When I think of women of long ago, caring for their families during illness, I’m struck by both their ingenuity and their lack of medical resources. Some 46% of children born in 1800 would die before the age of five (O’Neill). Another 20% or so wouldn’t live to see sixteen (Raising …). I can only imagine the heartbreak these statistics reveal. When illness hit the family, most often mothers had to put their trust in one of the many well-known recipes for plague waters or medicinal syrups. Many recipe books from the medieval and colonial periods include directions for such potions, some of which actually help. But more often the potion or elixir was used not because of effectiveness, but because doing something is usually better than doing nothing.
Imagine the dilemma facing families in the 18th century: Dose your family with an herbal elixir said to be good for ague and fevers, and pray to God that none of you catch smallpox, with its 30% mortality rate (Smallpox) or risk variolation or inoculation by making a scrape or cut on the healthy person’s arm or leg, and spreading material from the scabs or pustules of the sick person. This usually resulted in a milder form of the disease with a mortality rate of only 2%. Much less risk obviously, but still a risk.
Not long after variolation became widely accepted in the New World, Edward Jenner developed a vaccine that further reduced the spread of smallpox. He expressed the hope it would eradicate the disease forever (History…) It took almost 200 years, but Jenner’s dream was realized in 1980 when the WHO declared the world free from naturally occurring smallpox.
Jenner’s vaccine did more than eradicate smallpox. It paved the way to develop other useful vaccines that are now common. I’ve lived long enough to be older than some of the vaccines now routinely given to children. I survived measles, mumps, and chicken pox, and made it to adulthood without contracting Rubella or German measles as it was called. But as soon as a vaccine became available, I got it. Of all the vaccines I’ve received, three stand out as truly significant.
One is the smallpox vaccine, described above. While I don’t have any memories of getting this, I do have a tiny scar on my arm as a visible reminder of my protection.
The earliest vaccine I do remember is the Sabin Polio vaccine. Polio was another one of those terrible diseases that was highly contagious and killed or crippled thousands. Some of you may remember the restrictions frightened parents made– pools, theaters, and playgrounds closed, birthday parties cancelled, children isolated from playmates. Polio was one of the most dreaded diseases of the 20th century. I was too young to remember the fear, but I do remember standing with my mother and various siblings in a long line in a huge, unfamiliar auditorium. I think it was 1961 or 1962 in San Bruno, California. Even then I understood the importance of what we were doing. At the end of the line I was handed a little paper cup with a sugar cube in it. As vaccines go, that was undoubtedly the most pleasant, like a candy treat, or sweet-tasting medicine. The massive worldwide vaccination efforts against polio have nearly wiped out this dreaded disease.
Fast forward to 2020 and 2021. Once again the world is facing a major pandemic: Covid-19.. We’ve learned to wear masks, close schools, and theaters, and practice ‘social distancing.’ With a speed never before achieved, scientists around the world have created vaccines to fight this new threat. Thus, my third memorable vaccine was this year when I got the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 shot. The little sting in my arm felt like a gift, a miracle even. I understand the pandemic is not over. Social distancing and masks are still important, especially in any public place. But like the smallpox and polio vaccines, this new vaccine lifts the weight of worry we’ve been carrying for the past year. It means that we can hug our loved ones without the fear that such an important gesture carries such a terrible risk.
Of course, vaccines can’t prevent everything. We’ll still catch colds and various bugs. For those we can use our modern elixirs: the myriad cough syrups, lozenges,and pills, available in any grocery store or pharmacy. Or we can try one of the concoctions our foremothers used. Unlike modern elixirs, those of bygone days were not subjected to rigorous study, but handed down from generation to generation. Some of them even formed the basis for modern remedies.
I’ve found that many of the recipes for medicinal syrups in early cookbooks use unfamiliar or unavailable herbs, some of which cause vomiting or purging, both thought at the time to be good ways to relieve a fever. Still some of the recipes are tasty enough to be made into a refreshing drink. As for their medicinal value, your guess is as good as mine.
For those of you who want to try an old-fashioned medicine, I’ve included a potion for rose syrup. I say potion because I personally find the scent too strong and flowery, so that the resulting syrup tastes like medicine, which of course, this syrup was used for. Rose water and rose spirits are said to be good for the heart and lungs, and helpful in reducing fevers. It is also said that rose water adds a pleasant flavor to all sorts of dishes. While I can’t vouch for any pleasant flavor, or even any real benefits, I can say that rose syrup is unlikely to be in any way harmful. Most of all, I can be grateful that I don’t have to rely on any such elixir to ease the colds or viruses that come my way.
Martha Washington’s Booke of Sweetmeats has five recipes for rose syrups, ranging from a simple rose water and sugar mixture boiled to the consistency of syrup, to a concoction requiring twelve days of steeping. The recipe below follows the simplest version. Hannah Glasse’s recipe calls for infusing rose petals in water for eight hours, then adding fresh petal and letting them steep another eight hours. Both these books call for using damask roses, cutting off the white parts of the petals, and making the rose infused-water first.
For my version, I used rose water that I purchased since I didn’t have fresh roses. Fresh damask roses would give the syrup a reddish tinge, so I added a few drops of red food coloring to the clear rose syrup.
Rose Syrup: Modern version
Mix 1 c. rose water and 1 ¼ cup sugar. Bring to a boil, and boil until the mixture reaches 200 degrees for a thin syrup. Add 3 drops red food coloring. Enjoy on pancakes or biscuits, or serve a spoonful to an invalid
—–. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. (A Family Manuscript, Hand written circa 17th century. Transcribed and annotated by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy: Excelling any Thing of the Kind ever yet published. Alexandria: Cottom and Stewart. 1805. (First Edition publishing in London, 1747. This edition reprint of 1st American Edition, 1805, by Applewood Books, 1997).
History of Smallpox. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID), Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology (DHCPP). https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/history/history.html Accessed 4/3/2021
O’Neill, Aaron. Child mortality in the United States 1800-2020. Mar 19, 2021 Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1041693/united-states-all-time-child-mortality-rate/. Accessed 4/4/2021
Raising Children in the Early 17th Century: Demographics. A collaboration between Plimoth PlantationTM and the new england historic genealogical society® supported by the institute for museum and library services www.PlymouthAncestors.org Accessed 4/4/2021
Smallpox. World Health Organization, 2021 WHO https://www.who.int/health-topics/smallpox#tab=tab_1 Accessed 4/10/2021