Detox diets are nothing new. At a time when those who could afford it would eat large amounts of meat and drink copious quantities of alcohol, while at the same time being wary of the effects of eating green vegetables in any quantity, stomach upsets, constipation and feeling ‘liverish’ were common complaints. A good internal clear-out was considered highly beneficial and taking ‘physic’ or purges and even vomits was commonplace. Physic could be administered as routine, even if the recipient was not experiencing any symptoms and children were regularly dosed, although not everyone thought it a good thing.
In Emma John Knightly says “Well, Emma, I do not believe I have any thing more to say about the boys; but you have your sister’s letter, and every thing is down at full length there we may be sure. My charge would be much more concise than hers, and probably not much in the same spirit; all that I have to recommend being comprised in, do not spoil them, and do not physic them.”
Most housewives would have their own recipes for purges. A fairly standard one consisted of thinly sliced liquorice root and coriander seeds boiled in water, then strained and senna added. Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife of 1758 gives an elaborate recipe for, “An opening drink” which contains pennyroyal, red sage, liverwort, horehound, maidenhair, hyssop, figs, raisins, blue currants, liquorice, aniseed and coriander, all boiled in spring water and bottled. She recommends drinking half a pint in the morning and again in the afternoon, meanwhile keeping warm and eating little.
Most people felt the need for a combined tonic and purge in Spring after a long winter of preserved foods and little greenery. Eliza Smith has the following “Purging Diet-Drink in the Spring”.
Take six gallons of ale; three ounces of rhubarb; senna, madder-roots and dock roots, of each twelve ounces; twelve handfuls of scabious, and as much agrimony; three ounces of aniseeds; slice and cut these, put them in a bag and let them work in the ale; drink of it three or four times a day.
None of these sound particularly pleasant, but at least you knew what was in them. Purges and physics were the stock in trade of quack doctors and those sometimes contained quite dangerous substances. Even the products of respectable chemists had their perils, however this advertisment is for a product from reputable chemist Thomas Savory of Bond Street (see below).
One of the most popular products during the 19th century was Seidlitz powders, a potent mixture of sodium bicarbonate, potassium sodium tartrate and tartaric acid. This was mixed with water until fizzy and drunk. Over-dosing was dangerous, with reported deaths from internal ruptures, but it was widely used and made the fortune of fashionable chemist Thomas Field Savory of the firm Savory and Moore who acquired the UK licence to sell it. The handsome shop front of his store in New Bond Street is the only early frontage remaining in the street. Wellington and Lady Hamilton were amongst his customers and the Duke of Sussex was a personal friend and often dined with Savory. It is not recorded whether he dosed any of them with his famous powders!
The unfortunate gentleman resisting his physic is from R. Dagley’s Takings (1821). The advertisement is from The Observer, Sunday October 29th 1809. The photograph shows the shopfront of Savory and Moore in New Bond Street, now the Ralph Lauren store.