An 18th Century Cure for What Ails you

My name is Sira Dooley Fairchild and I have worked in the finance department of the Bostonian Society since February. My background is in archaeology, which means that I am fascinated by the daily, mundane lives of ordinary people in the past.

The administrative offices for the Bostonian Society are located in the library and my desk is not far from the case in which we display a rotating exhibit of interesting items from the archives. When Elizabeth was changing out the case the other day, the small almanac that she was putting in caught my eye.

The small pamphlet is called Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack for the Year of our Redemption 1774 and it lists the phases of the moon, tides, sunrise and sunset, as well as providing a seasonal verse for each month. We have several volumes from this series, dating from between 1768 and 1803, published by various Boston printers. This particular issue was in printed by in 1774 by John Hicks and Nathaniel Mills at their office on School Street, only a short walk from the Old State House. It originally cost seven coppers for a single issue, or £3 and 4 pence for a dozen.

What caught my eye were the home remedies that were printed on the back of the almanac. The first one may be useful to those of you spending your summer vacations on the beach:

To remove sunburn or tan
Take half a pint of milk, with the juice of a lemmon and a spoonful of brandy. Boil the whole, skim it well, and keep it for use. Add white sugar and rock allum.

The second remedy sounds as though it might make acne worse – even in my worst teenage years, I never tried rubbing butter on my face.

To take away little red pimples from the face
Take two ounces of lemmon juice, two ounces of rose-water, two drams of silver sublimed, and as much cerus; put all this together, and mix it up in an ointment: With this anoint your face going to bed; the next morning, when you get up, anoint it with fresh butter, and then rub it clean off.

And lastly, this cure for “the itch”, which involves wearing wool gloves and rubbing your hands with sulfur and lard. At least you only have to do it for three days.

A receipt for the care of the itch
Make an ointment of equal parts of flowers of sulpher and hog’s lard, and oint the hands only three days, twice a day, and wear woolen gloves, he will be effectually cured.

Although our archives contain many documents relating to the American Revolution and the founding of the country, for me, the glimpse into the daily lives of 18th century Bostonians provided by this small almanac is equally interesting. It allows me to think of figures from the past as complex individuals living full lives, worrying about the same details we worry about today.

Article was first posted on July 22, 2016 on the official blog of the Bostonian Society, On King Street.
Images courtesy the Bostonian Society

Front and back covers of Bickerstaff’s Almanack for the Year of our Redemption 1774

Front and back covers of Bickerstaff’s Almanack for the Year of our Redemption 1774