Historical Tools and Techniques of Health Care to be Explored During New Event at Old Sturbridge Village

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Pound of Cure:  Health Care in the 19th Century to be held May 31

(STURBRIDGE, Mass.) – May 13, 2014:  Historians at Old Sturbridge Village will explore and explain the many tools, techniques and remedies used in 19th century New England during OSV’s new A Pound of Cure:  Health Care in the 19th Century event on Saturday, May 31. Demonstrations will include the creation of poultices, teas, and other remedies by OSV’s costumed historians and portrayals of a traveling dentist, a ship’s surgeon from the War of 1812, and a phrenologist.  Visitors can also see antique medical implements from the Village’s collection.  Details: 800-SEE-1830; www.osv.org.

Home remedies were the most common cures in 19th-century New England, and many viewed physicians, some poorly trained, with skepticism. In her 1832 book, The American Frugal Housewife, Lydia Maria Child cautioned readers to “avoid the necessity of a physician, if you can, by careful attention to your diet….If you find yourself really ill, send for a good physician.  Have nothing to do with quacks.” 

As a result of this sentiment, health care in the 19th century was primarily home-based, relying on advice books and wisdom passed through generations.  During the event, OSV’s historical interpreters will demonstrate some of these home remedies by creating poultices and teas from The Family Nurse, a 19th-century advice book written by Lydia Maria Child, during the day-long event.  Costumed historians will also be offering tours of the Village gardens to discuss medicinal plants.

The day will also feature many examples of 19th century medical history with costumed historians depicting medical experts of the period, including a traveling dentist and a phrenologist. In the 19th century, dentists were often itinerants, offering cleaning, filling, and extraction of teeth, as well making dentures and selling tooth powders and brushes as they travelled from town to town.  Others kept offices in larger towns and cities. Two New England dentists, William Morton and Horace Wells, were the first to popularize the routine use of medical anesthesia.

Other sometimes itinerant practitioners in early America included phrenologists.  Phrenology claimed that the secrets of the human mind were revealed by the shape of a person’s skull.  Skeptics dismissed it as just reading bumps on people’s heads, but this pseudo-science and predecessor to modern psychology enjoyed widespread popularity in the early 1800s.  Practitioners made their livings by giving well-attended public lectures and offering private readings of an individual’s mental makeup.

For this special event, visitors will have a chance to see antique medical implements from Old Sturbridge Village’s collection, in addition to the reproductions used by the costumed historians, and learn how they were used. On Sunday, the Village will host a re-created funeral and visitors will have a chance to learn more about how families cared for the sick during their final illness as well as witness 1830s funerary practices.

Old Sturbridge Village is one of the largest living history museums in the nation, celebrating life in early New England. Located just off the Massachusetts Turnpike and Routes I-84 and 20 in Sturbridge, Mass., OSV is open year-round, but days and hours vary seasonally. The Village offers lodging at the Old Sturbridge Inn and Reeder Family Lodges and several dining options on-site. The Village is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October 31. Admission: $24; seniors $22; children 3-17: $8; children 2 and under: free. Admission includes free parking and a free second-day visit within 10 days. OSV members receive free daytime admission all year long. For more details, visit www.osv.org or call 800-SEE-1830.

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19th Century Medical Facts - did you know?

Early doctors lacked modern scientific training.  Without antibiotics or even knowledge as to what actually caused most diseases, they often did more harm than good.

Copious bloodletting, inducing sweating, and giving powerful laxatives and emetics were popular medical practices advocated by Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) of Philadelphia, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  The aim was restore the bodily humors to proper balance.

Physicians routinely used leeches as well as sharp instruments to draw blood from patients. Today, leeches are being used again in reconstructive surgery to drain clotted blood and restore blood flow so that damaged tissues can heal.

There were many competing theories of medicine in early America, including “Thomsonian Medicine.”  For $20 anyone could buy herbalist Samuel Thomson’s book of herbal cures, and receive a “patent” to practice his healing system on others.  Over 100,000 people did so.

In early America doctors routinely made house calls. It was much more practical for the doctor to travel than to attempt to move a seriously ill patient over poor roads, often at night or in bad weather.

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Contact: Laura Chilson

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