Civil War Medical Books for the Home

nerve connections“Medical works are generally a heterogeneous compound of vague ideas and jaw-breaking words, in which the dead languages are largely employed to treat of living subjects. Orthodoxy in medicine consists in walking in the beaten paths of Esculapian ancestors, and looking with grave contempt on all who essay to cut out new paths for themselves. Progress is supposed to be possible in everything except medicine; but in this science, which all admit has room for improvement, the epithet of ” Quack ” is applied to every medical discoverer.” Dr. Edward B. Foote 1863

In the mid-eighteen hundreds, before the settling in of the prudery accompanying the late Victorian period, people were openly fascinated by that wondrous work of God – the human body. This poem from the front of Howard’s Domestic Medical Guide (1861) bears this out.

That nice machine, the human frame!

Oh God! Inspire my mind,

That I may understand the same,

No more to nature blind.

Medical lectures  for the general public were offered on a variety of topics including sexual health. In fact, Dr. Hannah Longshore, an 1850 graduate of the Female Medical College in Philadelphia, Professor of Anatomy, and general practitioner with over 300 patients, spoke in 1859 to an audience of 5000 on the topic of physiology and hygiene, She illustrated her lecture with a papier mache model of the internal workings of the human body.

At the time, medical professionals divided themselves into the orthodox who believed in purges, cuppings, and bleedings, and the “quacks” the homeopathics and the hydropathists who believed in alternative therapies. The numerous medical guides and magazine articles published during this period for the general public reflected this divide to some extent but often had very similar poor advice for the treatment of disease and health in a world that did not know about germs and which believed that upright moral behavior was a main factor in one’s health.

Dr. James Caleb Jackson’s 1862 guide The Sexual Organism and Its Healthy Management belongs more to the orthodox group. Dr. Jackson begins with an apology for writing about a subject held in “deep-seated” prejudice and explains that he will be plain and frank because this book is for the home rather than doctors. He then goes on to promulgate the prevailing sexual tropes of the times starting with pregnancy, explaining how to raise children free from libidinous desires, and continues through to marriage as a remedy for frowned upon sexual practices and ends with a wide array of illnesses and diseases arising from uncontrolled sexual appetites, including headaches, blindness, dyspepsia, consumption, and liver complaints. Looked at from what we know today this book is the epitome of quackery.

Howard’s Domestic Medical Guide was another medical publication intended for home use and designed to be a “Complete Family Guide.” It is truly quite comprehensive, covering such topics as diet, ventilation of homes and schools to improve breathing, sleep disorders and recommendations for dealing with the passions, bathing and proper dress, the skeleton, the internal organs, the sense organs, perspiration, midwifery and more. Although due to objections from some, the plates for midwifery were left out of this edition and published in a separate folio. insensible perspiration


Homeopaths believed their founder Samuel Hahnemann who proposed that that “like cures like” and so selected remedies based on the symptoms as well as the patient’s personality and psychological state. Egbert Guernsey’s 1862 Homeopathic Domestic Practice was written for the use of well-educated heads of households. It begins with a detailed list of the different personality types and the diseases to which they are prone. For example, the plethoric constitution was florid and robust, prone to congestion, while the bilious constitution featured a deep yellow complexion, with a tendency to derangement and digestive upset. A mucous constitution was pale and sluggish with a slow pulse, sensitive to cold and subject to catarrh, abscesses, and swellings. The homeopath was more concerned with observing pulse rate, stool and urine color, and the sound and quality of a cough than were more orthodox medical men. Following homeopathic practice, for treating disease, Dr. Guernsey recommends dilute tinctures and a mild diet low in salt, spices, savory foods such as onions and garlic, and red meat.


formenting Can
Formenting Can: Filled with boiling water this was placed on the chest to relive coughing

Hydropathists, on the other hand, treated illness with the application of water both internally and externally. They believed that since our bodies and food were mostly water, water was the best solvent for cleansing the body. childbirth.

steam box
Steam box

Hydropathy was very popular during this period. For example, Susan B. Anthony was a great believer in hydropathy or the water cure. One time having worn high boots she had had made especially for trudging through snow that greatly ravaged her feet, she returned home, put her feet under the well spigot, and let the water run over them until they were numb. She then wrapped them in flannel and had no pain come morning in her feet, although her back was sore (Ida Husted Harper The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony Vol 1, 1899). On the other hand, hydropathy could also have disastrous results. William Lloyd Garrison and his wife gave scalding hot baths to their gravely ill son resulting in the child’s death, something they never forgave themselves for doing (Wendell Phillips Garrison & Frances Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison 1805-1879: The Story of His Life, vol. 1, 1894).

The Hydropatic Encyclopedia by R. T. Trail is an example of a family medical book based on these principles. It provides symptoms and treatments using hot and cold water compresses and baths, It also advocates the Graham diet of vegetarianism and whole grains as a way to eliminate pain in childbirth.

These four books are examples of the types of medical books available to the public during the Civil War period. However, even this small sample, provides a rich resource for anyone curious about medical knowledge and beliefs during the Civil War period that goes beyond battlefield surgery.


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