Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 47, no. 4 (Fall 1998), p. 15-19
What Was Good for What Ailed You :
Curatives and Remedies in the 1800s
by Susan Kirp Hochwald
FROM 1868 TO 1872 CHARLES H. JAGGAR AND his staff meticulously numbered and recorded in a ledger the "recipe" for every prescription prepared at Jaggar's Drug and Chemical Store on Nantucket's Main Street. Each dated entry bore the name of the recipient and the directions for use. Today, visitors to the Edouard A. Stackpole Library and Research Center can view the well-preserved book entitled "Prescription Book No. 2," donated to the NHA in 1997 by Adrienne Downey, a niece of Walter Fairbanks, who was the pharmacist at Congdon's in 1937. Used with other archival materials — including an earlier prescription book for the years 1855-61 — diaries, newspaper accounts, and advertisements of the period, the prescription book offers a glimpse into Nantucketers' ills and ailments as well as their cures and restoratives immediately after the Civil War.
Not much is known about Charles H. Jaggar. Research in the Stackpole Library shows he was born in Nantucket in 1835, held office in the Royal Arch Chapter of the Masons, and was among thirty island men whose names were drawn at town meeting on September 22, 1868, to serve as jurors in the forthcoming term of the Superior Court. Jaggar was married three times: in 1859 to Emmeline C. McCleave, with whom he had one child, a daughter; in 1871, in Newport, to Elisabeth G. Brooks (they were childless); and in 1877 to Amanda L. Folger, with whom he had one child, Charles L., who died in infancy in 1885. Jagger's last wife appears to have enjoyed sacred music; her inscribed copy of Gospel Hymns No. 2 (published in 1876), is in the NHA collection.
Jaggar's Drug and Chemical Store offered a varied inventory of supplies for Nantucketers to treat their ills. In an October 1860 advertisement in the Inquirer, Jaggar's Drug and Chemical Store offered a new supply of Clark's Bitters, Porter's Balsam Salts of Lemon, gargling oil, Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, olive oil in pint and quart bottles, Fitches' Heart Corrector, Mrs. Alien's Hair Dressing, Holloway's Pills, Richardson's Bitters, Davis's Pain Killer, and Kennedy's Ointment. Later, in 1863, the drug store's advertisement changed, becoming less verbose, simply stating that "drugs, medicines, patent medicines, spices, leeches and fancy articles" were available for sale. Jaggar also sold imported cigars and manufactured Jaggar's Persian Balm for the Hair.
Jaggar maintained more than eighty herbs, flavorings, spirits, and medicinals of the day in his apothecary, on the site of present-day Congdon's Pharmacy. His inventory included everything from asafoetida (devil's dung), an expectorant for treating bronchitis and asthma; veretria (Hellebore) a prescriptive to thin the blood and lower blood pressure; to a poisonous, irritating paste of sabadilla seeds from a Mexican lily plant used as a cardiac suppressant... or insecticide!
Compounding ingredients individually according to prescription, Jaggar produced pills, injections, suppositories, salves, and tonics. Key ingredients for many of them were alcohol and narcotics — morphia, laudanum, opium, and belladonna. Cypredium (lady slipper), a sedative, treated worms in children, women in labor, panic attacks, and palpitations. Hyoscyamus (henbane) a form of scopolomine, was also incorporated in salves and liniments to ease the tired muscles of a laboring population. Serious attention was paid to painfully severe sprains and bruises by the application of arnica, an herb noted for its bright yellow flowers pounded into a liniment or plaster. Mandrake, a narcotic herb in the nightshade family, was offered as a sleep aid and as a laxative. Dover's Powder, a compound of opium and ipecac created in 1742 by Thomas Dover, an English physician, continued to be a drug of choice as a pain reliever more than a century later. Strychnia was prescribed to stimulate the nervous system — and for rat poison. Valerian (Jacob's ladder) was used to quell nervousness and hysteria. '
Reviewing the ledger, it sometimes seemed as if the who's who of Nantucket were stricken by the same ailment at the same time. For example, in the last week in May 1870 Winifred Coffin, Steven Williams, Miss Cartland, Mrs. Chadwick, Thomas Swain, Mrs. Bennett, Emmeline Chase, and L.A. Hooper all required potassium bromide — a form of chloroform and alcohol used as a sleep aid. In late November 1871, everyone seemed to have coughs requiring chloral hydrate. Two days after New Year's 1870 found Jaggar filling prescriptions for "neuralgic pills." Was it revelry, or a gloomy economy that led to this miniepidemic of nerves? Hard to say, since both occurred at new year's 1871.
The prescription book reflects the various illnesses treated on the island during the 1860s and 70s. For instance it illustrates the fascination of the day with "digestion." Copaiba balsam, an evergreen-tree resin was prescribed as a diuretic and stimulant, and to prevent flatulence and bloating. When E. M. Gardner was so disturbed, chloric ether was prescribed: "1/2 tea-spoonfuls in a gill and 1/2 of tepid water for an injection for rectum when wind is most troublesome in bowels." Columbi toned digestion and loss of appetite. Cascarilla — still used today in veterinary medicine — treated constipation as a laxative and cathartic. Cardamom managed heartburn and gallstones. Ginger aided digestion and prevented colic, gastric infection, motion sickness, and nausea. Gentian, said to prevent heartburn if taken thirty minutes before eating, was frequently mixed with lavender as a sedative to treat ulcers.
Other illnesses include the ones Nantucket seamen brought home from their whaling voyages. Jaggar treated malaria with quinine and chinchona. Copaiba balsam, geranium fluid, lobelia (Indian tobacco) and chinchon mixed with cubebs treated gonorrhea. Bismuth quinine iodide treated syphillis.
During "cold season," when the fog settled in and the temperatures dropped, Jaggar's offered cubebs — dried unripe berries from the tropical pepper shrub which were crushed and rolled into "cigarettes" and smoked to treat catarrh (the common cold). Blood root was taken as an expectorant and Cajuput oil was diluted in steam and inhaled to loosen the cough or rubbed on the chest to treat bronchitis. Squills and Jurlington's balsam also loosened things up. That dry, lingering cough was treated with prunus Virginia. Cold sores were treated with iodide of potassium and myrrh, an aromatic bitter gum resin from East Africa and Arabia that was mixed with bicarbonate of soda and water as a mouthwash for sore throats. Valued by the ancients (it was one of the fabled Three Gifts), myrrh is still used today in the manufacture of dentifrices, perfumes, and as a stimulating tonic. As it would be more than twenty years before aspirin was discovered, Nantucketers with a headache turned to "Dr. Tobey's Headache Pills" — ingredients unknown — for relief.
The climate no doubt contributed to suffering from rheumatism and arthritis. Capsicum, lobelia, lavender, hycocyamus, and chloroform were often mixed together in tonics, pills, salves, and rubs to alleviate joint and muscle pain. When mixed with cold cream, any of the above offered pain relief.
Worms were a common condition, especially in children. In 1770, quassia, a drug found in the heartwood tree, was discovered by a slave in Suriname to remedy roundworm. If quassia was unavailable, lady slipper worked as well. Fishermen with eczema, ringworm, and the fungal infections that accompany wet boots were relieved by copaiba balsam and calendula. Many of Nantucket's notables were treated for high blood pressure with ginger and asafoetida. Those with heart ailments were treated with digitalis (foxglove).
Jaggar operated his pharmacy in what advertisers called the age of "The Great Medical Discoveries." Sometimes he didn't compound the preparations and potions himself but merely dispensed, by prescription, such over-the-counter medicinals as Fowler's Solution, 1691 Pills, McMum's Elixir, and Turlington's Balsam. This last must have tasted terrible for it was prescribed "thirty drops on a teaspoonful of sugar, morning and afternoon."
In 1869, if you were feeling poorly and in search of a cure-all, you could wander up and down the aisles of this drug emporium and perhaps pick up a bottle of Dr. Walker's California Vinegar Bitters, or Dr. Hermance's Radical Cure for the Asthma. Feeling peckish? Why not try Mrs. N. Bailey's Cascarilla Compound . . . "the best Spring Medicine of the Age." There was Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, Tuckers V Vegetable Extract, Ellis's Iron Bitters, Wistar's Balsam of Wild Cherry for all Coughs and Colds, Peruvian Syrup for purifying the blood, Dr Lorraine's Vegetable Pill, "the Best Cathartic Remedy Yet Discovered," Dr. Poland's Humor Doctor, Extract of rye, and Ayer's Cherry Pectoral. For a new year special in 1871 Madame West's Bronchial Balsam was reduced to a sale price of 3 7 cents.
Such curatives were advertised each week in the Inquirer and Mirror—sometimes on the front page. Nantucketers reading the paper could be savvy consumers of the latest in over-the-counter medicines. Unregulated by the government—the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906—and unfettered by truth-in-advertising regulations, islanders could easily be overtaken by the hyperbole, extravagant claims, and outrageous exaggeration of the ads for "new," "amazing," "unfailing," "perfect" cure-alls for all manner of ills. After all, these patent medicines followed on the earlier standard therapies of bleeding, blistering, purging, puking, poulticing, sweating, glysters, or enemas offered by physicians when treatment was intended to restore the body's equilibrium. Even Mr. Jaggar was not above endorsing: his 1877 business calendar was sponsored by "Hostetter's Celebrated Stomach Bitters," billed as "A Mighty Botanic Restorative."
Inflated endorsements by local citizens also accompanied newspaper ads. Mrs. Pease of Nantucket unabashedly "certified that I have taken Mrs. N. Bailey's Cascarilla Compound for bleeding piles and it has entirely cured me. I can recommend it as an article of great value." We have no way of knowing if Mrs. ! Pease was unembarrassed by her indelicate revelation because she was paid for her endorsement or if talking about such ills was common occurrence.
If they didn't want to pay for their medicine, Nantucketers brewed it themselves. "Ferruginous tonics" and other home brews were a staple in the Nantucketers' home medicine chests. Recipes were kept in notebooks and diaries, exchanged in correspondence, and clipped from newspapers. For example, in 1828, Obed Macy made note of "A remedy for Dysentery which was used by Lewis and Clark on their tour into the western country which in a few hours relieved and cured the patient." He opined that the chokeberry used by the explorers was "probably the 1 same as our common Chokeberry in the swamps" and a "safe substitution." Dropsy, today called pulmonary edema, was then and remains a serious condition. In the early nineteenth century, Obed Macy's "receipt for the Dropsy" called for "a peck of dandelions just before they bloom, and boil them in two galons [sic] water until reduced to one gallon, then cool the liquor and mix it with a pint of brandy and cork it up tight in bot-| ties and take a glassful morning, noon and night." Some sixty-odd years later, in 1884, Martha Fish, a prodigious keeper of diaries chronicling details of the daily life of the Fish family on Nantucket from 1873 to 1913, offered a modified recipe for "Dropsy on the Chest" to inmates at the Quaise Asylum where her husband Abner was the Keeper. Mrs. Fish took "one-quarter pound of dried milkweed cut small pour on it a quart of boiling water simmer to one pint when cool add one pint of Holland's Gin pour it all into a bottle — stopple light and let it stand 12 hours. Dose for an adult one-half wineglass every three hours day and night. If it nauseate too much the dose may be varied effect will be seen in 2 or 3 days."
In this age of the alcohol/opium enriched "harmless vegetable cathartics," Nantucketers' worried about their nerves. Women particularly were plagued by neuralgia and neuresthenia — nervous disorders that were said to sap strength and cause the "vapors," during which time they took to their darkened rooms to calm themselves. A "safe, certain and speedy cure for neuralgia and all nervous diseases" was "Turner's tic douloureux or universal neuralgia pill." Billed as an "unfailing remedy for neuralgia facialis often affecting a perfect cure in a single day," it was sold at Jaggar's, or was1 available by mail for $1.00 per package, plus six cents postage.
Highly addictive with a high opium and alcohol content, these medicines were marketed to women who were led to believe the quality of their lives would be improved. In these advertisements, women were cautioned against "quacks . . . Men calling themselves doctors who have no medical education and whose only recommendation is what they say of themselves" or so claimed one Dr. Mattison who operated the "Remedial Institute for Special Diseases" in Providence, Rhode Island. He urged Nantucket's women to buy "The Great Indian Remedy for Females: Dr. Mattison's Indian Emmenagogue" to cure all diseases of a private nature — only $10 full strength and mailed in a closely sealed package.
If pills, tonics, and prescriptives failed to cure, Nantucketers could turn to electricity! In 1869, Alcock's Porous Plasters were said "to seem to possess the power of accumulating electricity and imparting it to the body, whereby the circulation of the blood becomes equalized upon the parts where applied, causing pain and morbid action to cease." Worn on the breast or between the shoulders or over the kidneys, they were believed to be "preventive of consumption."
Also around this time "magnetism" became the rage. In 1856, Benj. S. Codman & Co., of Boston, sold at wholesale and retail the "Magneto- Electric Machine for Nervous Disease" patented by W. Kidder in April 1854. Codman Company were dealers in all kinds of galvanic batteries and apparatus and surgical and dental instruments. The magneto-electric machine was used for toothache, tic douloureux, and neuralgia. Nantucketer William Sevrens inherited an original "magneto electric machine" from a friend and remembers his extolling its virtues. Mr. Sevrens, an octogenarian, also remembers working in the Jaggar's Pharmacy building in the 1940s when it was owned by Rex and Fairbanks.
If magnetism, patent medicines, and home brews were of no avail, Nantucketers turned to the medical establishment. While the number of practicing physicians on Nantucket at the time is uncertain, "medical cards" routinely published in the Inquirer and Mirror introduced the population to physicians seeking patients. Jaggar's log also lists the names of several "Dr's" filling prescriptions including Dr. Sherman, Dr. King, Dr. Marsh, and Dr. Franklin. There was also competition from off-island physicians. Each week Nantucketers like Abner Fish were enticed to Boston to seek medical care. (In her diary, Abner's wife Martha recorded several journeys he made to Boston to consult with doctors.) Advertisements beseeched the townspeople to seek "certain cure in all cases or no charges made" from Dr. Dow who "has no doubt had greater experience in the cures and diseases of women and children than any other physician in Boston" and "who acknowledges no superior in the United States."
Given the competition and rivalry amongst doctors on Nantucket and beyond during this time in its history, it is small wonder that Nantucketers relied upon their own home brews for cure-alls or the new, slickly packaged and advertised patent medicines. Even magnetism seemed a viable and fascinating option for feeling better. But no option could have been more trusted than the "free" advice of Charles H. Jaggar, their neighborhood pharmacist on Main Street.
Susan Kirp Hochwald practiced law in New York State from 1965 until 1995 when she retired to Nantucket. She began volunteering in the NHA's Edouard A. Stackpole Library and Research Center last October and has spent many hours reading and researching Jaggar's prescription book.