The Cottage Physician

“The Cottage Physician for Individual and Family Use,” copyright 1893-1895, described “Prevention, Symptoms and Treatment, Best Known Methods in all Diseases Accidents and Emergencies of the Home.” Lucky was the pioneer housewife who had access to a “Complete Hand Book of Medical Knowledge” such as this. Sydney Stevens

The house of my grandparents in Oysterville was filled with books — and not only in the room they called “The Library,” either. It’s hard to tell which were the most important. Perhaps the poetry books for Granny; perhaps the novels by Joseph C. Lincoln or the books on dairying for Papa. But when someone in the household was injured or sick, there were only two books that were considered the final word — Granny’s little no-name black book and the big, heavy leather-bound tome, “The Cottage Physician.”

Throughout my childhood, Granny’s little black book was kept on a shelf in the pie safe in her old-fashioned kitchen, seldom used by then, but handy as a reference if needed. With its faint blue ruled pages and red vertical lines, this used-almost-to-pieces little volume measures four by seven-inches and was originally intended as an account book. Written inside the front cover in my grandmother’s incredibly fine and spidery hand is the title, “Domestic Receipts.”

The book contains recipes and remedies, cure-alls and formulas covering every conceivable household situation. Most are in Granny’s own writing; some were clipped from newspapers or magazines and pasted, scrapbook fashion, wherever space permitted.

Today, it reposes in a place of honor in my own Oysterville kitchen. Occasionally I turn to it for one of its 20 pudding recipes or seven gingerbread recipes and smile as I think of my grandmother’s penchant for desserts. It contains what is still the best chowder recipe of all time, and the household hints and cure-alls, if not so useful nowadays, are a constant source of rainy-day entertainment. Here are a few of my favorites:

To make castor oil palatable: Scald in an equal quantity of sweet milk and sweeten with white sugar.

Cure for Rheumatism: One-ounce Quassia Bark, One oz. Prickly Ash Bark, One oz. Wild cherry bark, One oz Dandelion Root, One oz. Colombo Root. Mix – add 2 quarts of water, steep 4 hours, then simmer till reduced one half. Take a wine glass full three times a day before meals.

External remedy for rheumatism: One-pint good alcohol, One oz. of cayenne pepper, Mix and rub the parts affected.

For a sore throat: there is nothing better than the white of an egg beaten stiff, with all the sugar it will hold and the clear juice of a lemon.

Remedy for fly specks: boil three or four onions in a pint of water and with a soft brush do the gilt frames of pictures and glasses to prevent flies from soiling them.

Ants: 5 cts. worth of tartar emetic, a teacupful of water and a little sugar mixed in a soap plate and set in a place that ants infect will disperse them.

For more serious ailments and injuries, however, it was the 1895 edition of “The Cottage Physician” that was most heavily relied upon. Apparently, it had belonged to Granny’s mother-in-law, for the R.H. Espy name is written in the margin on the title page. (And I can’t imagine that it was R.H., himself, who made use of the information contained within its pages.) Perhaps the book was given to young Helen Richardson Espy when she arrived as a young mother in Oysterville in 1902 — long after her in laws had much need of it.

It is a formidable book. It measures 6½ inches wide by 8½ tall by 2 inches thick, weighs 2.15 pounds and contains 646 pages with nearly 200 illustrations and, according to the title page is “The Complete Hand Book of Medical Knowledge for the Home.” Between its leather covers, “The Cottage Physician” contains 46 chapters dealing with topics as disparate as “Detecting Approaching Disease,” “Antidotes for Remedies, How to Neutralize Overdoses,” and “Side Talks with Young Men and Young Women.” Furthermore, lest the reader be unfamiliar with “the anatomy of the human body,” detailed drawings of the nervous system, the bones, the generative organs and numerous other bodily parts and functions are provided.

For much of my life, the book sat handily on one of the library shelves right beside the Medicine Chest — a small wooden box filled with dozens of little bottles, each filled with identical looking tiny round pills. The bottles were stoppered with numbered corks and labeled as to their contents: #11-Cantharides; #13-Carbo Veg; #29-Ferrulu Plisoph. Conveniently printed on the inside of the box lid was the list of medicines and a brief description of their use. I think there was also a small booklet with more explanations as to the number of pills and the substance with which to mix them — water, oil, vinegar, etc.

It was said in the community that my grandmother was a fine “nurse.” As the mother of seven children, she undoubtedly had ample opportunity to consult her books of remedies and apply their suggestions. My mother — the youngest child — remembered that Doctor Paul in Ilwaco sometimes called Mrs. Espy to consult about an illness “going around.” He considered her a good diagnostician with sensible answers to puzzling health problems. Though she raised her family several generations after the time of pioneers, Oysterville’s rural isolation caused my grandmother, like so many other women of Pacific County, to use common sense and the wisdom of their forebears when it came to family doctoring.

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