Today, many of us have the luxury of being able to see a doctor quickly or go to the store to pick up some cheap over-the-counter medicine. That wasn’t the case during the mid-19th century, especially in rural areas. Back then, it took a long time and cost a lot to see a doctor. [1] This meant that doctors often arrived after a lot of suffering or when it was too late to save the patient. Because of the lack of doctors, housewives served as first responders for ailments. Their treatments included basic home remedies with spices such as cloves and ginger. While spice boxes held flavorings for food, they also became a source for home remedies.

Box, Spice, ca 1875, tin, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Mrs. Buce Davies, The Farmers’ Museum Collection. F0525.1953. Photograph by Matt Wagner.

Box, Spice, ca 1875, tinned sheet iron, H: 3 3/4 x L 5 1/2 x W 8. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Mrs. Buce Davies, The Farmers’ Museum Collection. F0525.1953. Photograph by Matt Wagner.

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Box, Spice, ca 1875, tinned sheet iron, H: 3 3/4 x L 5 1/2 x W 8 Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Mrs. Buce Davies, The Farmers’ Museum Collection. F0525.1953. Photograph by Matt Wagner.

This metal spice box holds six storage units, with each unit housing a different spice or plant. The attached grater enabled housewives to use fresh spices for their medical recipes. For example, cinnamon could be grated or dried depending on the recipe. Additionally, the spice box added a sense of portability with its handle, as housewives could go out to their herbal gardens and quickly gather needed ingredients. Many housewives owned their knowledge to their home remedies through many sources.

During the late 19th century, domestic care books included basic medical recipes composed of spices. A common spice like cinnamon has powerful effects on the human body. In the 1800s, cinnamon helped with nausea. [2] A recipe for cholera, a devastating disease that caused stomach issues, involved cinnamon along with cloves. [3] It is important to note that home remedies came from friends and family members as well as the home care books. Many different remedies existed for the same ailment. According to oral histories, a cure for stomach aches included consuming white sands or elderberry blossoms. [4] People used whatever they thought would work. Spice boxes allowed access to and storage of in-demand ingredients.

During this period, many people debated the use of natural remedies vs. medicines. While authors like Mrs. John A Logan advocated for waiting for doctors by preparing basic recipes to provide temporary relief [5], some doctors advocated for use of natural remedies. John C Gunn, author of New Domestic Physician, believed that people were relying too much on medicine. Gunn stated that when “the curative power of Nature fails, medicine fails.” [6] Therefore, some housewives believed that it was not necessary to see a doctor.  Also, there was often a sense of dread when a doctor was needed – both because of the cost and the fact that person may have been too sick to save. That, along with the relief that home remedies provided, is why there was such a reliance on the spice box and home remedies.

As time went on, innovation allowed medicine to become more accessible. Automobiles provided transportation to the doctor’s office and mass production enabled medical tonics to be produced at cheaper cost. As people had greater access to doctors and medicines to feel better, the spice box become relegated to a culinary tool.

By,
Matt Wagner

[1]John Waller, Health and Welllness in 19th Century America (Health and Daily Life), (Santa Barbara: Geenwood Publishing, 2014),  40

[2] R. Eglesfeld Griffith, Medical Botany or Descriptions of the More Important Plants Used in Medicine with Their History, Properties and more of Adminstration, (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1847), 910

[3]  Griffith 556

[4] “Rise of Indrustrial America, 1876-1900: Rural Life in the Late 19th Century,” Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/riseind/rural/remedies.html Accessed November 3, 2015.

[5] Mrs. John A Alexander, The Home Manual. Everybody’s Guide in Social, Domestic, and Business Life. A Treasury of Useful Information for the Millons, (Chicago:  H.J. Smith Co, 1889).

[6] John C Gunn, Gunn’s New Domestic Physician: or Home Book of Health with Supplementary Treatises on Anatomy, Physiology, and Hygiene, and on Nursing the Sick, and the Management of the Sick Room, (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, Keys & Co., 1863), 732.

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