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A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Page 353 Appendix - A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


Appendix: Medicinal Ingredients Mentioned In Martha Ballard's Diary


Since the majority of Martha's medicinal entries are nonspecific ("made a syrup," "administered a clister," "gathered herbs," "used means," it is not possible to develop a complete pharmacopoeia. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that in her lifetime many common garden vegetables or household staples had potential therapeutic uses. I have included here every ingredient for which she gave an explicit medicinal reference as well as others known primarily as medicinal plants and for which clear references to growing, gathering, or purchasing appear. I have included onions, for example, because she clearly used them medicinally, but not beans or radishes, even though herbals sometimes give medical uses for them. Where Martha mentioned growing or gathering a medicinal herb but did not indicate how she used it, I have given possible applications from contemporary sources.

There is not enough information in the diary to distinguish wild from cultivated herbs. Martha noted planting camomile and coriander in her garden and digging cold water root in "a field," but when she wrote that she "Cut up" catmint and tansy, we cannot be sure where she got them. Both are English plants often cultivated in gardens, but in some places they had also become naturalized. Usually, however, I can distinguish local plants from imported ingredients on the basis of her descriptions.


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For her niece Parthenia Pitts, she made a syrup of "comphry, plantain, agrimony & Solomon Seal leaves," June 5, 1794
"Planted pepers, anis, coriander," May 26, 1787. Martha also mentions purchasing "annis seed," which she used with manna and senna as a laxative. See also Anise seed and Rhubarb in Part II below.
"Gathered my Balm flowers," July 29, 1801. This could be the "Balm" listed in Culpeper as an herb for inducing perspiration and suppressing menstruation. It could also be a shortened reference to Balm of Gilead, below.
Balm of Gilead
"I sett Current Bushes & Balm Giliad," April 22, 1802. "I have been drinking a beer made of hops and Balm Gilliad," April 5, 1805. Meyer (p. 82), mentions cough syrup made with Balm of Gilead. See also Southernwood.
"His Child very unwell. He Came to me and had syrip of Balson for it," August 14, 1803. Not clear whether this is local or imported.
"I applyd a poltis of Basswd to Manlys foot it being sweld," June 1, 1789.
Buckthorn root
"Mr. Gill Came to bring some Buckthorn roots for my daughter" (Lucy Towne, who was dying), July 6, 1798.
"Was directly Calld to son Lambards, his little Daughter being in a fitt but was revid before I reacht there, but seems to be in a high feavor. We applied Burdoc leavs to her stomach and feet and gave her a syrrip of mullin and shee had some rest," August 26, 1799.


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"I removd parsley and Burnet roots," May 12, 1797. Culpeper says it will "staunch inward or outward bleedings" including "too abundant women's courses," among other uses: Potterton, p. 35
"I sett Cammomile roots," July 18, 1791. "1 gathered my the second gathering," October 4, 1792. "My daughter Hannah is very unwell this evening. I gave her some Cammomile & Camphor," November 30, 1791. See also Mugwort.
Catnip, catmint
"We made a bed by the fire & gave him some catnip tea," October 5, 1787. "Cut up herbs to drie, catmint and tansey," August 2, 1811.
Cold water root
"Went to the field & got some Cold water root. Then Calld to Mr Kenydays to see Polly. Very ill with the Canker. Gave her some of the root," August 7, 1787. Name not found in early herbals. Meyer, p. 286, identifies it Aster puneceus. Thacher, p. 214, says that the plant favored by the common people for canker and sore throat was marsh rosemary, which he identified as statice Limonium. See Vitriol.
"Applid a plaster of Comphry to his ancle," June 25, 1786. Also used internally. See Agrimony.
See Anise. Hannah Smith added coriander and annis seeds to a "gripe water": p. 266.
During Lucy's last illness, "sent a bottle of current syrrup," August 31, 1798. "I eat Curant saus with Tea about 2 hours before sun sett and in 3 hours it found its way thro me and I find relief," July 14, 1802. "H-S & Martha Ballard here for Curents for old Mrs Dunpha. Her grand childn have the hooping cough," July 8, 1806.
Dock root
"Mrs Nason Calld in to get some Dock root for the itch," May 5, 1807.
"Cut sage & feaverfue," June 11, 1802. "I made a decoction of feaverfue, peneroial [pennyroyal] & Cammomile for my self & daughter," September 16, 1793. After childbirth, Martha found Hannah Pollard "Exercised with a severe pain in her head. We applied


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feaverfue to her temples and gave a Clister," October 24, 1795. See also Mugwort.
Gold thread
"Old Mrs. Kenny advised to giv her a syrup of vinegar and onions, and a decoction of gold thread and shumake berries. It was done and shee seemed revived," March 29, 1797.
"I have gathedd part of my hops," September 24, 1805. "Cyrus to Son Lambards. He Carreid 3 lb hops and my daughter sent me 3/ 2/1oz. sinamon," December 24, 1805. Culpeper claimed that hops would kill worms, bring down women's courses and expel urine: Potterton, p. 99.
"Cut hyssop," July 31, 1787. For complications following childbirth, "applyd ointment & a Bath of Tansy, mugwort, camomile, & Hysop, which gave Mrs Cragg great relief,' April 5, 1790.
"Lidia Braly got yellow lilly roots to apply to Mrs Pollards Breast. It seemd to giv her more pain," February 15, 1801.
London pride
For a grandson "ill with pain like a Collic we administred a Clister and gave him the decoction of the flowers of London pride," June 30, 1801.
"Gave my daughter some Lovage Tea which relievd her of faintness," May 9, 1790.
"Nabby Jackson here for some maidenhair for Mrs Bent who Remains poorly," October 22, 1786. Gave Jonathan "a Tea of mullin & maidin hair which gave relief," August 17, 1791.
"I planted sumer squash, Crambery Beens, musk mellons & Mandrake seed," May 16, 1797. According to Culpeper, a powerful purgative and emetic: Potterton, p. 119.
"Gathered Cucumbers, Camomile, merigolds and pikt some wool," August 24, 1798. Hannah Smith included marigold flowers with V irginia snakeroot and other ingredients in a "water" used to "deliver a woman of a dead child,": p. 261.


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Mrs Pollard Came here with her son Amos who had a Lame knee. I Bathd it with Camphor & mellolot ointment, applied a plaster of my salv," December 1, 1787. "Have made mellolott Ointment for myself and son Jonathan's wife," July 10, 1811.
"Put oinions to her feet and gave her a decoction of mugwort and Feaverfue," February 7, 1800. See also Hyssop.
"Calld at 2 hour morning to see Mr Black's infant, who is unwell. It was a little revivd before I arivd. I gave it a Syrrup of mullin which gave it relief," June 14, 1791. See also Maidenhair.
"Gathered mustard seed. Shelld some that was dried," August 31, 1809 "Bot ... a mustard sallt," November 24, 1792. Used for poultices or, following Culpepper, to "bring down the courses": Potterton, p. 131.
Usually applied to the feet, e.g., "Jonathan was very violant siesd with feavor and universally pained. We put him to Bed, appld onions to his feet, gave him tees to promote sweting, set up to him till 1/ O Clok," September 5, 1786. See also Indian meal under Miscellaneous Ingredients.
Many entries for cultivation. Smith added parsley to many syrups and also included it with oil of turpentine and sulfur in a remedy for piles: pp. 256, 268, 323.
"Cookt pork, patience, Cabage sprouts, yerrow, & shepherd's sprouts": May 18, 1806. Used as a pot herb here.
See Feverfew. Thacher, p. 157, says it had "long been esteemed as an aperient and deobstruent, particularly in hysteric and other female complaints."
"Had Collic symptoms. Took some pepper pod steept which remoovd it," September 1, 1786. "[She] was seisd with pukeing. I gave her the tincture of red pepper. Shee soon revivd and went to rest," February 26, 1797.
See Agrimony.


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Martha grew rhubarb in her garden ("Ephraim had Currint Bushes, rhubarb & other roots," May 1, 1810), but the rhubarb mentioned most frequently in her diary was probably an imported laxative. See Rhubarb under Purchased Medicines.
"I removd my Rhue and Camomile," November 3, 1797. "Planted Rheu, safron, marigolds," May 26, 1806. Used to promote menstruation: Potterton, p. 160.
Many entries for planting and harvesting. Usually prescribed for infants. Sent "honey and safron" when Son Pollard's youngest child was "unwell with a soar mouth," October 14, 1798. See also Snakeroot.
"Set out 100 young sage roots," October 28, 1800. "Cut 14 1/2 lb sage from the two beds next to the house," July 29, 1801. "Sally Ballard is unwell. I made her Sage Tea," December 23, 1811.
"Betsy and I went to the field and got sennakle root," July 21, 1785. According to Culpeper, it helps to "stay women's courses, and all other fluxes of blood": Potterton, p. 164.
Might be the "shepherd's sprouts" Martha cooked with cabbage. See Patience. Like so many other herbs on Martha's list, it was credited with stopping "the terms" in women: Potterton, p. 171.
"They gave me a decoction of snake root & saffron," October 11, 1801.
Solomon's seal
See Agrimony.
"Dolly lame. Poultist her foot with Sorril roasted," October 11, 1787.
A stranger came to Martha's house, "requested me to giv her some buds of Balm Gilead and some suthernwood. Shee took what shee wisht for and went on for Capt. stackpoles at Winslow," December 14, 1801.


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Sumac berries
See Gold thread.
Summer savory
"Sowed summer savory," May 1, 1794. Culpeper said it "expels tough phlegm from the chest and lungs" and was useful in easing pain from bee stings: Potterton, p. 166.
"Hannah Ballard here for Tansy for Samuel. Says he is very unwel. Pukt up a worm," April 9, 1806. See also Catnip, Catmint, and Mugwort.
"Eunice had a very severe pain in her teeth & face. I aplyd some scorcht Tow & hett her face & shee got Ease," March 4, 1789.
"Elisa very unwel. We aplyed Turnip poltis to her bowels which gave relief soon," August 4, 1810.
"I gave Dolly a Decoction of the two wormwoods," March 18, 1792.
See Patience. Still used medicinally. Culpeper considered it effective in stopping bleeding and "running of the reins in men and whites in women": Potterton, p. 204.

Martha bought most of the imported ingredients she used from Dr. Colman, though she occasionally bought or borrowed ingredients from Dr. Cony.
Mrs. Black "had a small Tumbler full of my aloctic Tincture. Paid me /9," September 10, 1794. Gave aloes to a child who was "Cutting her Eye teeth," January 10, 1788. See also Bravux, Myrrh.
Anderson's pills
"Mr Ballard got me a Box Andersons Pills. I took 2 at night," October 18, 1806.
Anise seed
"To Doctor Colmans, bought ... 1 oz annis seed /4," August 5, 1793.


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"I gave my daughter three pills prepared of myrr, Alloes and a grain of Bravux," November 5, 1795
Usually used externally, e.g., "Ephraim was Choping & a Chip struck my face which hurt me much. I applyd camphor," September 20, 1791. See Myrrh, below, and Camomile and Mugwort under Local Plants.
Dragon's blood
"Bought 1 oz. Dragon's Blood for 1/6," October 5, 1793. "Gave his wife Dragons Blood which abated her Complaint," September 5, 1795. See also Spermaceta
Elixir proprietas
"Gave the Lady some senna & manna with seeds and left her an ounce of Elixer propt," February 7, 1791.
She bought 1 oz. from Dr. Colman, October 6, 1794.
"Dr. Coney here. Let me have half oz. hartshorn & 2 stiptic Powder, pric 1/," September 18, 1786.
"Gave her son urin & honey & some Liqurish, put a plaster to her stomach," September 23, 1786. Joseph North sold licorice as well as garden seeds.
Linseed oil
"Made ointment of Lintseed Oil, Bees wax & resin" (for a child who was "scalt"), April 6, 1792.
"Dolly very unwell. I gave her senna & manna with annis seed and Rheubarb. It opperated kindly," February 1, 1791.
"At Dr. Colman's, 2 oz. spermaseta, 2 oz. manna, 1/2 oz. myr, ditto alloes, 1/2, Vial & salts, Camphr 1/2 oz," July 3, 1794.
"I was Calld out of Bed at 10 hour Evening to go and see Mr Pillsbury's Child. Its Complaint was obstruction of urin. I recommended giving a little Niter which relievd the patient," July 11, 1795.
Oil, British oil, sweet oil
"I made a syrrup for Mrs Weston and for Mrs Porter & some oil a mulge," October 23, 1786. "I had a sever pain


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in my left Ear. I applied some british Oil and a warm Brick. Went onto the Bed and got Easier," March 6, 1799. I find Hepsy unwell by being poised in her face and hands. I washt her with spirit and ointed her with Sweet Oil," August 16, 1799.
"I find Patty very sick. I put Black wool wet with Brandy & pepper in her Ears which gave her present relief," December 6, 1798. This could be either black pepper, which would most likely be purchased, or red-see Peppers under Local Plants.
Pink root
"To Doctor Colmans. Bot ... 1/2 oz. pink root /4 1/2" August 5, 1793- "Son Jonathan's son is better. Has had a Number of Large worms past from him, after takeing the Pink root, & senna after it," August 12, 1793.
"Dolly is very unwell. I gave her senna & manna with annis seed and Rhubarb. It opperated kindly," February 1, 1791.
Scraped horn
"I drest Manlys wound. Aplyd an Egg cataplasm & scraped horn," June 2, 1789.
"I gave her senna and it opperated twice with the assistance of Clisters," November 3, 1795. See also Elixir proprietas, Manna.
Spanish flies
"Sister is very unwel. I sent for flies to draw a blister," April 18, 1810.
"Went to Doct Colmans. Bot 1/2 lb. spermaseta @ 2/, 1 oz Dragons Blood 1/6; 2 oz. of manna 2/; 1 nutmegg 1/. Paid 6/ in Cash," October 5, 1793.
Styptic powder
"Mr Wicsom here the morn for advise, his wife being in Dangerous circumstances. I sent her a steptic powder which he gave her, it gave relief. I went myself, left her some things to take," January 10, 1791. See also Hartshorn.
"An ox trod on Mr Ballard's foot & Lamd it very much. I Batht it with Camphor & turpentine," September 1, 1787.


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"I was at Mr Densmores to see his Daughter Dorcas, who has a soar throat. We gave her Cold Water root Tea & a fue drops Viteral," June 14, 1794.




Dressed burns with "an ointment of Lintseed Oil, Bees wax, & resin," April 6, 1792.
Used intemally and externally. "Very unwell. I tried to take a swett Last night but could not. This night went into a warm Bed, Drank some hott Brandy tody. Swet a little," November 8, 1785. "Calld Lydia up in the night. Shee applyed poultises to my feet and warm Brandy to my head with hot flannell," April 11, 1803. See Pepper.
"I gave him a Portion of Rhubarb. We kill a Chikin, made some Broth," September 24, 1786.
Cat's blood
"He has the shingles. We bled a Catt & applid the Blood which gave him Relief," October 13, 1786.
Cow's milk
"Mrs. Pitts rose about an hour by sun in the mom, went out & milkt the last milk from the Cow into her mouth & swallowed it," July 23, 1794. See also Salt.
James Andrews "has a swelling on his right side. Applied a Cataplasm made of the yolk of an Egg, Honey & flower," June 29, 1789.
See Egg.
"Ephraim's Mare is Lambed. Put honney & Camphor onto the wound," January 30, 1802. See also Egg, Licorice under Purchased Medicines, and Saffron under Local Plants.
Indian meal (cornmeal)
"Dresst the bums with poullises Of 3 pt rhum, oinions, and indien meal" January 6, 1801. (May have been prescribed by Dr. Cony or Dr. Colman).


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Linseed oil
See Beeswax.
"Mr Chamberlin Calld me to see a wound his daughter Polly had on her right Legg. I dresst it with lint & spirrit," October 14, 1790.
See Beeswax.
"At my sons. His little son Burnt his head. We applied Rhum & salt," January 30, 1793. See also Indian meal.
In a postpartum case, Martha "administered a clister of milk, water & salt" and, the same day, "Calld at Mr. Savages. Gave Nancy a dose of salt & water which Causd her to puke. Shee threw up two worms and seemd Easier," April 5, 1790. See Also Rum.
"[She] was seisd with pukeing & a disentery attended with severe pain in her stomach. I gave her some annis seed decoction with manna dissolved therein and afterwards 4 soap pills which Expelld thee wind & gave relief," August 8, 1790. Thacher believed soap should only be used as a vehicle for other ingredients, noting that common people had "erroneous notions of its medical virtues."
See Lint.
See Licorice under Purchased Medicines.
"Doctor Emerson calld to see it [a dying child]. We rubd it with vinegar. Gave blisters," May 31, 1788. See also Golden thread under Local Plants.
"My left knee is sweld & painful. Hannah Ballard brot me spirrit to Baith it with. I applied black wool allso " June 7, 1809. See also Pepper under Purchased Medicines.


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Bibliography for Pages 353-363
  • Meyer, Clarence. American Folk Medicine. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973.
  • Potterton, David, ed. Culpeper's Color Herbal (New York: Sterling, 1983).
  • Smith, E. The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion, 15th ed. (London, 1753, fascsimile, London: Literary Services, and Production Limited, 1968).
  • Thacher, James. The American New Dispensatory (Boston, 1810).


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