A Brief Look at 18th Century Apothecaries© – Victoria Brady

(Part of a series of articles on 18th century professions as were practiced before and after the Revolutionary War.  Men had professions before they became soldiers to fight for independence and they planned to resume that work afterward.)


Apothecaries have been around since antiquity probably gaining little in knowledge prior to the 18th century. An 18th century apothecary was little different from a physician. The first female apothecary is said to be Elizabeth Gookin[g] Greenleaf (ca 1681-1762). The intricacies of her work are not readily available, but it is known she opened a shop in Boston in 1727 and some writers claim she was the only woman out of 32 apothecaries in New England at the time.

Her husband, Daniel, was a New England physician and minister and she prepared medicines for his parishioners. He joined her in the shop some months after it opened in 1727 and the two worked together for several decades.

In the 1630s, Governor John Winthrop and his son were interested in early medicine and employed a trained apothecary from Britain, Robert Cooke, to assist them with importing and dispensing herbs from Europe. The son later compounded mixtures from ingredients such as saltpeter, antimony, mercury, tartar, sulfur and iron.

After an apprenticeship with family members, Benedict Arnold opened his own apothecary and bookseller business in New Haven, CT in 1762. In addition to books, creams, and pomatums, items sold in his shop included female elixir, spices, dried fruit, tincture of Valerian, Essence Balm of Gilead, Bergamot, and Lemons, Spirit Scurvy Grass, etc.

General Hugh Mercer (1726-1777), a Scottish Surgeon-Apothecary, was educated at the University of Aberdeen. Mercer was one of many Scots who fled Scotland following the Battle of Culloden. He met George Washington in Pennsylvania during the French and Indian war and the two became friends. He fought with the 1st Pennsylvania and was the first commandant of Fort Pitt. Mercer moved to Fredericksburg, VA in 1761 and opened an apothecary shop. He served as colonel in the 3rd Virginia Regt in 1775 and a year later was made brigadier general. He was serving under Washington at the Battle of Princeton on Jan. 3, 1777 when he suffered severe bayonet wounds and died a few days later.

Unlike doctors necessarily, apothecaries were expected to be knowledgeable of medicinal herbs including how to grow them, how to preserve and store them, and how to use them. At the time remedies used by these and other individuals were prepared in the form of:

Anodynes (pain relievers) Opium and like substances
Emetics (produced vomiting)
Anti-pyretics (reduced fever) white willow bark
Cathartics (laxatives) Jalap Root (Ipomea jalapa)
Diaphoretics (sweat producing) such as Mercury

Remedies were prepared as pills (dried herbs or powdered compounds mixed with wax or honey); Salves (medicinal compounds mixed in lard for topical application); poultices (moist herbal mixture applied to the skin to reduce inflammation); tinctures (concentrated liquid herbal extracts dissolved in alcohol); Infusions (leaves and flowers steeped in hot water, i.e. tea); and Decoctions (roots and bark simmered in boiling water, i.e. tea).

A Simple: Simply put, was an Herb, any herb.
A Galenical: was a decoction or infusion of herbs and roots.

Below is a brief list of plants used to treat illness during the 18th century, given here for their historical significance only. Some of these plants are classified as poisonous today so check with an authority before ingesting.

Agrimony: A Hepatic, splenetic used in disorders of the liver, cachexia, jaundice, and dropsy, catarrhs, coughs. The herb put into strong vinegar takes off warts.
Althea: roots, flowers, seeds, and leaves soften, loosen, and ease pain. The root is used for disorders of the kidneys and bladder and in asthma, pleurisy, pains in the bowels, etc.
Angelica: Provokes menses, expels birth and after-birth, good for hysterics, resists malignant and contagious diseases, poisons, and plague.
Balsam: used to remedy diarrhea and bowel affections, infusion of it useful in pulmonary and hemorrhagic affections, used externally for bruises, local swelling, and tumors.
Betony: strengthened the nervous system.
Blood root: was said to cure jaundice in six days.
Borage: used for a wide range of conditions – sore eyes, poultice for inflammations, bruising, and rashes. Distilled water of borage and conserve were thought to strengthen the heart and were good against fainting and melancholy. They cause cheerfulness and purify the blood. The water repels inflammation of the eyes. Used for fevers, pestilence, venomous beast bites, jaundice, itch, ringworm, scabs, weakness by long sickness, consumption, inflammations.
Bramble: Leaves are good for fluxes of the belly, uterus, nose, and mouth. They have a binding quality (fight diarrhea), leaves boiled, strained and with a little honey added to liquor make a good gargle for raw throat or ulcers of the mouth, throat, or privy parts.
Bugleweed: the whole herb used as a mild astringent, narcotic, and depurative, used for hemorrhage of the lungs. It lessens the frequency of the pulse, quiets irritation, and allays cough.
Burdock: The root was good to treat kidney stones and bladder stones, gout, dries ulcers and sores, sciatica, consumptions, stones, cankers, phlegm, and arthritic pain.
Burnet: cheers the heart, resists the plague and contagious diseases, is binding and useful in excessive fluxes of the menses, bloody-flux, or discharges of blood. It dries up and heals wounds and ulcers. The root powdered with sugar of roses stops nosebleed, and consumption, spitting up blood. It was thought to correct bloody urine, and as an antidote to the bite of a mad dog.
Calendula: made into a salve to heal wounds
Campion, rose: juice snuffed up the noses promotes sneezing, the seed taken in wine treated a scorpion sting. The herb boiled in posset was used for convulsions in children.
Caraway: stomachic, diuretic, expelled wind, promotes digestion, provokes urine, strengthens the brain, good for colic and vertigo.
Chamomile: Soothes the tummy and promotes sleep, stitches in the side, liver, spleen, weariness, swelling, colic, stones, jaundice, dropsy, and cramps.
Chickweed: given to children for fits, juice used for gripe, used for atrophy, consumption, inflammations of the lungs, breast, or side, cramps, convulsions, palsy, red eyes, hemorrhoids, and ulcers. Has cured black jaundice. Eases pain, restorative after fevers.
Chicory: mild tonic. The ancients used this for hepatic obstructions. Young leaves are edible as salad.
Clary aka Clear Eye: Inflammations, splinters, thorns, boils, swellings, eye problems.
Cleavers, aka Goose-grass: Juice of stalk, leaf, and seeds drunk is good for serpent bite, cures pain if dropped in the ear. The herb boiled in white wine was thought to dispel gravel or kidney stones. A decoction was given for jaundice, and the juice put onto a wound stopped it bleeding.
Cockle: thought to cure tetter, ringworm, scabs or sores of the skin and promote healing of wounds and fistulas. It stopped bleeding.
Coltsfoot: good for the lungs, coughs, consumptions, shortness of breath, can be smoked like tobacco.
Comfrey: Muscles, humours, wounds, inflammations, hemorrhoids, gangrene, painful joints, ruptures, etc.
Cow-parsnip root: softens and diffuses tumors of the uterus, liver, and spleen, the seed were given for hysteric fits.
Cranberry: used as a drink in febrile diseases (fever).
Cumin seed: Resolves flatulency, good for colic and vertigo. Boiled in wine with figs it was given for cough. Seed were chewed to freshen the breath.
Dandelion: Good for fevers, inflammations, the boiled herb braces a relaxed stomach. A decoction of the whole plant cures jaundice. The root and herb boiled in wine or broth is good for cough.
Digitalis purpura, or foxglove: was chiefly used to relieve obstructions of the four humors and to stimulate the flow of phlegm. The plant was not native to colonial New England.
Dock: The root boiled helped the itch. The variety called blood-wort stopped excessive menses by consuming powdered seed.
Elder tree: Inner bark was used for dropsy, young tender buds boiled did likewise but more mildly so. Ointment made from the inner bark was used for burns. The flowers were said to soften or resolve pain.
Fern: powdered root boiled in mead and drunk rid the belly of worms.
Feverfew: used to relieve headache and reduce fever. It was used in diseases of the womb, “a decoction of it forces the courses”, and cures hysterics. Used to provoke “dead-birth”, for cough, melancholy, headache, deformity of the skin, and colic.
Figs: Were given to those with diseases of the lungs and women ate them to facilitate delivery.
Flax: Taken inwardly in a Quinsy, consumption and colic. Outwardly used it mollifies hard swellings and eases pain.
Fleabane: Used for the itch, hysterics and uterine problems. Strewn about a room it drives away flies and fleas. Rubbing the leaves on a snake bite helped.
Foxglove: was a purgative and promoted vomiting and diarrhea. It was used for ulcers on the body.
Hawthorn: Given for stones, and dropsy, pleurisy.
Hemlock: Used outwardly for swellings and inflammation of the liver or spleen. A poultice eases pain.
Hemp: Seeds boiled in milk was given for cough and jaundice. A decoction of green seed cures pain and obstruction of the ears.
Henbane: narcotic, antispasmodic, anodyne, laxative properties.
Holly: Berries were eaten for colic. A decoction of roots aided hardness of the joints, swellings and healed broken bones. Used for jaundice and dropsy.
Honeysuckle (white or red) was used to ease the pain of gout. Leaves and flowers were boiled and used to treat clyster. A poultice of honeysuckle was used for inflammation. Boiled in lard to make an ointment it was thought to relieve snakebite. Country people also used honeysuckle to make a tea and drank it to treat snakebite. Honeysuckle supposedly helped asthma and lung problems, speeded up the delivery of a child, relieved cramps, convulsions, and palsies, and faded freckles.
Hops: Put into beer which purged the blood, was good for jaundice, and hypochondriacs.
Horehound: Juice mixed with honey was good for coughs and consumption. The powder kills worms. It was considered excellent for jaundice and tops infused in wine provoked the courses. Good for colds and pulmonary organs.
Hyssop: Used for diseases of the lungs. It was good for bruises. Dispelled phlegm from the lungs, good for hoarseness, cough, shortness of breath.
Infusion of Roses: take of rose-buds, freed from the white heels, half an ounce; acid elixir of vitriol, three drams, or three tea spoonfuls; refined sugar, two ounces; boiling water, two pints and a half. First, mingle the vitriol with the water in a china, glass, or stone-ware vessel, and in this mixture infuse the roses, when the liquor is become cold, strain it, and add the sugar.
Jamestown weed (Jimson weed): used in neuralgia and rheumatism, internally and externally. Used for asthma, slightly laxative, used to dilate the pupil. Ointment made from the leaves used for piles and painful ulcers.
Juniper berries: were good for a cold stomach, provoke urine and dispel poison. They were good for diseases of the head and nerves. Oil of Juniper was used for toothache and colic.
Ladies bed-straw: good for epilepsy, tea is good for gout, syrup of flowers expels menses. Flowers in salad oil and set forty days in the sun was a good ointment for burns and scalds.
Lavender: Good for the nerves, used in catarrhs, palsies, convulsions. Giddiness, lethargy etc. Lavender oil killed lice,
Leaves, bark, and seed of the willow tree were used to stop bleeding, spitting of blood, fluxes of blood, vomiting, colic, dimness of sight, warts, corns, dandruff, or fever.
Lichen: The herb was dried in an oven or by the fire, powdered, and passed through a fine sieve. The powder was mixed with a like quantity of pepper and this put into milk, beer, ale, or broth to treat the bite of a mad dog (rabies).
Lobelia (Indian tobacco): was used to treat venereal disease. An infusion promoted emesis, sweating, and general relaxation. A tincture was used for asthma and as an expectorant.
Lovage: Juice of the leaves expels the retain’d after-birth, eases pain, quenches thirst, and leaves bruised and fry’d in hots lard ripen and break boils. Good for nephritic pain and a good female plant, increases milk in nurses and seed in men. Lovage strengthens the stomach, is a diuretic, helps asthma, and expels menses. “The powdered seed brings away the dead child” – probably a child that had died in the womb and was not expelled naturally. Good for obstructions of the liver, spleen, and cured jaundice. Used for poultices, ointments and plasters for wounds and ulcers.
Maiden-hair: boiled in wine or mead and drunk regularly for some days cured obstructions of the liver, clears disorders of the lungs, good for difficulty breathing, expels melancholy, softens hard tumors of the spleen.
Marjoram, wild: stimulant, tonic, diaphoretic, and emmenagogue (increases or stimulates menstrual flow). The oil forms a good external stimulant, good for toothache, neuralgia, and rheumatism.
Marigold: water dropped in the eyes or put onto a cloth and laid on the eyes reduced redness and inflammations. Leaves in a bath hasten a birth.
Mint, of all sorts, greatly used in weakness and crudity of the stomach, heavings, or vomitings, hiccup, windiness, and burning heat. It eases children’s gripes, taken outwardly takes away the hardness of the breasts or curdling of milk and cures headaches.
Mullein: Drinking a decoction is good for colic, ruptures, and cramps, dysentery and diarrhea. Poultices laid onto a bruise dissolve clotted blood and take away the blue and black color. The yellow flowers were dried and used for piles (hemorrhoids). An ointment was made by boiling the leaves in lard.
Nettles, stinging: great diuretic, expels gravelly matter. Antidote to hemlock and henbane poisoning. Seed were used with success for diseases of the lungs such as asthma, cough, pleurisy, etc.
Oswego tea (horse mint): aromatic, carminative, and stimulant. The oil formed an excellent stimulating embrocation in rheumatism and flatulent colic.
Parsley seed were good for snake bite, the bruised herb in a poultice eased eye pain and removed blue and black bruises. Seed were used for jaundice, epilepsy, stone and gravel, etc.
Peach leaves boiled in milk or bruised and laid to the navel kill worms in children. The distilled water beautifies the face.
Pennyroyal: Has the benefits of other mints. Promotes menses, expels birth and after-birth, gravel, sand, and urine. Good for jaundice and dropsy, eases gripes. Outwardly good for headache, arthritic pains, and cleans the teeth. An infusion cured convulsions.
Periwinkles: Good for wounds, dysentery, spitting up blood, nose-bleed.
Persimmon: “The unripe fruit is recommended…in chronic dysentery, diarrhea, and uterine hemorrhage in the form of infusion, syrup, or vinous tincture. Bark is used as a tonic in intermittents and to make an astringent gargle in ulcerated sore throats.
Plantain: used for looseness, bloody flux, involuntary urine, blood-spitting, loss of sperm. It heals and cleanses wounds and ulcers.
Poke Weed: acro-narcotic emetic and purgative; emetic, tincture used in rheumatism. Ointment made from the leaves was used for cutaneous diseases.
Potato: Plants possess narcotic properties, tubers are a good preventative for scurvy when eaten with vinegar.
Purslane: eaten in salads is good for the stomach, used for scurvy. Good for worms in children.
Quince seeds boiled with water until the water was slimy and nearly the consistency of egg white was strained through muslin and used for sore throats and mouth ulcers.
Sassafras: bark and roots aromatic, stimulant. Used in chronic rheumatism, cutaneous eruptions, scorbutic and syphiloid affections.
Skunk cabbage: Used for asthma, rheumatism, dropsy, hysteria and chronic catarrh.
Snakeroot: diaphoretic, stimulant, and tonic, diuretic, used for eruptive diseases and typhus fever.
Speedwell: Astringent, diuretic, diaphoretic, tonic, and expectorant; formerly much employed in pectoral and cutaneous diseases, nephritic complaints and wounds. Used in the past for a tea substitute.
St. John’s Wort: diuretic, stops blood spitting, dissolves coagulated blood, expels gravel, and kills worms. Cured jaundice and gout. Tincture of the flowers treated madness and melancholy, tincture of flowers in brandy killed worms.
This mixture is used as an astringent gargle and was drunk for internal hemorrhage.
Vervain was used to strengthen the womb. Bruised leaves placed about the neck was thought to relieve headache. It was thought to help with jaundice, dropsy, gout, lungs, snakebite, plague, expelling of worms, stomach, cough, shortness of breath, wheezing.
Violet leaves made into a tea or infused in wine helped quinsy, dissolved swelling, pleurisy, lung ailments, hoarseness and sore throat, and was good for the liver and jaundice.
Virginia Anemone seed capsules were used to remedy toothache. The seed capsules which resembled cotton were soaked in brandy and placed on the tooth.
Walnut tree bark was used for worms, poison, inflammation of the throat, wounds, gangrene, carbuncles, flux, quinsy, toothache, colic, and deafness. Used for ringworm and tetter.
Whey produced when mustard seeds were crushed and boiled with milk was used to treat rheumatism.
Wax myrtle: chiefly used to make candles, but also a remedy in jaundice.
Wormwood: Cured indigestion.
Yarrow treated nose-bleed, wounds, inflammations, bloody-flux, diarrhea, baldness, ulcers, fistulas, diabetes and toothache. Wounds were treated with an ointment and leaves were chewed for toothache.
©Notice: Please do not reproduce articles from this website, either in part or in their entirety, without written permission of the author. Some of them have been published professionally and are subject to copyright from the publisher also. Thistledewbooks @ yahoo . com

Published by thehistoricfoodie

I write articles for various magazines and books about foods and cooking techniques. My work centers primarily around historic foods and I travel throughout the country doing cooking demonstrations at various local, state, and national venues and teaching an occasional period cooking class. I've done cooking demonstrations on national and local television, including Chicago's WGN.

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