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CW Journal : Summer 00 : Colonial Williamsburg Journal

Wit, Mirth & Spleen

"A Method to cure a Cold"

The Compleat Housewife: or The Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion

The Compleat Housewife: or The Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion
--Colonial Williamsburg

Take pearls, crab's-eyes, red coral, white amber, burnt hartshorn, and oriental bezoar, of each half an ounce; the black tips of crabs-claws three ounces; make all into a paste, with a jelly of vipers, and roll it into little balls, which dry and keep for use. That's how they made cold tablets in 18th-century Williamsburg.

That's how they made cold tablets in much of the 18th-century English-speaking world.

The instructions come from the 15th edition of The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion, a 1753 cookbook compiled by one Eliza Smith and published in London. As the title page said, the volume was "a collection of several Hundred of the most approved Receipts in Cookery, Pastry, Confectionary, Preserving, Pickles, Cakes, Creams, Jellies, Made Wines, Cordials . . ." Receipts were what we know today as recipes.

Smith's work was widely popular, especially in the American colonies, where it was often republished. Williamsburg printer William Parks got out a 228-page version of the fifth edition in 1742 and sold it from his Duke of Gloucester Street shop.

A generic nostrum, the cold remedy Smith pushed was called Gascoign's powder. The ingredients are appended to a section titled:

A Method to cure a Cold.

Shewing, 1. What the catching of cold is, and how dangerous. 2. A present and easy remedy against it. 3. The danger of delaying the cure of it. Taken from the celebrated Dr. George Cheyne's book, intituled, An essay of health and long life, inscribed to the right honourable Sir Joseph Jekyll, master of the rolls; where p. 129, 130. the eighth edition, he says, that Dr. James Keill, in his Statica Britannica had made it out, beyond all possibility of doubting, that catching cold is nothing but sucking in, by the passages of perspiration, large quantities of moist air, and nitrous salts, which by thickening the blood (as is evident from bleeding after catching cold) and thereby obstructing, not only the perspiration, but also all the other finer secretions, raises immediately a small fever, and a tumult in the whole animal oeconomy, and, neglected, lays a foundation for consumptions, obstructions of the great viscera, and universal cachexies; the tender therefore, and valetudinary, ought cautiously to avoid all occasions of catching cold; and if they have been so unfortunate as to get one, to set about its cure immediately, before it has taken too deep root in the habit. From the nature of the disorder thus described, the remedy is obvious; to wit, lying much a-bed, drinking plentifully of small warm sack-whey, with a few drops of spirits of hartshorn, posset-drink, water-gruel, or any other warm small liquors, a scruple of Gascoign's powder morning and night, living low upon spoon-meats, pudding, and chicken, and drinking every thing warm; in a word, treating it at first as a small fever, with gentle diaphoretics; and afterwards, if any cough or spitting should remain, (which this method generally prevents) by softening the breast with a little sugar-candy, and oil of sweet almonds, or a solution of gum-armoniac, an ounce to a quart of barley-water, to make the expectoration easy, and going cautiously and well cloathed into the air afterwards: this is a much more natural, easy, and effectual method, than the practice by balsam's, linctus's, pectorals, and the like trumpery in common use, which serve only to spoil the stomach, oppress the spirits, and hurt the constitution.

Cachexies was the overproduction of florid blood, a condition confined for the most part to the heads of imaginative medicine men. Their remedy, however, was real enough; bleeding a patient-cutting a person to collect an ounce or two in a cup.

Sack-whey is a beverage made of wine and the watery part of milk that, for example, separates from the curds in making cheese. Hartshorn came from stag antlers-harts horn-rasped, sliced, or calcined. The main stock for ammonia, hartshorn was distilled with wine to make smelling salts. Posset-drink is hot milk, curdled with such stuff as ale or wine and flavored with sugar and spices.

To make water gruel, Smith said:

Take a large spoonful of oatmeal, and a pint of water; mix them together, set it on the fire, and let it boil for some time, stirring it often; then strain it thro' a sieve, and add to it a good piece of butter, and a little salt, stirring it constantly with a spoon, till the butter is melted.

A diaphoretic made a patient sweat. Gum armoniac made him spit. Also known as ammoniac, the expectorant was used, too, for a stimulant and in plasters. It is the aromatic gum resin of Dorema ammoniacum a Persian herb of the carrot family.

To make barley-water, Smith said:

Take of pearl barley four ounces, put it in a large pipkin and cover it with water; when the barley is thick and tender, put in more water and boil it up again, and so do till it is of a good thickness to drink; then put in a blade or two of mace, or a stick of cinnamon; let it have a walm or two and strain it out; squeese in the juice of two or three lemons, and a bit of the peel, and sweeten it to your taste with fine sugar; let it stand till it is cold, and then run it through a bag, and bottle it up; it will keep three or four days.

The word walm is more often used, when it is used at all, as an intransitive verb than a noun and means "to seethe," or bring to a boil.

Almost any aromatic, oily, or resinous preparation would do for the balsam so frowned upon by Dr. Cheyne. For external application, it healed wounds and soothed pain. According to Dr. Johnson-the lexicographer, not the physician-linctuses are medicines taken on the tongue, or licked. The in-the-eyes-of-Smith just-as-useless pectorals were nevertheless esteemed by some as salutary for diseases of the chest and its organs, and internal organs in general.

The cold tablets' ingredients are worth explaining, too. The pearls in Gascoign's powder may be just what they appear to be. Crab's-eyes are not. Crab's-eyes are balls of carbonate of lime found in the stomachs of molting crayfish.

Red coral, however, is the natural material of that hue. Red coral was thought to be a stony kind of submarine plant. White amber is a species of fossilized tree sap. With hartshorn we are already familiar. Bezoar is a stone that comes from the orient, where it is taken from the stomachs of animals.

The black tips of crab claws are the black tips of crab claws, and jelly of vipers is, by some accounts, gelatinized snake flesh. By other accounts, jelly of vipers is got up from the skins that snakes shed as they grow. In any case, it had been popular for almost 5,000 years and had been used in ancient Sumer. Martha Washington, however, left it out of her personal Gascoign's powder recipe, substituting jelly of hartshorn to make the paste.

Jelly of vipers or no, such "a present and easy remedy," however effective, may have been too tedious for some of Smith's readers. No doubt, even those who admired its ingeniousness were occasionally short of stones from oriental animal bellies. It must have been, too, that some years the apothecaries were embarrassed by a poor crop of molting crayfish with lime concretions in their alimentary apparatus.

No matter. There was a less elaborate course of treatment and a simpler cure with more agreeable ingredients.

Take rosemary and sliced liquorice, and boil it in small ale, and sweeten it with treacle, and drink it going to bed four or five nights together.
--Penelope Fforbes-Hamilton