Category Archives: Medicine & health

Detox the Georgian Way

taking physic edit 2Detox 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).

Aperient advert crop

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.


Filed under Food & drink, Medicine & health

Braving the Dentist With Jane Austen

With a dental check-up looming next week my thoughts have turned to teeth!


Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra from Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, 15-16 September 1813 about the experience of her nieces, the daughters of Edward Austen Knight:

 Going to Mr Spence’s was a sad Business & cost us many tears…& alas! we are to go again to-morrow. Lizzy is not finished yet. There have been no Teeth taken out however, nor will be I believe, but he finds hers in a very bad state, & seems to think particularly ill of their Durableness. They have all been cleaned, hers filed, and are to be filed again. There is a sad hole between two of her front Teeth.

 The next day she wrote again

The poor Girls & their Teeth! …we were a whole hour at Spence’s, & Lizzy’s were filed and lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all, the two just beyond the Eye teeth, to make room for those in front. When her doom was fixed, Fanny, Lizzy & I walked into the next room, where we heard each of the two sharp hasty Screams. Fanny’s teeth were cleaned too & pretty as they are, Spence found something to do to them, putting in gold & talking gravely & making a considerably point of seeing her again before winter…The little girls teeth I can suppose in a critical state, but I think he must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischief to parade about Fanny’s. I would not have had him look at mine for a shilling a tooth & double it.

 Poor Marianne was twelve and Lizzie thirteen. I am not sure what the filing was for unless this is Jane’s misspelling of “filling”. Or perhaps it was to remove jagged edges from a broken tooth. Image

Mr Spence was probably George Spence, dentist to George III, who had his business in Old Bond Street. He patented a brand of tooth powder and was wealthy enough to buy a country estate at Cranford and to see his sons well educated and launched on successful careers in the law, the navy and the church. “The World In Miniature” edited by W.H.Pyne (1827) contains a series of descriptions of various typical characters and occupations. In the section on Boxers it describes Mr Spence being interrupted while attending to a lady by the arrival of a gentleman who had made the mistake of trying to settle a dispute with a drayman and who had swollen lips, front teeth “beaten in” and his mouth left in “a deplorable state”. Mr Spence pushed his teeth back into place and called on him the next day to finish the job. It does not record what the unfortunate lady who was abandoned part-way through her treatment thought!


Tooth brushes looked very much like modern ones but tooth powders must have been quite abrasive and contained all sorts of substances, including soot. Various pastes and gums were also used to fill cavities and disguise damaged teeth, but these must often have done more harm than good: I would love to know what the Ceylon Exotic consisted of! The advertisements for Trotter’s Tooth powder and the false teeth are from The Spectator of February 1809, the Ceylon Exotic was advertised in the same newspaper, June 1806.

False teeth ranged from wooden ones to various porcelain and metal varieties to real teeth taken from corpses – even on battlefields. This must have carried with it grave risks of infection and Mr Spence himself wrote a paper on, “Observations on a Disease Consequent to Transplanting Teeth” in 1790. One does wonder what e happened to the teeth he extracted from Marianne!

 Dentists like Mr Spence were for the well-off, of course. For the working people it was probably a case of putting up with toothache until it got too bad and then getting someone to pull it out for you or using the services of someone at a market or fair. This photograph of a roadside dentist, with a picture of gleaming white teeth displayed outside his tent, was taken in Rajasthan, India, last year and I wonder if perhaps his ministrations would not be preferable to Mr Spence’s after all! Image


Filed under Medicine & health