Home Remedies


Although Philadelphia has been a premier city for medical innovation since the mid-eighteenth century, the diverse peoples of the region also have used home remedies to heal themselves. Home remedies preserve traditional domestic healthcare practices, and they have persisted into the twenty-first century as part of alternative medicine and mainstream scientific therapies. Medical recipes often circulate by word of mouth, making this vernacular culture difficult to recover. Remedies in manuscript, print, and online sources provide clues to centuries of self-healing activities.

A color political cartoon of a skeleton in doctor's uniform holding a knife and a medical bill in front of a patient's bleeding arm
Medical treatments in the eighteenth and nineteenth century often included bleeding and other purgative methods. The inefficacy of these treatments led to the popularity of home remedies. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

In the early colonial period, the scarcity of formally trained physicians, even in Philadelphia, made domestic medical skills particularly valuable. Healing was among Euro-American women’s household duties, and families passed down home remedies between generations. Colonists used their skills in herb gardening, cooking, and distilling to create medicines. A manuscript recipe book compiled by Philadelphia Quaker Catherine Haines (1761–1809) attests to the diversity of ailments treated at home. Haines used common culinary herbs such as thyme, cloves, and mint in her remedies, as well as chemical ingredients such as mercury and alcohol. Those practicing self-care and formally educated physicians shared similar medical worldviews.

Although early Swedish and English settlers imported Old World remedies to the region, they also sought American Indians’ expert knowledge in curing wounds, snakebites, and fractures. Scandinavian settlers and travelers, such as Andreas Hesselius (1677–1733) and Pehr Kalm (1716–79), remarked on the efficacy of American Indian cures. Philadelphian John Bartram (1699–1777), a prominent self-taught botanist and self-healer, compiled and published botanical remedies, including medical recipes from Native Americans. Colonists also valued African American healthcare expertise. In the 1750s, Philadelphia-area newspapers published “Caesar’s Cure” for snakebite and poisoning developed by an enslaved man who gained his freedom by revealing his remedy, which used sassafras and herbs. In the nineteenth century, Philadelphia and West Jersey residents sought home remedies from James Still, a self-taught African American herbalist and doctor from Burlington County, New Jersey.

A color print of the label of a modern bottle of Dr. Physick Soda showing portrait of Dr. Physick
Dr. Philip Syng Physick, a Philadelphia-based surgeon, developed the nation’s first artificially carbonated soda pop as a treatment for stomach ailments. (Dr. Physick, Soda’s Pop)

Mid-Atlantic colonists also incorporated a European culture of self-help medical consumerism. A flourishing market in proprietary medicines, such as Daffy’s Elixir and Turlington’s Balsam of Life, allowed colonists to purchase manufactured remedies for home use. Benjamin (1706–90) and Deborah (1708–74) Franklin advertised and sold her mother’s salve for scabies at their print shop into the 1740s. By the early nineteenth century, both German- and English-speaking newspapers were awash with advertisements for store-bought remedies. Some physicians leveraged this lucrative market. In 1807, Dr. Philip Syng Physick (1768–1837) introduced and marketed his artificially carbonated soda water—the precursor of soda pop drinks—for gastrointestinal problems. Despite the popularity of these cures, the pharmaceutical market was unregulated, with no guarantees regarding safety or efficacy.

The market for self-help pharmaceuticals bolstered the trade in popular home-health manuals that educated readers in self-diagnosis and treatment. Every Man His Own Doctor: or the Poor Planter’s Physician (2nd ed., 1734) offered “plain and easy means for persons to cure themselves” using inexpensive local herbs. Benjamin Franklin reprinted this manual in seven editions, to benefit the people living in the “unhealthy climate” of the Philadelphia region. The copying of medical recipes in printed manuals into families’ home recipe manuscripts reflected the widespread circulation of self-help health information.

German immigrants to the greater Philadelphia area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shared their own home remedies. Between 1762 and 1777, the Germantown apothecary Christopher Sauer (1721–84) authored and published, in German, the first American herbal, The Compendious Herbal. Some Pennsylvania Germans developed a healing culture called “Pow-wow” or “braucherei.” In his 1820 book Pow-wows; or, Long Lost Friend, Johann Georg Hohman described home remedies comprised of herbs, charms, chants, and prayers that channeled God’s healing power. German Americans continued to practice Pow-wow in the twenty-first century, particularly in Berks and Lancaster Counties.

a text-only advertisement for The Pocket Æsculapius, a book of home remedies, with the tagline
Books of home remedies were published in the city and advertised in local publications. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

A renewed popular health movement developed in the 1830s as a backlash against the mercury-based purging therapies advocated by Philadelphia physicians such as Benjamin Rush (1746–1814). Journals such as the Philadelphia Botanic Sentinel attest to the local appeal of the Thomsonian botanical movement, which emphasized herbal home remedies that facilitated nature’s curative powers. Home health handbooks remained popular throughout the nineteenth century. Cookbooks, such as Domestic Cookery (1845) by Elizabeth Ellicott Lea (1793–1858), and manuscript recipe books, like that of Philadelphia Quaker Ellen Emlen (1814–1900), continued to incorporate home remedies for a variety of illnesses, including burns, rheumatism, and deafness. At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires (1851–1937) advertised his health drink, Hires Root Beer, which allegedly soothed the nerves and revitalized the blood. In Philadelphia’s Chinatown, which developed in the late nineteenth century, stores sold home medical manuals and proprietary medicines such as sha hi un for digestive complaints and cholera. Philadelphians of various ethnicities purchased remedies made from Chinese ginseng and other herbs.

A color photograph of ginseng root hanging to dry in a window above potted flowers
Ginseng is used extensively in traditional East Asian medicine, which became popular in the twentieth century with the influx of East Asian immigrants into the city. (Library of Congress)

In the early twentieth century, the rise of hospitals as the preferred site for healthcare increased patients’ trust in institutionalized physician-centered medicine. However, during the devastating Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918–19, panicked Philadelphians turned to home remedies including castor oil and garlic and patent medicines such as Vicks VapoRub.

In the 1940s, Jerome I. (1898–1971) and Anna (1905–2000) Rodale pioneered an organic farming and naturopathic medicine movement near Allentown, Pennsylvania. Despite the public’s restored confidence in scientific medicine due to the development of antibiotics in the late 1930s, mistrust in formal Western medicine persisted. In 1950, Rodale Press published Prevention Magazine, signaling the beginning of a back-to-nature and natural remedies movement that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s.

Immigration of diverse peoples to the greater Philadelphia area in the late twentieth century expanded the range of healing practices. Patients practicing self-help medicine and mainstream healthcare practitioners began incorporating Chinese herbal medicines and Indian Ayurvedic therapies introduced by Asian immigrants. Stores selling a variety of home remedies—from Mexican manzanilla teas to Caribbean medicinal “bush teas”—reflected the region’s cosmopolitan self-healing cultures.

By the early twenty-first century, websites, blogs, and social media provided new ways of sharing old home remedies. In 2007, a Philadelphia-area blogger posted her mother’s recipe for Deshler’s Salve, a remedy for bruises and wounds. The original recipe was created in the mid-eighteenth century by Germantown resident Mary Deshler (1715–74), but its healing properties were valued a century and a half later. The practice of self-care using homemade remedies and manufactured natural medicines remained as vibrant in the twenty-first century as in the colonial period, with webs of wellness information extending beyond families and local communities to global internet social networks.

Susan Hanket Brandt holds a Ph.D. in history from Temple University and is an adjunct professor of history at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Her 2013 dissertation, “Gifted Women and Skilled Practitioners: Gender and Healing Authority in the Delaware Valley, 1740–1830,” includes information on home remedies. Her article, “ ‘Getting into a Little Business’: Margaret Hill Morris and Women’s Medical Entrepreneurship during the American Revolution,” appeared in the fall 2015 issue of Early American Studies. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Quack Doctor, Bleeder

Library Company of Philadelphia

Home remedies became popular in the eighteenth century as a reaction to the standard treatments of the day. With no knowledge of bacteria and viruses, illnesses were blamed on “miasmas,” or clouds of toxic air. Treatments of the day involved eliminating toxins from the body through the use of purgatives or bloodletting, which often worsened the condition and at times hastened death.



One of the most successful marketers of patent medicine in the nineteenth century was Dr. David Jayne, a University of Pennsylvania-educated physician. Jayne originally operated a small rural clinic in Salem, New Jersey, but the popularity of his tonics led to a move to Philadelphia in the 1830s. In 1843, he began publishing a medical almanac that heavily marketed his own products, including Jayne’s Tonic Vermifuge for parasitic worms and Jayne’s Carminative Balsam for stomach ailments. More than half a billion of these almanacs sold over the next century. Jayne’s company grew so large in the years following his first almanac that no commercial building in the city was big enough for it. In 1850, the company moved into a massive new headquarters on Chestnut Street. The building stood eight stories tall and was topped by a two-story Gothic tower that housed the nation’s first observation deck. Jayne Family Medicine entered a decline in the twentieth century and by the 1940s, it ceased printing its almanac. The Jayne Building’s tower was lost in a fire in 1872, but the rest of the building remained standing until 1958, when it was demolished during the construction of Independence National Historical Park.

Doctor Yourself with The Pocket Æsculapius

Library Company of Philadelphia

Medical almanacs were very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during the medical profession’s infancy. These almanacs detailed diseases and the recommended treatments for them, usually a combination of herbs or, later, the publisher’s own proprietary concoctions. Physicians of the time often prescribed purgatives or bloodletting as cures for illnesses, actions that often only hastened the patient’s death and led to widespread distrust of the medical profession. This 1851 advertisement promises to prevent “victims of quackery” and make “every one his own physician!”

Dr. Physick Soda Label

Dr. Physick, Soda's Pop

Dr. Phillip Syng Physick was one of the earliest surgeons in Philadelphia. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In 1793, a year after his return to Philadelphia, the city was ravaged by a yellow fever epidemic that killed nearly 10 percent of the population. Physick worked with celebrated physician Benjamin Rush to treat the disease, even after contracting it himself. Over the span of his career, Physick invented several techniques and devices to advance medical science, including absorbent catgut sutures and an early stomach pump. Physick also served as the first chair of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania as well as working as a surgeon for the Philadelphia Almshouse.

Physick also developed an artificially carbonated beverage for treating stomach ailments. For $1.50 per month, patients in 1807 could drink a daily glass of Dr. Physick’s soda, sweetened with fruit syrup to improve palatability. The drink proved popular both a home remedy and a soft drink. It is considered to be the forerunner to America’s nineteenth-century soft drink boom. In 2007, a bottled version of Dr. Physick’s soda became available for purchase in historic sites and other venues throughout the city, recreated by a descendant of the doctor.

Charles E. Hires

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The first commercially prepared root beer was sold as a remedy for calming the nerves by Charles E. Hires. A pharmacist by trade, Hires based the beverage on a tea he sampled in New Jersey while on his honeymoon. Hires’ original product was a root- and berry-based extract that had to be mixed with sugar, water, and yeast before consumption. It was sold to crowds at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and eventually the home market. Unsatisfied with selling an extract that required preparation, Hires developed early versions of the soda fountain and fountain syrup. Through an extensive advertising campaign, Hires Root Beer became one of the most popular soft drinks in the nation, especially during Prohibition when it was advertised as a healthy alternative to beer.

Ginseng Root Hanging to Dry

Library of Congress

An influx of East Asian immigrants into Philadelphia in the twentieth century brought renewed interest in home remedies and traditional medicine. The root of the ginseng plant has long been prized in East Asian countries for its purported immune support and stimulant properties. It is used to fight cold and flu infections and a myriad of other ailments. Many stores in Philadelphia's Chinatown sell ginseng, both dried and in preparations such as teas. Depending on the variety and quality of the root, it can be pricey.

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Time Periods


Related Reading

Culin, Stewart, The Practice of Medicine by the Chinese in America. Philadelphia: reprinted from The Medical and Surgical Reporter, 1887.

Dillon, Clarissa, “A Large, an Useful, and a Grateful Field”: Eighteenth-Century Kitchen Gardens in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the Use of the Plants, and Their Place in Women’s Work. Ph.D. diss., Bryn Mawr, 1986.

Emlen, Ellen M. The Cookbook of Ellen M. Emlen. Edited by Tara O’Brien. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 2011.

Krieble, David W. Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch: A Traditional Medical Practice in the Modern World. University Park: Penn State Press, 2007.

Rodale Inc. Our Roots Grow Deep: The Story of Rodale. Reading, Pa.: Rodale Inc., 2008.

Rosenberg, Charles E., ed. Right Living: An Anglo-American Tradition of Self-Help Medicine and Hygiene. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Rosenberg, Charles E., William H. Helfand, and James N. Green. Every Man His Own Doctor: Popular Medicine in Early America. Philadelphia: Library Company of Philadelphia, 1998.

Sauer, Christopher. Sauer’s Herbal Cures: America’s First Book of Botanic Healing. Translated and edited by William Woys Weaver. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Tennent, John. Every Man His Own Doctor; or, The Poor Planter’s Physician. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Reprinted, B. Franklin, 1736.

Whorton, James C. Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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