They used to go to work and steep out spruce boughs, clean boughs, and wash them and steep them out and then drain off the water, the liquor, and put it in bottles and take a drink.  It would give you a good appetite, and the dogwood rind would clean your blood.
   -Mrs. Hayes b. 1921

Before the 1950s, visits to the doctor's office were far fewer than nowadays. Elder Canadians often remember mother or grandmother dosing them with tonics, especially in the springtime. "You wouldn't get sick so quick, they believed."   At one time, tonics were among the commonest of medicines for all manner of conditions that included "run-down feelings," loss of appetite, loss of weight, fevers, coughs and colds, and more. Medicines were prepared, commonly in the form of teas, from a variety of plants: dandelion, dogwood, Read More

They used to go to work and steep out spruce boughs, clean boughs, and wash them and steep them out and then drain off the water, the liquor, and put it in bottles and take a drink.  It would give you a good appetite, and the dogwood rind would clean your blood.
   -Mrs. Hayes b. 1921

Before the 1950s, visits to the doctor's office were far fewer than nowadays. Elder Canadians often remember mother or grandmother dosing them with tonics, especially in the springtime. "You wouldn't get sick so quick, they believed."   At one time, tonics were among the commonest of medicines for all manner of conditions that included "run-down feelings," loss of appetite, loss of weight, fevers, coughs and colds, and more. Medicines were prepared, commonly in the form of teas, from a variety of plants: dandelion, dogwood, juniper, spruce, sassafras, and wild cherry.  You may know of many others.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

No appetite or energy

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


By the early 1900s, countless medicines purchased from the general or drug store were becoming more popular than home-made tonics. Although many were manufactured in Canada (by foreign companies or small enterprises, such as pharmacies, for local distribution), innumerable others were imported from the United States and Great Britain.

"General purpose" over-the-counter tonics included Wilson's Herbine Bitters, Ayer's Sarsaparilla  and Macs Extract of Sarsaparilla.  There was also a huge market for "special" tonic Read More

By the early 1900s, countless medicines purchased from the general or drug store were becoming more popular than home-made tonics. Although many were manufactured in Canada (by foreign companies or small enterprises, such as pharmacies, for local distribution), innumerable others were imported from the United States and Great Britain.

"General purpose" over-the-counter tonics included Wilson's Herbine Bitters, Ayer's Sarsaparilla  and Macs Extract of Sarsaparilla.  There was also a huge market for "special" tonics, especially for female complaints.  The most famous was Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, though it met fierce competition from Dr. Pierce's Golden Discovery.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

During the first half of the twentieth century, doctors were replacing herbal medicines with increasing numbers of new medicines manufactured by the expanding pharmaceutical industry.  Immediately popular were insulin, vitamins, sulpha drugs, and, in the 1940s, penicillin.

Even many active constituents of plants, which had become popular in the nineteenth century, were slowly losing favour. One tonic commonly prescribed by doctors contained iron, as well as quinine from cinchona bark, and  strychnine from nux vomica seeds. However, this iron/quinine/strychnine preparation, Easton's syrup, was giving way to medicines containing iron alone. One key reason for the disappearance of "old" tonics from the 1930s onward was the tremendous popularity of "new" tonics: the vitamins.
During the first half of the twentieth century, doctors were replacing herbal medicines with increasing numbers of new medicines manufactured by the expanding pharmaceutical industry.  Immediately popular were insulin, vitamins, sulpha drugs, and, in the 1940s, penicillin.

Even many active constituents of plants, which had become popular in the nineteenth century, were slowly losing favour. One tonic commonly prescribed by doctors contained iron, as well as quinine from cinchona bark, and  strychnine from nux vomica seeds. However, this iron/quinine/strychnine preparation, Easton's syrup, was giving way to medicines containing iron alone. One key reason for the disappearance of "old" tonics from the 1930s onward was the tremendous popularity of "new" tonics: the vitamins.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

I remember if you had fever, if your temperature was up and you were hot, the important thing was to give a laxative.  With children it was called senna tea.  I had to take it.  Dreadful stuff.  If you were older it was Epsom salts or castor oil.
   - Sister Bruce, b. 1902

Many a patient suffering from a range of ailments from gastro-intestinal upsets to colds, faced not only a tonic, but also a laxative. Senna pods or leaves were used by many people, young and old, but it was the oil extracted from the seeds of one of the most handsome of plants that was the worst of horrors to many children: Read More

I remember if you had fever, if your temperature was up and you were hot, the important thing was to give a laxative.  With children it was called senna tea.  I had to take it.  Dreadful stuff.  If you were older it was Epsom salts or castor oil.
   - Sister Bruce, b. 1902

Many a patient suffering from a range of ailments from gastro-intestinal upsets to colds, faced not only a tonic, but also a laxative. Senna pods or leaves were used by many people, young and old, but it was the oil extracted from the seeds of one of the most handsome of plants that was the worst of horrors to many children: castor oil.

Other popular over-the-counter laxatives commonly contained aloes, cascara, and rhubarb.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

I've got a fever

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


Before the 1950s, if you escaped a tonic or a laxative for a bout of influenza or for a cold, cough, and sore throat, mother might dose you with a home-made tea. Wild cherry bark was well known for coughs and colds, though for many people turnip was easier to obtain, especially during the winter

Sufferers from influenza or colds might try sitting with their feet in a mustard foot bath.

There were, too, dozens and dozens of over-the-counter medicines to choose from. Think of having your chest rubbed with camphorated oil or Read More
Before the 1950s, if you escaped a tonic or a laxative for a bout of influenza or for a cold, cough, and sore throat, mother might dose you with a home-made tea. Wild cherry bark was well known for coughs and colds, though for many people turnip was easier to obtain, especially during the winter

Sufferers from influenza or colds might try sitting with their feet in a mustard foot bath.

There were, too, dozens and dozens of over-the-counter medicines to choose from. Think of having your chest rubbed with camphorated oil or oil of wintergreen.  And then  taking a spoonful of Friar's Balsam, Stafford's White Pine and Tar for Coughs, Colds and Hoarseness, or Macs Cherry Bark Cough Syrup.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

I've got a cold and cough

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


Oil of Wintergreen

James J. O'Mara Pharmacy Museum

© James J. O'Mara Pharmacy Museum


Brown paper soaked in vinegar and placed on the forehead is still remembered by many elders. Fewer, however, remember the "vinegar plant" for headaches. Other "cooling" applications to the forehead ranged from slices of lemon to alder leaves. Yet these faded as aspirin and aspirin based products gained popularity, another reason for the declining use of herbs.
Brown paper soaked in vinegar and placed on the forehead is still remembered by many elders. Fewer, however, remember the "vinegar plant" for headaches. Other "cooling" applications to the forehead ranged from slices of lemon to alder leaves. Yet these faded as aspirin and aspirin based products gained popularity, another reason for the declining use of herbs.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

The run-down-feeling—one reason for trying a tonic—was often attributed to "nerves." "It's my nerves, you know."  In fact, the term covered a variety of conditions that, nowadays, may or may not be diagnosed as anxiety and depression.  Nerve tonics and stimulants once well known, include passion flower, scullcap, and sage. Even before the era, from the 1950s onward, of antidepressives and tranquillisers, chemical remedies such as chloral hydrate and the barbiturates were pushing aside herbal remedies. Moreover changing Read More
The run-down-feeling—one reason for trying a tonic—was often attributed to "nerves." "It's my nerves, you know."  In fact, the term covered a variety of conditions that, nowadays, may or may not be diagnosed as anxiety and depression.  Nerve tonics and stimulants once well known, include passion flower, scullcap, and sage. Even before the era, from the 1950s onward, of antidepressives and tranquillisers, chemical remedies such as chloral hydrate and the barbiturates were pushing aside herbal remedies. Moreover changing attitudes and new government regulations led to the disappearance of sedative opium preparations that remained popular into the twentieth century.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

I've got nerves

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


The 1900s saw a marked decline in the popularity of herbs, before a resurgence of interest in the 1970s and '80s that persists today. With the new interest came new ways of taking herbs - often in gelatine capsules rather than as teas. Wander along the shelves of any health food store or pharmacy today and you will see a wide range of herbal products. You will find all sorts of recommendations to use herbs as tonics, to stave off colds, to treat headaches, and so on. In fact, many of the recommendations differ little from those of fifty to a hundred years ago, even though there have been striking developments in medical knowledge during that time. New Canadian natural health product regulations will make it easier for consumers to evaluate claims.

The 1900s saw a marked decline in the popularity of herbs, before a resurgence of interest in the 1970s and '80s that persists today. With the new interest came new ways of taking herbs - often in gelatine capsules rather than as teas.

Wander along the shelves of any health food store or pharmacy today and you will see a wide range of herbal products. You will find all sorts of recommendations to use herbs as tonics, to stave off colds, to treat headaches, and so on. In fact, many of the recommendations differ little from those of fifty to a hundred years ago, even though there have been striking developments in medical knowledge during that time. New Canadian natural health product regulations will make it easier for consumers to evaluate claims.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

I am under the weather

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • acquire more knowledge about medicinal Herbs and Plants in the 1900s.

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