Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Women at Sea: Looking After the Boys
What is often forgotten is that, just as in our modern era, not every woman was “Mom material”. More than one would come aboard a man-of war as the gunner’s wife only to find that her new role required her to look after something she may not have a lot of experience with, namely children. Although popular history tends to believe that every family prior to the 1960s was crawling with rug rats and that birth control was unheard of, that was not the case. Some women were only children, had none of their own, or simply did not have the temperament to patiently learn the necessary basics of child rearing. What to do then when a group of two, five or even ten boys was suddenly looking to you to mend their clothes, comfort them in times of trouble and, in particular, tend to their illnesses? With no web search available and the ship’s surgeon, even if he were capable, busy with the mature men, the thinking woman turned to books.
According to some of those surgeons, particularly in the Royal Navy, the book of choice well into the 18th century was The Midwives Book. Jane Sharp originally offered her collective knowledge in 1671 and she was the first woman to publish such in English. Though the book’s focus is labor, childbirth and infant care, it is full of good advice on children’s health as well. Written in plain English, with none of the Latin jargoning that would mark later medical books by men, Sharp’s treatise would have been invaluable to anyone caring for mothers and children.
As a brief example, Mistress Sharp includes remedies for “Hiccough, or Hickets, or Huckets as they call it…” which she says children are “much vexed with”. She recommends dipping a feather in oil and putting it down the throat of the child to induce vomiting. Though this seems extreme to us – wouldn’t a glass of water serve everyone better? – it must be remembered that Sharp was writing in a time when purging and bloodletting were thought to cure fevers and diarrhea. The vomiting, though unpleasant, would indeed stop the spasms of the diaphragm that are the root cause of “hickets”.
Stomach troubles such as might occur from eating something that didn’t agree with him, could be calmed in a young man via a decoction of “Lavender, Fennel and Cummin seed” taken internally. Sharp also recommends soaking a warm piece of wool in olive oil and dill seed and using this much like a hot water bottle on the stomach to calm cramps.
For congestion, Sharp recommends oil of roses and “good Pomatum” applied directly to the inside of the nose. “Gummy eyes” should be washed with rosewater, while ears should be cleaned regularly with almond oil mixed with a drop of honey. All of these remedies have antiseptic qualities, particularly the honey. The pomatum, an ointment with a strong scent made from apple skins, would at least have helped to clear up a clogged nose much like our modern Vicks vaporub.
Some of Sharp’s most helpful advice also came in her recommendations on eliminating lice. Head and body lice would have been hard to control once introduced into a cramped environment like a ship at sea. Sharp notes the commonly held belief that children “are exceedingly prone to breed Lice more than men of age” and attacks the problem with this in mind. She recommends keeping heads and bodies as clean as possible including frequently combing the children’s hair. A lotion to stop the infestation should be made of “Birthwort, Lupines, Pine and Cypress leaves” boiled in water. This decoction should be added to oil of wormwood with ox gall and “quick brimstone” and then applied regularly. Both the oil and gall would help to kill live lice, with the brimstone finishing off the eggs. The herbs probably helped somewhat too. At the very least they made a potentially vile smelling ointment a little more pleasant.
There is so much more to investigate in The Midwives Book but we’ll stop here for now. Perhaps next time we can take a look at Mistress Sharp’s recommendations for labor and delivery, another occurrence that was much more frequent aboard ship than is commonly known. You can find Sharp’s groundbreaking work, edited by Elaine Hobby, online here or it is available from Oxford University Press.
Header: Midshipman by Thomas Rowlandson