Farmers’ Almanacs and Folk Remedies: The Role of Almanacs in Nineteenth-Century Popular Medicine

The Farmer’s Almanac has always been a staple book in my grandmother’s rural North Carolina household. Before deciding when she should plant her garden or what seeds she should put in the ground, she consults the almanac. She and her friends plan the community hog-killing by the moon phases in the almanac, believing that the wrong phase of the moon could make that year’s supply of sausage and ham spoil early. Recently, I learned that even some of her family home remedies came from the almanac. If a child becomes feverish, she might tell you to put raw, sliced potatoes into their socks overnight. For a black eye, she’d suggest applying lard to heal it quickly. This made me wonder – just how deep did the influence of the almanac run?

Almanacs often varied by publisher, but followed a similar basic format. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

The almanac has been popular across many communities for centuries, but its affordability made it particularly appealing to rural and lower-class populations. It appealed to both men and women through a large variety of articles. Further, it was translated into many different languages, making its readership wide-ranging and diverse.1 The Farmer’s Almanack garnered around 20,000 readers during the late 1790s and early 1800s; Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac attracted around 10,000 annual readers.2 Although there was variation by publisher, almanacs generally followed the same format: a calendar of important dates, moon phases, and weather patterns based on astrology; a set of short anecdotes or parables; and “miscellaneous” advice, remedies, maxims, and recipes. Every part of the almanac was important to its readers, but the remedies have had the most lasting influence on communities across America.

Almanacs recommended cures for a wide variety of ailments, from the relatively harmless, such as coughs and colds, to the more serious, like rheumatism and snake bites. Liquor, turpentine, tree bark, and dairy were particularly popular ingredients in home remedies. Since eighteenth- and nineteenth-century almanacs varied widely across regions and publishers, however, they very rarely suggested the same cure for an ailment.

Take, for example, two suggested remedies for burns. In 1807, the New England Almanack suggested applying brandy or rum to burns to prevent blistering and pain.3 Brother Jonathan’s Almanac in 1847 suggested that readers “scrape the inside of a potatoe [sic]; mix sweet-oil and turpentine, one spoonful of each. . .apply it to the burn immediately, and it will extract the heat.”4 From our modern day perspective, both of these so-called cures seem unlikely to have had any effect. This is certainly true in the case of using liquor for burns, but there have actually been studies on the healing properties of potatoes on burns. One 1990 study suggested that potato peels performed better than plain gauze dressings in healing burns, proving that there was some legitimacy to using a potato poultice in the nineteenth century.

Another frequent theme in almanacs was snake bites. Although snake bites aren’t something that worry many people today, they were common enough in the nineteenth century to warrant several different suggestions. Blum’s Farmer’s and Planter’s Almanac, published in 1833, recommended the following: “Take the root of the yellow poplar tree, American tulip tree, and make strong decoction of the bark; wash the swelled part frequently; give the patient half a pint every half hour.”5 Twenty years later, the 1857 The United States Farmers’ Almanac recounted the story of an enslaved boy who was bitten by a venomous copperhead snake. Very quickly after being bitten, the leg became swollen, and “thereupon nearly half a gallon of whiskey was poured down the boys’ throat, producing no intoxication, but he soon recovered from the effects of the bite.”6 Despite what some might hope, there is once again no modern evidence that alcohol will miraculously cure a snake bite. The root decoction, however, may have actually been effective. Although there aren’t many studies on American herbal remedies, in India, over 523 plant species are regarded as herbal antidotes against snake venom.

An illustration from Ayer’s American Almanac hints at one of the ailments for which the almanac offered remedies, c. late 1800s. (Courtesy Internet Archive Book Images)

While these examples show that there are some instances of folk remedies being backed up by modern science, they were more frequently unhelpful in curing ailments, especially if those ailments were serious health conditions. Almanacs regularly recommended remedies for problems like dropsy and dysentery. Although these ailments are generally unheard of today, they often struck fear into the hearts of early Americans.

Characterized by “loose stools containing blood and mucus, and by painful and unproductive attempts to defecate,” dysentery was common enough for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans to cause frequent worry.7 As such, almanac writers were keen to include treatments for their readers. The 1807 edition of the New England Almanack recommended two spoonfuls of clarified butter up to three times a day for an “almost instant cure.”8 Other early almanacs, such as the American Calendar, Poor Richard’s, and Poor Will’s, recommended cures including ingredients such as rhubarb and cinnamon as well as such treatments as vomiting and even bleeding.9 It’s highly unlikely that any of these remedies did anything to curve the effects of dysentery, let alone provide a cure. Although we now know that treatments recommended for serious health conditions did nothing but provide false hope, almanacs continued to include them year after year under the assumption that they would truly work.

Today, there are far better remedies for burns than rum, and drinking half a gallon of whiskey certainly isn’t a substitute for anti-venom. But many Americans still use folk remedies. One 2006 study by the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that over half of older adults in rural North Carolina still use some home remedies, usually for minor health issues, such as cuts and colds. In Louisiana, scientists are using folk remedies to combat metabolic syndrome conditions, such as high blood pressure and high blood sugar, which impact nearly one-third of Louisiana’s residents. Even the Farmer’s Almanac still publishes home remedies similar to those of the eighteenth century, made of easily accessible and cheap ingredients like alcohol and root vegetables.

An increasing immigrant population also means that a diverse population of Americans continue to follow folk remedies. One comprehensive literature review found that white, Hispanic, Asian, and African American elderly populations are all likely to use some form of folk remedy to treat certain maladies.10 Much like in the eighteenth century, however, they vary widely in how they create medicines at home. For example, white patients are more likely to create tinctures (alcohol infused with herbs and other ingredients and used as drops) or elixirs (ingredients steeped in a syrup, usually to mix into a drink); Hispanic patients are more likely to brew herbal teas. This difference in delivery most likely stems from the difference in ailments treated and herbs commonly used in these cultures. Hispanic patients reported using such herbs as chamomile, spearmint, orange leaves, and sweet basil; these were most commonly used to treat coughs and stomachaches. In comparison, white patients reported using ingredients like aloe vera, honey, peppermint, and lemon to treat cold symptoms and gastrointestinal disorders.11

Like many others that still use home remedies, my grandmother doesn’t believe that folk medicine is a replacement for the medical advancements of today. She certainly wouldn’t recommend treating something as serious as a snake bite at home. However, folk remedies continue to hold power in many communities because they have been passed down from generation to generation as a proven method of treating simple ailments. So if my grandmother recommends that I treat hiccups with a spoonful of sugar or fire ant bites with an aspirin paste, then I’m happy to give it a try. After all, there’s certainly no harm in keeping some old traditions alive.

Notes

  1. Kristina Huff, “A Look at the American Almanac,” The Pampliset 93 (2014): 92. Return to text.
  2. Thomas A. Horrocks, Popular Print and Popular Medicine: Almanacs and Health Advice in Early America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), 8. Return to text.
  3. “Family Medicine,” New England Almanack (Hartford: Lincoln & Gleeson, 1807), [23]. Return to text.
  4. “Cure for a Burn,” Brother Jonathan’s Almanac (Philadelphia: C.G. Sower, 1847), 25. Return to text.
  5. “Cure for the Bite of a Snake,” Blum’s Farmer’s and Planter’s Almanac (Salem: H.S. Noble, 1833), 30. Return to text.
  6. “The Whiskey Remedy,” The United States Farmer’s Almanac (Philadelphia: Sower & Barnes, 1857), 32. Return to text.
  7. Horrocks, 52. Return to text.
  8. “Family Medicine,” [23]. Return to text.
  9. Horrocks, 53. Return to text.
  10. Kay Sackett, Melondie Carter, and Marietta Stanton, “Elders’ Use of Folk Medicine and Complementary and Alternative Medicines,” Professional Case Management 19 no. 3 (2014): 113–123. Return to text.
  11. Carla Zeilmann, Ernest Dole, Betty Skipper, Melvina McCabe, Tieraona Low Dog, and Robert Rhyne, “Use of Herbal Medicine by Elderly Hispanic and Non-Hispanic White Patients,” Pharmacotherapy 23, no. 4 (2003): 530. Return to text.

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