January 27, 2018 , 2:00-3:30 pm – “Snake Oil Revisited: Plant Medicines in American History,” U.S. Botanic Garden, 100 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, DC
Sometime in the 1990s, I went to a workshop on making medicine from plants. I was already a gardener, and while I was not about to renounce Big Pharma entirely, a bad experience with an antibiotic and a good one with an herbal product had opened me to alternatives. I wanted to learn more so I wouldn’t have to depend on store clerks’ recommendations, 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 making medicine with plants I’ve grown in my shady backyard or bought 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 from plants. Alcohol is particularly useful: it extracts a broad range of constituents, and acts as a preservative. I knew 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” by getting people drunk. It now looked like 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. 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 dried 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 limited themselves to the occasional sprig of parsley.
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. All three concern the interface between private and public, the economic relationships of households and the domestic consequences of economic activity. In this project, too, I look at everyday life and the historical trends that affect our intimate relationships and routines.