Spirits to Sustain Us, Acorns to Restore Us
We are living in strange times. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to re-consider our values and has sent many in search of ‘the good life.’ We are looking for ways to live better, to live healthier, and to live longer. This is hardly a new preoccupation for human contemplation and experimentation. Cures, medicines, devices, and lifestyle changes have existed throughout history in hopes of prolonging our lives, maintaining our youthful vim and vigor, and thwarting death. Medicine practiced throughout the early modern British world was full of quackery and cure-alls, miracle pills and mysterious elixirs, reputable doctors relying on factual evidence and record-keeping, and local practitioners making use of their natural environment and traditions. Let’s explore a couple of medical recipes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to consider their relevance and effectiveness at restoring age.
Daffy’s Elixir was first advertised in 1673 by Anthony Daffy, though it was likely invented a few years earlier by a relative named Thomas Daffy. Surviving recipes contain any number of herbal ingredients, most often including raisins and some kind of spirit, usually brandy or gin. Daffy’s Elixir promised to treat rheumatism, gout, and many other ailments; and a pamphlet offering directions on how to use it claims that patients “will find very much relief, at least the ease of the pains, if not the perfect cure of their disease; which some Aged persons have happily experienced.” Its marketing made it a popular treatment to purchase from the marketplace or to try and reproduce in household kitchens. My own grandfather, who was born and raised in New Brunswick, was known in his seventies for soaking raisins in gin to help with rheumatism. We always smiled to ourselves when he swore that “a raisin a day…” or maybe two or three, always helped his aching joints. After reading Sally Osborn’s blog post, “The Delights of Daffy,” I can see the tradition from which my grandfather’s recipe may have evolved.
A more reputable source of medical remedies that can be applied to the aging population comes to us from William Paine, an 18th century physician from Massachusetts. Paine came to New Brunswick as a loyalist after travelling to England during the rising tensions of the revolutionary war. While abroad, he earned his MD, served in the British forces as an apothecary until 1781 and then became Physician to the Army in Halifax. He was awarded a land grant in Passamaquoddy Bay but moved to Saint John, shortly-there-after, where he started a medical practice in 1785. He was a prominent political figure in the province, held several positions and titles, but worried about opportunities for his children’s education. He petitioned the governor for a “School of Liberal Arts and Science” - an academy in Fredericton, which would later become the University of New Brunswick. His personal records are extensive, and I was lucky enough to receive the opportunity to decipher his tidy cursive writing from one of his papers. I found an interesting recipe, dating from sometime between 1795 – 1797, and its purpose was “To Restore Age.” Paine wrote:
Gather Acorns in the Months of July & August
before they are ripe, take off the outer shells
& pound them well in a Stone Mortar
untill they become like Dough, mix as
much clear Honey with it & put it in an Earthen
vessel in a cool cellar. Of this take a spoonfull
every morning, this strengthens exhausted Nature
so that People 80 years old who used this
simple remedy, were so restored by it that
they could walk on foot 3 English Miles
This remedy isn’t particularly surprising when we consider that people have been ingesting acorns throughout history. Even when we look as far back as 180 AD at Galen’s substantial contributions to humoral theory, we can find a description of acorns and their nutritional value. If you research acorns and honey today, the Old Farmer’s Almanac will give you directions for making acorn flour, and the Healthline website tells us that acorns are generally safe to eat, as long as they’re prepared carefully and effectively relieved of their high levels of tannins. We can also search countless websites for the health benefits of antioxidant rich honey, so perhaps for these aging individuals, an extra daily dose of nutrients and sugar may have been just what they needed to walk the three English miles (almost 5 kilometres!).
Aching joints and rheumatism are common chronic issues that many older people suffer from today and the 18th century was no different. While Dr. Paine wasn’t offering a miracle cure to reverse the wear and tear on one’s body from aging, we can guess that he was trying to improve nutritional balance, which might, over time, improve strength and endurance. During the time of Paine’s practice, people living to their 80th year was not terribly common and the elderly often relied on family members for care and consideration. Carole Haber’s article “Life Extension and History: The Continual Search for the Fountain of Youth” tells us that many Enlightenment thinkers contemplated the “problem of debility in old age.” Some theories suggested that by living temperate and balanced lives, people could potentially enjoy their later years, while continuing to be “productive members of society.”
As a costumed interpreter at Kings Landing, a 300-acre museum that interprets New Brunswick history during the 19th century, I have often stood in the Morehouse Farm herb garden telling visitors about various herbal cures that were practiced in 1820. My favourite cure, always told with a wink and a smile, is to drink the dew drops harvested from the leaves of Lady’s Mantle, collected under the full moon in May, as they will restore a lady’s youth. We are all destined to grow old, from the moment we are born and every passing second after, our bodies change and age. Some people happily accept this process and look forward to the wisdom that comes in those senior years and others believe that age creeps over us like a disease. In these tumultuous times, I look forward to growing old and wise. While I am not convinced that I should eat my grandfather’s spirited raisins or start stealing acorns from squirrels, it’s comforting to know that medical professionals have long searched for new ways to extend our lives and to improve the quality of our later years – and that they continue to do so today.
Cristina Furey is a History student at the University of New Brunswick and works as a costumed interpreter at Kings Landing. This blog post was written as part of the UNB Department of History course, "Revolutionary and Loyalist Era Medicine" taught by Dr. Wendy Churchill.
Directions for Taking Elixir Salutis Or, the Famous Purging Cordial known by the Name of Daffy’s Elixir Salutis. (London, 1701).
Mark Grant, and Galen. Galen on Food and Diet. (Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 2020).
Carole Haber. “Anti-Aging Medicine: The History: Life Extension and History: The Continual Search for the Fountain of Youth,” The Journals of Gerontology. (Series A, Volume 59, Issue 6, June 2004).
Healthline, 10 Surprising Health Benefits of Honey.
Carol Anne Janzen. “Paine, William,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6. (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003).
Jekka McVicar. Jekka’s Complete Herb Book. (Landham, MD: Kyle Books. 1994).
Old Farmer Almanac, How to Prepare and Cook Acorns: A step-by-step guide to preparing and cooking with acorns. (The Editors. August 24, 2020).
Sally Osborn. “The Delights of Daffy,” Blog: Eighteenth-century recipes: Remedies, recipes and domestic life, August 20, 2011.
Susannah R Ottaway. The Decline of Life: Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy, and Society in Past Time. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2004).
Dr. William Paine Papers: 1768-1835. The Loyalist Collection. (HIL-MICL FC LFR .P3W5P3).
SUBJECTS: William Paine, medicine, health, Kings Landing, aging, physician