Hobby and Craft: Distilling Household Medicine in Eighteenth-Century England
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Hobby and Craft:
Distilling Household Medicine in Eighteenth-Century England

Women were central figures in domestic medicine in early modern England and their role as caregivers continued throughout the eighteenth century, although they have frequently been categorized historically as “marginal” practitioners.1 In recipe collecting, however, women remained the dominant figures as donors, compilers, and consumers; their tastes and interests influenced wider cultural trends in the commercialization of medicine.2 Considering women’s identities as caregivers, medical experts, and collectors of medical knowledge reinforces the significance of the home as an important space in the history of medicine. Moreover, an acknowledgment of women’s engagement with medicine in the home is integral to any broader investigation of women’s roles in science and is indicative of the cultural and social significance of science in daily life. This article examines the tradition of elite women who distilled household medicine in early eighteenth-century England. Specifically, I address how women read and used technical manuals to learn how to operate household stills, evidence for which is found in manuscript recipe collections and is suggested in the prefaces of many printed distillation guides. As scholars like Alisha Rankin and Meredith [End Page 90] Ray have recently shown, the household forms a significant space in the history of distillation as an experimental and intellectual practice, particularly for women.3 I build on this scholarship by situating eighteenth-century domestic distillation within the history of natural philosophy and empiricism; in addition I also seek to integrate a social history of medicine with the wider history of women and science in eighteenth-century England.

To this end, I will first contextualize the significance of distillation—the chemical process of evaporating and condensing liquids into their component substances as a means of purification—in the context of women’s provision of medical care in early modern elite households. I discuss how and why the role of distillation shifted in the eighteenth century before analyzing domestic distillation as an important facet of women’s participation in science. I do so by revealing what recipe books as historical sources can tell us about daily practice in distilling medicine and about the heritage of this female-centric domestic pursuit. Yet, my framework also includes men, as they also owned and operated household stills and wrote and communicated recipes on distillation. I focus on the material and technical aspects of distillation to answer questions surrounding the tradition’s continuation: I begin by explaining the process of distillation, the types of stills used in eighteenth-century homes, and how they functioned. Finally, this article assesses elite women’s ownership of distillation knowledge by addressing the transfer of this knowledge between manuscript and print sources; it concludes with a detailed case study of Rebecca Tallamy’s recipe book, recorded in the margins and blank pages of a printed distillation guide.

Distilled remedies were produced by complex techniques and were based on a long history of specialized empirical knowledge, recorded in the history of recipe collecting and those of alchemy and chemistry. Distillation was a popular method used by aristocratic women in the early modern period for creating and distributing charitable medicine. Understanding how and why the process of distilling household medicine changed during the eighteenth century is a central part of the histories of recipe collecting and domestic medicine. Such an investigation also reveals the broader intellectual motivations driving the continuation of these practices. I suggest that distillation shifted from an intellectual and charitable vocation to a pastime which still met a practical need for family medicine, but [End Page 91] which also became an intellectual pursuit; that is, it was both a hobby and a craft that involved technical aptitude and medical knowledge.

Distilling required technical skill, time, money, and an extensive knowledge of ingredients. These requirements suggest that compilers of collections containing distillation recipes had a specific interest in distillation not only as part of the tradition of collecting but also as an experimental technique. In the context of the history of empiricism, no one type of “scientific experimentation” was involved in the creation of natural knowledge. An experiment was simply an account of an event acting as...