It’s flu season again. And for most of us who get sick that means a trip to the doctor, perhaps some prescribed medicines, and lots of rest. But what did George Washington do when he got sick? Although most of us likely think of our first president as perpetually healthy and strong, he was actually stricken by quite a few serious illnesses in his lifetime, many of which occurred while he was growing up at Ferry Farm.
Mary, George’s mother, had a few options when caring for her sick children but a hospital was not one. They did not exist yet. The most expensive solution was to call a doctor (Back then, they came to you. You do not go to them). Most people could not afford a doctor’s visit, however, and many distrusted doctors as being worse than the diseases they cured. This fear of doctors was somewhat justified given that George ultimately died of an illness he could well have survived had he not been bled to death by his doctors.
Option number two was to visit a pharmacy. Now, we’re not talking Walgreens. Think smaller and jars full of leeches. Anyone could visit an 18th century pharmacy without any kind of prescription or referral. If you had the money, you could purchase whatever ‘cure’ you wanted. The pharmacist was not necessarily a medical professional and may or may not have been good at diagnosing whatever illness you had. That didn’t mean you couldn’t walk out of a pharmacy with any and all manner of odd concoctions that cured you or did not cure you. For instance, folks were awfully fond of self-treating with mercury tinctures until well into the 19th century, which we now know to be a colossally terrible idea.
Another popular option was to make your own medicines at home. Recipes for cures were passed down through word of mouth and many households had herb gardens containing medicinal plants, many brought with colonists from Europe. There were also a number of books available that divulged the secrets of pharmacopoeia. Many of the medicines described in these books sound like things a storybook witch might brew up. One such tome available to Mary Washington was Thomas Fuller’s Pharmacopeia Extemporanea, published in 1710. It contains remedies such as ‘Pectoral Snail Water’, said to be good for “Erratic scorbutic Fevers, Flushings, flying Pains of the Joynts, hectic wasting of Flesh, and Night-sweats”. The delicious-sounding ingredients were as follows:
“Snails beaten to mash with their Shells 3 pound
Crumb of white Bread new bak’d 12 ounces
Nutmeg 6 drams
Ground-Ivy 6 handfuls
Whey 3 quarts; distil it in a cold Still, without burning
One half pint brandy”
One can only assume that the last ingredient was to help the mashed snails go down.
We do have evidence showing the use of home medicines at Ferry Farm in the form of numerous ointment pots. At least half a dozen have been identified thus far. Ointment pots were used for holding various medical or cosmetic unguents likely made at home. Generally, such pots were fairly plain with a rolled or flared lip used to secure a textile, hide, or paper lid with a string.
Judging by their lack of use wear, the pots recovered at Ferry Farm were used for storage, not for actually manufacturing medicines. The act of stirring or grinding substances in the pots would have resulted in microscopic striations or scratches in the glaze and these are absent in the Washington family ointment pots. However, they do indicate the storage of medicines at Ferry Farm. Given the nature of home remedies in the 1700s, one’s imagination can run wild thinking of all the interesting concoctions that they may have held!
Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Fuller, Thomas. Pharmacopoeia extemporanea : or, a body of prescripts. In which forms of select remedies, accommodated to most intentions of cure, are propos’d. London. 1710.
Hume, Ivor Noel. A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. 2001.
Hume, Ivor Noel. Early English Delftware from London and Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia. 1977.
Mellor, Maureen. Pots and People that Have Shaped the Heritage of Medieval and Later England. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. 2000.
Skerry, Janine E. and Suzanne Findlen Hood. Stalt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America. University Press of New England, Hanover and London. 2009