Medicinal Drinks and Ptisans to Restore Health

Medicinal drinks and ptisans were popular home prepared medicines used to create or treat diseases and illnesses ranging from digestion issues, sore throats, and consumption to dropsy. A variety of cereals, herbs, seeds, spices, and even lichens were used to create them.

The Dying Patient or Doctor's Last Fee by Thomas Rowlandson, Public Domain

“The Dying Patient or Doctor’s Last Fee” by Thomas Rowlandson. Public domain.

Among the medicinal drinks of earlier times were nourishing concotions, known as ptisans. Ptisans, such as gruel, were also used for invalids or those with delicate constitutions. Gruel was thinner than porridge and its consistency or thickness was supposed to be proportionate to the disease for which it was being taken. It was reported to be most beneficial and possess all the necessary nutritive qualities for health but required “long, continuous cooking.”

To cook gruel properly it was suggested a double boiler be used and then it be strained through a sieve and reheated before serving. There were numerous types of gruels, including arrowroot, barley, egg, farina, flour, gluten, graham, Indian meal, oatmeal, and raisin. Typical gruel called for a tablespoon of groats, a wine glass of cold water, and a pint of boiling water. This mixture was placed over a fire and constantly stirred for ten minutes. Sometimes butter, cream, milk, salt, or sugar were added. In addition, they were also ptisan infusions, such as sweetened barley water.

Many people used them to relieve or cure illnesses. For instance, Napoleon Bonaparte once had a cough at Longwood and to treat it he drank an orange-leaf ptisan. There was also this report about him having used another ptisan successfully:

“The ‘Imperial ptisan’ which Corvisart prepared for Napoleon I, who sought his advice during the German campaign for an eczema of the neck which troubled him about wearing his uniform, [proved effective]. … The German physician whom Napoleon at first consulted was opposed to the rapid cure of eczema, affirming that its suppression might have grave consequences. The emperor, pressed by the military campaign which he was conducting with his usual vigor, did not follow the advice of the German physician, but that of Corvisart … The Triumph of Corvisart was complete, and the emperor’s rash disappeared.”[1]

Napoleon Bonaparte. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

There was also the syrupy like gruel dish called “Caudle.” It was given to convalescents or to women who had given birth because it was thought to be extra nourishing. It consisted of warm ale or wine that was thickened with gruel or bread, along with eggs, spices, and sugar. Jane Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, had a cat that gave birth and she had her mother decided to drink caudle in celebration. Her father mentioned caudle in a letter dated 8 April 1771:

“I should have been very Happy to have been at the lying-in of your Cat, could I have been transported thither and back again in one day, but I do not wish it for the sake of the Caudle, tho’ I believe it was good, but for the happiness of seeing you and Mama in Health and good spirits.”[2]  

Eliza de Feuillide. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When a simple, unflavored, and unsweetened barley water was needed, such as when a person was suffering from a fever, stomach issues, lung problems, or hemorrhaging, it became “medicinal by adding … half a drachm of powdered nitre to each pint.”[3] When patients ate and drank the gruel or barley, it was noted that “like all … foods, [they] should be retained in the mouth for proper insalivation, and it is well to eat them with wafers or some hard food, when solid food is allowed.”[4]

Beside ptisans and gruel one of the more popular medicinal drinks was tea. It was created using two different methods, either infusion or decoction. An infusion involved extracting chemical compounds or flavors from plant material in a solvent such as water, oil, or alcohol, whereas a decoction involved boiling plant material or percolating it the same way a person would prepare coffee.

To create a proper infused tea, it was suggested the following method was frequently used:

“First, scald the inside of the tea-pot with about half a pint of boiling water, and at the end of two minutes, pour this out, and immediately put the tea in, and close the lid, in order that the steam may penetrate through the curled-up leaves; at the end of two minutes, add about half a pint of boiling water; and when the tea has, as it is familiarly termed, stood for about three minutes, fill up the tea-pot, and pour out a well-made cup of tea.”[5]

Almost everyone took medicinal drinks when they were ill. For example, after Napoleon’s wife Josephine became sickly and weak while he was busy with his Egyptian campaign, she stayed in bed for two weeks and followed orders:

“Doctors drew blood from her veins and applied leeches to her wrists, prescribed medicinal drinks, ordered compresses made from boiled potatoes strapped to her limbs. Adopting a remedy centuries old, they ordered a sheep killed and wrapped Josephine in its fleecy skin.”[6]

Empress Josephine in 1804. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Exactly what medicinal drinks Josephine took was unclear. However, medicinal drinks could be teas or infusions and they could be created from a variety of flowers or plants as they reportedly cured a variety of problems:

  • Dandelion tea was said to be “efficacious in bilious affections, and [was] also much approved of in the treatment of dropsy.”[7]
  • Hops tea created with hop flowers and hot water was used by fasting patients to improve their appetite by strengthening the digestive organs.
  • Lime flower tea involved one pint boiling water to an ounce of lime-flowers and was known in the UK as Tilia. It could be sweetened with honey and offered antispasmodic qualities and was claimed to be “beneficial when administered for hysteria.”[8]
  • Orange flower tea was noted to be a tonic and function as an “antispasmodic, stomachic, tonic, a febrifuge, vermifuge, and sudorific.”[9]
  • An infusion of roses was something that people drank cold to help “certain cases of debility common to females,”[10] as well as pulmonary diseases.
  • Another flower tea was violet tea. It relied on one teaspoon of dried violets and one pint of boiling water. This tea was reported to assuage pain, “soothe the system when suffering under attacks of bronchitis, eruptive, fevers, chronical catarrhs, etc.”[11]
Hops for medical drinks

Hops. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Herbs or spices made into infusions or tea were also claimed to improve or cure a variety of health issues:

  • Chamomile tea was said to strengthen the digestive organs and “dispel dyspepsia.” Apparently, it helped the famous French diplomat, the Duke of Talleyrand, who in his eighties was said to eat one meal a day but “in the morning before he began work he merely drank two or three cups of camomile tea.”[12]
  • Hyssop tea involved dried hyssop flowers and a pint of boiling water to create what was a powerful vermifuge that expelled parasitic worms.
  • Marshmallow water tea was created by using the roots of the marshmallow and boiling water to create a decoction, was sweetened with honey or sugar-candy, and flavored with orange-flower water or orange juice. It was supposedly beneficial for coughs or catarrhs, an inflammation of the mucous membranes in an airway or cavity of the body.
  • Rosemary infusions or tea were favorites with “country people.” Rosemary tea was consider a tonic and an “excitant” that produced heat in the stomach that were then transmitted to the nervous system and supposedly helped with apoplexy, paralysis, hysteria, and nervous diseases.
  • Saffron tea relied on an expensive spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. It contains more than 150 volatile and aromatic-yielding compounds and involved numerous grades and was used by nineteenth century people as a powerful but harmless antispasmodic.
Saffron for medical drinks

Saffron. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some medicinal drinks were created from seeds, berries, plants, or lichens and included:

  • Linseed, more commonly known today as flaxseed, was used to create a tea for gout or asthma complaints. It used an ounce of linseed to a pint of boiling water and was sweetened with honey and orange-flower water. It had mucilanginous, emollient, soothing, aperitive, and diuretic qualities.
  • A beneficial tea from berries and fruit involved mulberries and involved bruising a pound of them and combining them with six ounces of sugar and a pint of water. It was said to make a “most refreshing drink, which contains very little acidity, is an excellent febrifuge, and is also good for sore throats.”[13]
  • Barberries, violets, and water created another “refreshing drink for a sore throat.”[14] It could be sweetened with honey and several glasses where to be taken each day.
  • Although not a tea and but created from a lichen, Iceland moss jelly was noted to be effective for consumption and “most active in the cure of severe coughs, and all phlegmatic diseases of the chest.”[15] It was, according to doctors, to “be taken warm, in which state it is most beneficial, or it may be eaten cold like any other jelly.”[16]
Linseed for medical drinks

Linseed. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although medicinal drinks would change over time, sometimes containing more alcohol than anything else, they remained a staple used by physicians well into the 1900s. One assessment of medicinal drinks at that time appeared in The National Druggist and stated:

“Sick people are not the only ones attracted to medicinal drinks. Plenty of well people drink them because ‘they are good for you.’ Verily, we like to doctor ourselves whether we are sick or well. Really, the more one considers it, the more attractive seems the field for building business in the sale of medicinal drinks.”[17]


  • [1] E. P. Hurd, Diseases of the Stomach and Intestines: A Manual of Clinical Therapeutics for the Student and Practitioner (New York: W. Wood, 1886), p. 294.
  • [2] D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’ (London: The British Library, 2002), p. 28.
  • [3] R. K. Philip, The Dictionary of Medical and Surgical Knowledge (London: Houlston & Wright, 1864), p. 252.
  • [4] E.E.E. Kellogg and E. E. Kellogg, Science in the Kitchen: Wholesome Recipes (Chicago: Modern Medicine Publishing Company, 1893), p. 421.
  • [5] C. E. Francatelli, The Cook’s Guide, and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant (London: Richard Bentley, 1862), p. 451.
  • [6] C. Erickson, Josephine: A Life of the Empress (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), p. 187.
  • [7] C. E. Francatelli, The Cook’s Guide, and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant (London: R. Bentley, 1867), p. 448.
  • [8] C. E. Francatelli. 1862, p. 446,
  • [9] C. E. Francatelli. 1867, p. 448.
  • [10] C. E. Francatelli. 1862, p. 447,
  • [11] Ibid., p. 446.
  • [12] Fraser’s Magazine v. 104 (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1881), p. 765.
  • [13] C. E. Francatelli. 1867, p. 448.
  • [14] C. E. Francatelli. 1862, p. 449.
  • [15] C. E. Francatelli, The Cook’s Guide, and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant (London: Richard Bentley&Son, 1874), p. 447.
  • [16] C. E. Francatelli. 1874, p. 447.
  • [17] The National Druggist v. 46 (St. Louis: H. R. Strong, 1916), p. 377.

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