Southern Folk Medicine, 1750-1820

Article excerpt

Southern Folk Medicine, 1750-1820. By Kay K. Moss. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, c. 1999. Pp. xviii, 259. $29.95, ISBN 1-57003-289-0)

Kay K. Moss has provided an interesting compendium of remedies and cures used in the American South from the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. These cures, gleaned from the "commonplace books" used by householders to jot down useful bits of information, cover complaints ranging from spider bites to jaundice, and include such treatments as cherry bark tonics and old-sheep's-dung poultices. Moss has included very helpful bits of information that are often neglected in other works on the history of medicine and pharmacology, for example, an appendix discussing weights and measures used to prepare remedies in the period. The book also discusses the conditions that necessitated the preparation and uses of the different cures. Overall, anyone with even a mild interest in the healing practices of this place and time should enjoy a charming hour or two leafing through the book's pages.

Moss provides a useful taxonomy of disease according to the understanding of southerners of the period. Chapter Three, entitled "The Distempers," might have been longer and more inclusive. However, given that Moss attempts to tie her discussion of the diseases to actual entries, and actual quotes, from her source material, the chapter represents a well-crafted, if short, introduction to the subject. Yet one wishes for more. Sources such as commonplace books give an opening into worlds long past. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's use of Martha Ballard's diary in her well-known book, A Midwife's Tale (New York: Knopf, 1990), for example, illustrates how even an ordinary document can contain matrices of entire cultures and ways of thought and practice. …