SNAKE OIL REVISITED: PLANT MEDICINES IN AMERICAN HISTORY – Thursday June 1, 2017, 7:30 pm – Takoma Park Community Center, 7500 Maple Avenue
Sometime in the 1990s, I went with a friend to a workshop on making medicine from plants. I was already a gardener, and while I was not about to renounce Big Pharma, a bad experience with an antibiotic and a good one with an herbal product had opened me to alternatives. I knew I didn’t want to depend on store clerks’ recommendations and manufacturers’ PR, and the idea of making medicine seemed kind of exciting.
I left the workshop with burdock and echinacea tinctures and comfrey salve, and with a new pastime. Ever since, I have been growing medicinal plants in my shady backyard and making medicine with them, as well as with plants I buy from farmers with sunny fields.
As a historian, I had an “aha” moment that day. The teacher explained that different solvents – alcohol, oil, water, vinegar, glycerine – extract different chemical constituents (and different amounts of them) from plants. Alcohol is particularly useful: it extracts a broad range of constituents, and preserves the extraction. I had learned the standard story about the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, that it was a first step in cracking down on quack remedies known as patent medicines, which were formulated with lots of alcohol and “worked” only by getting people drunk. It now appeared that there was a legitimate reason for the alcohol. What if people in the past actually took those medicines by the spoonful, and what if, like the herbal tincture I’d tried, they worked?
As I have become more knowledgeable about medicinal plants, my first-level medical choices have diversified. I still go to doctors, and during the years I’ve been working on this topic, I have had reason to be deeply grateful to contemporary medicine. But it’s not my first response to every mishap or symptom.
Meanwhile, my historical interest has broadened beyond an alternative account of patent medicines. I’ve learned that herbal medicine was as big a business for the Shakers as their famous furniture. I’ve studied the many papers left by Calvin Cowles, a North Carolina merchant who collected roots and flowers from general stores and shipped them to northern drug companies until the Civil War made commerce impossible. I’ve read every issue of The Herb Grower, a magazine that helped to keep herbal lore alive during the 1950s, when doctors disparaged herbs and even chefs ignored them.
My approach developed from my earlier books, which examine a fundamental transition in American daily experience as factory-made products transformed human relationships to the material world, turning producers into consumers. Never Done studies housework as the work of women and as economic activity; Satisfaction Guaranteed examines the creation of markets for household products; Waste and Want investigates household reuse and disposal. All three concern the interface between private and public, the economic relationships of households and the domestic consequences of economic activity.
A Historical Herbal, too, looks at everyday life, and the historical trends that affect our intimate relationships and routines. It will offer new approaches to the commercialization of household labor, the centrality of medicines to the history of advertising, and the activities of country merchants and their wholesalers. Professional control over diagnosis and prescription distinguished medicines from other products; medicalization is a particular form of commodification, substituting professional care for self-care and the care of family members. The project has complicated my analysis of the producer-to-consumer transition, by taking account of the concurrent triumph of science, and of changing relationships to nature and the body.
Knowledge about medicinal herbs has long been disseminated by written information, above all in herbals — books that describe individual plants and offer advice on gathering, growing, preserving, and using them. My title pays homage to those books, and my chapters, like theirs, will be framed by particular plants, which I’ve chosen in order to tell a broader story. I hope in this way to help readers think about the complicated relationships that people of industrial cultures have with all kinds of plants.