Victorians relied on natural remedies, often handed down through the generations. From the use of leeches, opium and morphine, to the mellow herbs, plants and honey. These remedies often worked quite well – but there were some that would be considered dangerous by today’s medical standards.

In Victorian England, among the general causes of illness 'diseased parents', night air, sedentary habits, anger, wet feet and abrupt changes of temperature. The causes of fever included injury, bad air, violent emotion, irregular bowels and extremes of heat and cold. Cholera was said to be caused by rancid or putrid food, by 'cold fruits' such as cucumbers and melons, and by passionate fear or rage.

Treatments relied heavily on a 'change of air', together with emetic and laxative purging and bleeding by cup or leech (a traditional remedy in use until mid-century) to clear impurities from the body.

The  Victorian Pharmacist

The Victorian pharmacy brought medicine and healthcare to the general population. Here, the different ingredients for each ailment were measured out and mixed by a pharmacist. Herbalists worked with doctors, informing them about which herbs and plants would work best on certain ailments. It wasn’t until later in the Victorian era that the position of a pharmacist became a specialized job.

There were many "quack" medicines being used during the Victorian Era marketed as "herbs". 

Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral was meant to cure anything from a simple cold or cough,  and lung diseases, including tuberculosis.  
Pectoral ingredients were said to be herbs, but also included alcohol and three grams of morphine per bottle, which might cure anyone’s urge to cough, or even breathe!  Emerson’s Bromo Seltzer was very popular as a headache remedy, but the active ingredient – acetanilide – could cause liver and kidney damage.  Many doctors at the time would prescribe Fowler’s Solution (a curative for syphilis invented in the late 1700s), despite the fact that it included both mercury and arsenic.

The nature-based remedies that actually worked for many, and that did no harm, include:

Cod Liver Oil

Bee balm

While bee balm is edible it is also medicinal and was used by Victorians as an antiseptic, a diuretic and as a treatment for colds, headaches and to reduce insomnia. Steam inhalation of the plant can be used for sore throats. Also known as wild bergamot, the plant is a fragrant addition to any herb garden and its flowers can be used in salads.


Related to catnip, catmint can grow up to three to four feet in height and was used by Victorians as a tea to help them sleep and it was also used to ease colic in babies. Catmint should be sown or planted out in spring and thinned to at least a foot apart. It also thrives in containers.


Chamomile, with its soothing properties and cheerful white daisy-like flowers with their yellow centers is much-loved when used in tea. It has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, can be used in baths and in herb pillows to help relax and ease stress.


Lavender cleanses the skin and was used by Victorians as a treatment for spot-prone skin and to combat headaches and depression. It was also used as a nerve tonic, a compress for chest congestions and was an ingredient in the smelling salts used to revive swooning ladies. In the kitchen, cooks used it to make fragrant fruit jellies and vinegars and housekeepers would use lavender water to scent bed linen to aid sleep.


In cooking, only the leaves and not the thick stems are used. In addition to using dill in their kitchens, the Victorians also revered it for its ability to boost digestive health and relieve ailments such as insomnia, hiccups, menstrual disorders and flatulence. They also believed it relieved arthritis.


Used by Victorians to treat headaches, arthritis and fever. Feverfew can easily be grown from seed and needs to be grown in a sunny spot, ideally in loamy soil. They can quickly overtake other plants, so be judicious with pruning. A perennial, the herb blooms between July and October.

Lamb's ears

It was used by Victorians for insect stings and as a field dressing and poultice to make an effective bandage when clean fabric was unavailable. Grow in full sun and well-drained soil, spacing plants between one and three feet apart. Cut back flowering stems close to ground level after they have finished blooming and they will sprout healthy new stems and leaves.

Lemon balm

Lemon balm was used by Victorians to make a facial cleanser for people suffering from acne and was also used to stop the growth of bacteria and viruses. Used in tea, it is said to have a mildly sedative effect and ladies would put leaves into their handkerchiefs to sniff in order to repel odors.


Mint was used for insect bites and to revive people who had fainted. It was also used to strengthen gums, to help gout, to heal ulcers, and to treat whooping cough. Commonly used for cases of  stomach problems. All mint grows aggressively, and should be confined to pots in full sun.


The Victorians loved rosemary, which was used in cooking, and as a remedy for ailments such as eczema and arthritis. It was also used to heal wounds, as a hair rinse for dandruff, as an air freshener, a rodent repellent and applied externally as an oil to help relieve pain from indigestion or stomach cramps.


Hugely popular in the 19th century, sage was used to treat sore throats on the basis that it contains a natural astringent and antiseptic tannins. It was also used to treat dandruff and for “woman issues”, in particular menopause, and as an antibiotic, a diuretic and a culinary herb to flavor meats. It is a forgiving herb – the larger the leaves grow the more the flavor intensifies and, unlike many herbs, sage leaves are still delicious after the plant flowers.


Plantain is a very common herb which was used to help hay fever and allergies. It would have been sourced locally by a herbalist and it helped sooth irritations in the lungs, and was used to cure common coughs. It could be made into a tea.


Used in tonics


Used to settle the stomach, ease nausea.

The Most Popular Cures


Throughout the 1800s, plasters were used to draw what the Victorians thought to be "badness" out of the body. On top of a thin cut out of leather, a blend of wax and ingredients such as lead, opium or frankincense, which was known for being good at clearing things from the chest, would be spread and let to cool. These plaster shapes would then be sold for people to place on different parts of their body – the forehead, chest, behind the ears, for example – and they would draw out the excessive humors thought to be causing pain or illness. They were not plasters as we know them today. If a patient had a cough, they might have resorted to putting on a plaster, which they would warm up using warm water thus making it stick to the skin. Thereafter, the patient would have wanted the plaster to draw out as much of the  excessive humor as it could, so it would have gone on as long as they could bear with the half-melted wax on their skin without washing.

Disgusting, but....

The "Everlasting Pill"

Because of popular belief that a person could feel ill and out of sorts because of an imbalance within the body, people thought that getting rid of all the bad inside of you would cure you. 
The "Everlasting" Pill was invented and used to purge the body of ailments. The pill itself was small and made of a metal, now known to be toxic, called antimony. Swallowing this would induce severe vomiting and diarrhea, giving the body what was assumed to be a thorough and healthy cleanse.

Here's the gross part: Feces would be sifted through to retrieve the pill, which was sold as being re-usable. After cleaning it off, it would be put back on the shelf, ready and waiting for the next person to dose themselves with it. It was sometimes passed through many people in the family, and might have been passed down through a few generations

Leeches - Early Victorians believed that, when it was unwell, the body was storing too much of certain ‘humors’. One of the humors was blood. As the Victorians understood it, if blood came out of the body it was because the body had too much blood and needed to re-balance itself. Having too much blood was actually thought to cause a lot of illnesses and because of this belief, they would use leeches to suck the blood out of the body.

Leeches were key to the "bloodletting" process, and throughout the ages, have been used as a treatment for infection, skin diseases, dental afflictions, and nervous system abnormalities. Their most well-known attribute has kept them relevant in today’s medicine—leeches secrete specific peptides and proteins that increase wound blood flow, by preventing clotting. Leech therapy is believed to treat or cure everything from cancer, arthritis, hemorrhoids, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Tapeworms for Obesity - Ladies in desperation of the perfect body would consume a tapeworm egg pill in hopes the creature would thrive in her intestines. One could eat until satisfied, while the worm would eat the majority, leading to weight loss. The “diet” still exists today, with subjects seeking worms from shady clinics and websites. Dangerous symptoms included malnutrition, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, infection, anemia, and fever.

Maggots were used to treat infected wounds, because they will only eat dying tissue, while healthy tissue is preserved. The treatment is so effective to heal gangrene and burns, it is still used in modern medicine.

Quackery In The Guise of Medicines and Remedies

Quackery and The Use of Drugs and Alcohol

Natural is not always good. Let's remember that cocaine, morphine and alcohol are derived from natural sources. And manufacturers used that fact to convince you that it had to be safe, effective and legal. In alarming dosages.

All kinds of medicines were bottled up and manufactured, created by everyday people. Many of these cures contained dangerous amounts of drugs and alcohol. Put a picture of a sick child, caring mother or grandmother on a bottle, and it most likely sold.

Quack Cocaine

Cocaine lozenges were recommended as effective remedies for coughs, colds and toothaches in the Victorian era. It was believed, during the nineteenth century, that cocaine had therapeutic effects and it was often prescribed in the treatment of indigestion, melancholia, neurasthenia. Cocaine was also used as an anesthetic. It had, for a time, been sold as an ingredient in cola. Namely, Coca Cola.

Vin Mariani Tonic was made from coca leaves, and was regarded as a wonder medicine for a variety of ailments. It was advertised that it fortifies and refreshes body and brain, restores health and vitality. Two glasses of Vin Mariani were believed to contain about 50 milligrams of pure cocaine.  Cocaine was used in a number of  medicines. From the 1880s to the 1920s coca was even advised by pharmacists for relieving vomiting in pregnancy, and cocaine wool was recommended to relieve toothache.

Many  patented medicines included morphine and alcohol, and could contain heroin or cocaine, as in the Cocaine Tooth Drops made by the Lloyd Manufacturing Co.  Many of these medicines, like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, are obviously meant for consumption by children.  
Cocaine was also billed as a curative for opium addiction.

Alcohol was supposedly just used as a preservative in these medicines, but most, like Lydia Pinkham’s, contained around fifteen to twenty percent alcohol.  Parker’s Tonic, to cure coughs, consumption, asthma, blood diseases, rheumatism, nervousness, and liver and kidney complaints, was supposedly made entirely from pure vegetable extracts, but was actually 41.6% alcohol. 

Lydia Pinkham was a lady who bottled up homemade, “Vegetable Compound,” that supposedly cured “female weakness”, as well as general headaches, nervousness, and irritability.  Her remedy was twenty percent alcohol. No wonder so many Victorians suffered from the vapors, and took a little nap before supper.

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a cure for painful teething in infants and children,  a dose of which would include both morphine and alcohol. Ayer's Cherry Pectoral was very popular, and was meant to cure anything from a simple cold or cough, up to lung diseases, including tuberculosis.  Pectoral ingredients were said to be herbs, but also included alcohol and three grams of morphine per bottle. Emerson’s Bromo Seltzer was very popular as a headache remedy, but the active ingredient – acetanilide – could cause liver and kidney damage.  Doctors at the time would prescribe Fowler’s Solution (a curative for syphilis), despite the fact that it included both mercury and arsenic.

No wonder the Victorian lifespan was so woefully short. Thank goodness the initial Pure Food and  Drug Act of 1906 was enacted to help solve the problem of unregulated medicines, and it was then replaced by the more stringent Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.

Victorian "Medicinal" Addictive Drug Use
 -  Opiates, Cocaine, and Derivatives

Opium and its derivatives were used as cheap homemade mixtures, as well as being dispensed freely by doctors.. 
Twenty or twenty-five drops of laudanum could be bought for a penny. Raw opium was often sold in pills or sticks.
Laudanum, a tincture of opium mixed with wine or water was commonly in use as medicine in England. Laudanum was called the 'aspirin of the nineteenth century,' and it was widely used in Victorian households as a painkiller, recommended for a broad range of ailments including cough, diarrhea, rheumatism, 'women's troubles', cardiac disease and delirium tremens. I noticed a lot of medicines made from these powerful and addictive drugs were obviously meant to keep kids quiet and stop their fussing from teething and belly aches.

Opium derivatives were used in many patent medicines, and sold without a prescription in great quantities in Victorian general stores and apothecaries. 

The most popular patent medicines which contained opium or its derivatives were Kendal Black Drop, Godfrey’s Cordial, Dover's Powder, Dalby’s Carminative, McMunn’s Elixir, Batley’s Sedative Solution, and Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup. Soothing Syrup - In the 19th century, it was acceptable to pacify your little child with a gulp of codeine, opium, and heroin—known as Soothing Syrup. The syrup was openly advertised as a serum which would calm your infant, while providing rest for weary mothers. It was being used through the 1930's.

Opium's most prevalent use in Victorian England was as infants' quieter.  Children were often given Godfrey's Cordial, (also called Mother's Friend), consisting of opium, water, treacle, (a sweet treat) to keep them quiet. The potion resulted in deaths and severe illnesses of babies and children. It was recommended for colic, and also diarrhea, vomiting, hiccups, pleurisy, rheumatism, catarrhs, and cough.

Other opium derivatives included paregoric (camphorated opium tincture), widely used to control diarrhea in adults and children, and used at least til the 60's in the U.S.(my mother-in-law rubbed it on the gums of all of her 8 children to "soothe" their teething pain - translated: It keeps them quiet).  and Gee’s Linctus (opiate squill linctus) for cough relief. There were also proprietary medicines, remedies whose formula was owned exclusively by the manufacturer, and which were marketed usually under a name registered as a trademark. 
One of the most popular remedies, introduced in 1857, was Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, reportedly “assuages pain of every kind, affords a calm, refreshing sleep without headache, and invigorates the nervous system when exhausted”.

Women made up a substantial part of the addicted Victorian population, and were generally more medicated than men. A number of patent drugs and proprietary medicines containing opium or its derivatives, were called 'women's friends'.  Doctors prescribed opiates for 'female troubles', associated with menstruation and childbirth, or fashionable female maladies like "the vapors", which included hysteria, depression, fainting fits, and mood swings. I  believe that the torturous corsets, hormones and menopause were the real culprits causing these ailments.

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