done so, by any person…

PS Mr Webb in the morning said, that the matter, “was good matter”

From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 15 1750

Yesterday morning before the Surgeons came, my Master found the pain very much lessen’d, & he had continued easier ever since, & can now rise from his chair without pain, which is a happy change – Mr Sharp was here yesterday, & is to meet Mr Webb here again next Wednesday, as they both now very well understand the case, they seem to think that the shall make an entire cure, without cutting again, tho’ they can’t determine that till next Wednesday, Mr Webb said to day, that every thing appear’d better, than he cou’d have expected, I will write again next Wednesday…

Copy of letter from Mr Webb, Oct 17 1750

This day Mr Filmer being inform’d by Mr Sharp & my self, how very improbable it was, that he shd be cur’d without suffering the diseas’d parts to be laid open, submitted to the necessary operation, & behav’d under it with great resolution, tho’ it was severe enough I hope I may now say, that he is in a very said way to be made well, tho’ it must be a work of time, because the wound is very large, we being oblig’d to follow the disease, wch had spread its mischief far and wide

From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 17 1750

The above is a copy of Mr Webb’s letter to me this day, wch I am very sensible will make both you & all the family uneasy, & indeed this has been a terrible day, & what I have all along dredded wd be the consequence, but as they have now cut as deep & as wide, as they have occasion, Mr Webb assures me, that there’s no danger of cutting again, Mr Sharp perform’d the operation, & is to be here again to morrow with Mr Webb, soon after the surgeons were gone, my Master was fav’d with your letter, & notwithstanding the fatigue & pain he had undergone, he was chearful when I read it to him… He is now dozing, & I hope to morrow will be much easier, I never thought that he cou’d have gone thro’ such a violent operation, without fainting away…

From Chris. Hargrave to Sir Edward Filmer, Oct 18 1750

My Master has lain pretty easy ever since I wrote last night, nor has he been feverish to day, Mr Webb & Mr Sharp was here this morning, but defer’d undoing the bandage till to morrow, when they both will be here again, they both now assures me, that there’s no danger, of any more of these violent operations, wch are terrible to think on, more especially to feel, nor cou’d I have resolution to see either of ’em perform’d

My Master desires his compliments to you & all the family, is sorry that his illness has made you all so uneasy… he has been wholly govern’d by his surgeons in every thing, & I hope that next Saturday, either Mr F Filmer [Sir Edward’s son] or I, shall be able to send you an account of his being much better, at present he’s oblig’d to keep constantly in bed, which is tiresome to him, but as it’s necessary he submits to it…

From Bev. Filmer to Sir Edward Filmer, Nov 10 1750

Dear Brother

… I thank God I am a good deal better than I have been but very weak so that I can but just make a shift to take a turn or 2 in the square in the middle of the day which I think does me good I have now been confined 6 weeks & doubt it will be a good while yet before the wound is quite healed Mr Webb dresses it every day but Mr Sharp has not been here since Sunday & then he would not take any money but said he came only as a visitor he examined the wound with his probe & said every thing went on as well as he could wish so I suppose he has taken his leave…

From Bev. Filmer to Sir Edward Filmer, Jan 17 1750

… I am able now to walk upon plain ground very well, but in going up & down stairs I cannot move my right thigh with that freedom I used to do, the muscles being I believe contracted for the flesh is not near grown up even with the other…

As a postscript, we know from jottings in Sir Edward’s medical recipe book that he was prone to problems with his uvula, the lobe that dangles down from the rear of the soft palate. In June 1755 Beversham writes to Lady Filmer:

Dear Sister

I am very sorry to hear my brother has been so very much out of order with the same complaint he was troubled with last winter but am in great hopes the discharges the Docter has made by Physick Cupping & blistering will relieve him I sent this morning to young Mr Webb the surgion who assures me there is not the least danger in cutting the uvula…

Whether ‘young Mr Webb’ was the original surgeon or his son, not surprisingly there is no indication that Sir Edward took his brother up on his suggestion.

Source: U120 C29, Filmer Manuscripts, Kent History Centre.

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.

The oh-so-common cold

Since everyone seems to have a cold at the moment, I thought I’d delve into the archives for some remedies. Imagine the misery of snuffles and sneezes without our modern pain relief and decongestants. Colds were much more debilitating in the past and remedy books are full of suggestions for alleviating them.

The first is a staple of folk wisdom and comes from the eighteenth-century recipe book of Caroline Powys1:

For a bad cold, Mrs Saunders – a large spoonful of Honey to a pint of water a little lemon juice (& a little rum if liked) well boild & scum’d till clear, a spoonful now & then or a Bason full as a sweat.

From the same source is one that’s not quite so pleasant:

For a cold or hoarseness, Mrs Floyd – 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.

A more complicated variation is given in ‘A Booke of Physicke & Chyrurgerie’ from the end of the seventeenth century2:

An Excellent Posset for a Cold

Take a quart of new milke Set it on a fire in a Skillet, & when it boiles turn it with 3 pints of the best Aile or Beer, then take it off the fire & let it stand till the curd be lavined, when the curd is taken off set the posset drink over the fire againe & put in these ingredients following.

Sweet fennell seeds anniseeds of each one ounce bruised in a morter 10 figgs & 6 Dates sliced, 2 ounces of English Licquorish well washed wiped dry & then sliced, 20 reasons [raisins] of the sunn stoned, boile all these togather about half an howre when the time is almost expired put in a sprig or 2 of Rosamary, then it from the fire & straine it through a fine sive then sweeten it with Sugar or Sugar Candy take a pritty quantity of this in the morning fasting the like at night going to bed after a light super or rather noe super.

I think ‘lavined’ here means leavened, the yeast in the beer causing it to ferment, but if anyone knows different please let me know.

The Revd Mr Weems makes this suggestion3:

Take lemon juice oil sweet almonds Virgins honey of each one ounce let them be well mixed in a marble Morter with one syrup of squills this Quantity may be taken in the course of the Day

Virgin honey is that taken from a single comb that has only been used once for honey, so is purer. Syrup of squills is an expectorant made from the bulbs of the sea squill flower or Urginea maritima; it is still used in cough syrups today, such as Buttercup, and it makes a twenty-fourth century appearance poured on breakfast cereal in Star Trek!

And if you have a sore throat as well, you may want to try this charming little number4:

Take 4 ounces of the fat of mutton Put it into a stone or silver saucepan melt it over a slow fire, then strain & return it into the saucepan again, & put to it three ounces fresh butter (before salted) When that is melted put in three ounces of yellow rosin, & when that is disolved add to it one ounce and half common yellow bees-wax melted, put it into a gilly pot stir it the whole time it is making tye it down when cold in the pots, when applied let it be spread on a linen rag the width of the throat, reach from ear to ear & changed every 12 hours covered

It will keep for years, an excelent & invaluable receipt

A ‘gilly pot’ or gallipot was a glazed earthenware jar used by apothecaries. I wouldn’t have thought anyone trying that approach would have wanted to leave the house!

  1. British Library, BL 42173.
  2. British Library, BL 69970.
  3. British Library, BL 49373.
  4. Staffordshire Record Office, D641/3/H/3/3.

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.