Doctor Mom, Colonial Style:
or, Some Hints for Re-enactors

By Clarissa F. Dillon, Ph.D.

The colonial housewife often functioned as doctor, nurse, and apothecary. There are some eighteenth-century plants which can be used by re-enactrors for minor mishaps. First, you MUST learn to identify weeds and wild plants. There are a number of books with excellent illustrations:

Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny, A Field guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and Northcentral North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968.

Common Weeds of the Unted States, prepared by the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculature. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971.

John M. Fogg, Jr., Weeds of Lawn and Garden: A Handbook for Eastern Temperate North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945.

Mea Allen, Weeds: The Unbidden Guests in Our Garden. New York: The Viking Press, 1978.

Become familiar with the plants you intend to try. Do not harvest them from roadsides because of automobile exhaust and possible applications of pesticides or herbicides.

Problem Remedy
Bleeding Cuts or Scratches Apply fresh or dried leaves and/or flowers of the common yarrow (Ancillea millefolium); or fresh leaves of all-heal (Prunella vulgaris).
Minor Scratches, Scrapes, "Scuffs," or Blisters Cover with fresh leaves of common plantain (Plantago major) or ribwort (P. lanceolata).
Small Splinters Apply a pad of leaves of fresh common plantain (Plantago major) and leave on for 8-12 hours.
Strains or Bruises Apply a wad of leaves of fresh comfry (Symphytum officinale) and let stay for several hours.
Stinging Nettle Irritation Pat gently with fresh dock leaf (Rumex crispus or R. obtusifolia); try not to get area wet for a few hours — if you do, the stinging sensation will return.
Bug Bites Cover with leaves of fresh winter (Satureja montana) or summer (S. hortensis) savory leaves.
In June, if you rub exposed skin with fresh pennyroyal, American (Hedeoma puleogioides) or English (Mentha pulegium), this will help keep the mosquitoes away.

Note that all uses here are for external application only. Savory is a common flavoring herb in colonial receipts, so it may be with the ingredients for dinner. American pennyroyal grows wild, but the English variety can only be found in somebody's herb garden.

Before being applied, leaves should be bruised by squeezing and wringing gently. This releases the active components. To keep them on, use a linen strip like the colonists if you want to retain the period look. You can also use a bandaid or gauze pad and adhesive tape, which can also be covered with linen strips.

Use these first aid remedies and common sense:

  1. If it's a serious problem, go to a doctor or an emergency room, just as you would in your twentieth-century life.
  2. If you're not comfortable using these, don't.
  3. Be sure you can identify the plants correctly; if you're not sure, don't try it. Always err on the side of caution.
  4. DON'T talk about these with the public unless you have VERY good insurance coverage — you don't know (and probably can't even imagine) the kinds of things they might try!

For additional information, you might enjoy:

Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal, in 2 vols. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971.

The Rodale herb Book , ed. by William H. Hylton. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press Book Division, 1974.

Nelson Coon, Using Wayside Plants. New York: Hearthside Press Incorporated, Publisher, 1969.

In this area, it is much safer and smarter to work from today back to the colonial period. Once you are familiar with plants and uses in modern times, you can begin investigating primary sourses — but be cautious. Remember: they didn't know about germs, and some of their theories are really bizzare!

I have tried these remedies on myself and willing friends. Be advised that some may not work successfully on you and yours. I would be happy to talk about your experiences with you.

Copyright © 1997 Clarissa F. Dillon. All rights reserved.