Fun Fact: What Did Nursing Mothers Drink for its Medical Properties in the 17th Century?
Due to the understanding it could support overall health and wellness, this beverage was recommended to nursing mothers and wet nurses in the 17th century in order to pass on its healing properties to infants.
Question: What did nursing mothers drink for its medical properties in the 17th Century?
Juniper has been consumed for millennia for its healing properties. In ancient Egypt, juniper was used to treat jaundice, whereas in ancient Greece, juniper was prescribed for colic and performance enhancement.
Eventually, juniper was infused into alcoholic beverages to treat patients in ancient Rome. According to Dioscorides in the 1st century AD, juniper berries infused in wine was the best cure for patients with chest pain. However, Pliny the Elder, a Roman of the same time period, disagreed with Dioscorides, noting that juniper-infused red wine was best used “to act astringently on the bowels.”
Juniper remained a favored treatment for a variety of ailments on through the centuries. By the time of the Black Plague in the 14th century, juniper was prescribed as a sort of panacea for all patients suffering from the plague. Physicians recommended afflicted patients burn juniper incense in their homes, rub juniper oil on their skin, wear juniper-filled masks, and drink juniper cordials in order to fumigate their bodies and their homes of the disease.
Around that time, perhaps with the intention of capitalizing on juniper’s use as a plague-cleanser, Dutch distillers began to infuse brandy with juniper. Noting the success of this concoction, they eventually moved on to a cheaper version that they could make in greater quantities using grain.
From this, gin was born, although it was called jenever by the Dutch. By the 17th century, most towns in Holland had their own distillery. However, the drink continued to be primarily considered a medical treatment and was sold in pharmacies to treat medical conditions, such as lumbago, gallstones, and gout, as well as more general ailments of the kidney and stomach.
Due to the general understanding that gin was able to support overall health and wellness, nursing mothers and wet nurses in the 17th century were recommended to drink gin in order to pass on its healing properties to infants.
The Dutch-English distiller William Worth was a strong supporter of this tradition, explaining, “It is a general custom in Holland, when the Child is troubled with Oppressions of Wind, for the Mother whilst the Child is sucking, to drink the Powers or Spirits of Juniper, by which the Child is Relieved.”
Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.