Wednesday, September 11, 2013

An Element of Colonial Plantation Medicine

Object: Still
Accession #: 1951.10A-C

Recently featured on Antiques Roadshow's Facebook page, this 18th-century device was used for the distillation of spirits and medicinals. The copper body has two loops for lifting and a removable mushroom-shaped cap with an elongated spout. The person operating the still, usually the mistress of the house, would add the ingredients of her concoction to the body of the still and place it in its iron stand over a fire with the spout sticking out of the fire. The fire would boil the liquid in the base of the still and turn it into gas. This evaporated steam would collect in the top portion of the still and recondense into a liquid in the cooler spout portion, also called the "worm." The mistress would then collect the liquid that drips through the spout. This particular still originally came from Major Robert Beverly's plantation home, Blandfield. It is likely the "six gallon still and worm" Beverly ordered for the house in 1763. The large size of the fire required to heat this still suggests that it was used for spirits or in smaller quantities, medicine.

After the use of bloodletting and purgatives, medicinal or "physick" drinks were the next most popular colonial treatment for a variety of complaints. Due to the scarcity of doctors during this time in America, some medical knowledge was one of the expectations of colonial housewives. Jane Bolling Randolph, the mother of Ryland Randolph, was the author of a book of receipts (recipes) for both cooking and medicinal remedies known as the Commonplace Book. These remedies reflect a combination of herbal knowledge shared from Native American sources, superstition, the ancient European theory of disease arising from an imbalance of bodily humours, and some experimentation.

This simple recipe for the treatment of Whooping Cough comes from Every Man his own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter's Physician, written by Virginia practitioner John Tennant in 1734 [sic throughout]:
For this, boil Hysop and Elicampane, a Handful of each, in 2 Quarts of Water, strain it off, and adding 1 Pound of clean Muscovado Sugar, boil it again, and give the Patient 2 Spoonfuls every 3 hours.


Harbury, Katharine E. Colonial Virginia's Cooking Dynasty. University of South Carolina Press. Columbia, South Carolina: 2004.
Tennant, John. Every Man his own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter's Physician. Facsimile Edition by Printing and Post Office. Williamsburg, Virginia: 1984.

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