Thursday, February 28, 2013

Backaches Before the Tempurpedic: Asparagus Pills and Mustard Plasters

Like a lot of people, I have intermittent problems with back pain, partly due to arthritis and partly due to some other stuff. Fortunately, a combination of exercise, an ergonomic pillow and good mattress, and pain meds keep me going along pretty well. I am quite grateful for modern mattresses, especially after putting my back out at a summer cottage several years ago. Older mattresses were stuffed with things like cotton (as you see in the 1940s illustration on the left) or, in the Victorian period, with substances like horsehairor feathers; less expensive mattresses were filled with things like straw. Modern innovations such as the Tempurpedic, which conforms to the body's contours to give you an amazing night's sleep, was many years in the future.

In addition, the Victorians tended to think that back pain was not caused or cured by the sort of mattress you had, but by the kidneys. So they turned to all sorts of pills and potions to try and purify, regulate and generally tone up their kidneys.

There were some pretty strange ingredients in some of those kidney pills. Asparagus, for example. Dr. Hobb's Sparagus Kidney Pills were advertised in the 1880s and 1890s. Asparagus is known to be a diuretic, so it makes sense that it would be used in pills that were supposed to cleanse and purify the kidneys.

Dr. John Sargent's Backache Pills, shown on the right as advertised in 1871, also linked backache to problems of the kidneys and of the bladder. This ad tells us that back pain "is caused by chronic inflammation of the kidneys" and that like Dr. Hobbs, Dr. Sargent's remedy for back pain was in essence a diuretic. They were sugar-coated, just like Dr. Sargent's Anti-Dyspeptic and Liver Pills, which would cure you of a number of other ailments including bilious attacks, jaundice and "Sick Head-ache."

Swain's Back-Ache and Kidney Pills were available in the 1890s and early 1900s. Swain's ads urged the reader to "Expel the Poison and Make Life a Joy" and not only clear up the kidneys but to combat "weariness and sleeplessness."


Mustard plasters were also a common treatment for sore backs; this was literally a mustard powder paste (made from yellow mustard seeds) that was put onto a dressing or cloth, then put directly on the skin. You could buy them, but most people made them at home. Cookbooks that included home remedy chapters usually had recipes for mustard plasters.


Whether any of these pills and potions would have helped your back pain while trying to sleep on a horsehair mattress is another matter. I'm just glad I live in an age where you can address back pain with modern high tech mattresses.

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post but all the the points and views are my own.

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