HERBSTORY BACKSTORY & THEMES
My approach to the commercialization of herbal medicine has developed from work on my books, which examine a fundamental transition in American daily experience as factory-made products transformed human relationships to the material world, turning producers into consumers. Never Done: A History of American Housework studies housework as women’s work and as economic activity; Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market examines the creation of markets for household products; Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash investigates household reuse and disposal. All three concern the interface between private and public, the economic (though not necessarily monetary) relationships of households and the domestic consequences of economic activity. The history of plant-based medicine, too, casts light on the intersections between economic life and our bodies, our intimate relationships, and our everyday routines.
Medicine and health concerns have always been at the edges of my work on consumer culture. I now see that nursing is a missing chapter in Never Done, for it was an essential function of housework well into the 20th century. Before industrialized medicine, most people depended on a kind of care that has largely disappeared. Women whose primary work was in their homes routinely cared for sick people, using garden plants, homemade remedies, and the bland recipes for invalids that can be found in most nineteenth-century cookbooks, in addition to whatever medicine they might purchase. If they had the money, they sought the help of professionals for serious ailments. But caring for the sick was an essential part of most women’s household work during much of their lives. Some women took to nursing more than others, as some did to sewing or cooking, and some earned money offering their services to other families.
Like other household tasks, medicine-making was commercialized and industrialized, and like other artifacts of home production, first-level remedies were transformed into factory-made consumer goods. But this was not a straightforward story of homemade goods moving to the market. Industrial society created new relationships to nature and new perceptions of both bodies and plants. More than the companies and production processes that industrialized other housework, medicine-making operated in the new scientific culture that triumphed during the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. During that same period, the medical establishment consolidated professional control over diagnosis and prescription, distinguishing medicines from other kinds of products. Paid professional care displaced self-care and the unpaid care of intimates, and medicalization became a form of commodification. And because their products had the potential to affect life and death, medicine makers were among the first manufacturers to be subject to government regulation.
The commodification of plant-based medicine raised special issues. If we think about coffee or tomatoes, it’s clear that different plants of the same species and even the same variety can look, taste, and smell different. Soil, weather, latitude, altitude, and cultivation methods produce plants with different proportions of their chemical constituents. It matters how things are harvested — when roots are dug, how ripe the berries are. People gathering plants from the wild might misidentify what they found, or substitute easy-to-find or easy-to-dig plants for labor-intensive ones. Even high quality plant materials might be damaged in shipment or storage, arriving moldy or full of insects. All of these issues explain why business people hoping to profit from plant medicines confronted challenges creating standardized products, which demanded that every package be identical, like every bar of Ivory soap.
Treatment with medicinal plants before the 20th century — and, in some communities, for many decades into it — was not an alternative to seeing a doctor. All doctors employed herbs; herbal medicine was conventional medicine. Interest in botanical remedies now often suggests dissatisfaction with doctors and their cures, and indeed Americans have long sought alternatives to the approaches of mainstream physicians. But regular physicians used opium, digitalis, and many other plants along with mineral and chemical substances, while some medical sects prescribed botanicals exclusively. Drug exploration was an essential part of New World botanizing; isolation of “active ingredients” was crucial to the history of chemistry.
A substantial trade in medicinal plants developed to serve American practitioners, manufacturers of patent medicines, and self-dosing consumers, with wholesale druggists in every American city. Global trade in raw drugs was centered in London, thanks to colonial cultivation. American domestic trade in cultivated plants developed from pioneering efforts by communities in the Shaker religious sect. Wild-harvested drugs such as goldenseal, ginseng, and black cohosh in the Appalachians and echinacea on the prairie became popular enough to cause concern about overharvesting, long before the term “endangered species” became common. During the decades after the Civil War, drug manufacturing firms — including early Big Pharma firms including Merck, Eli Lilly, and Parke-Davis — offered many plant preparations, as well as chemicals derived from plants but standardized in laboratories and factories. Other companies produced “patent medicines” with secret formulas – many of them botanical – which became central products in the development of American consumer culture and the history of advertising.
Around 1880-1920, a network of changes turned plant medicines into an old-fashioned way of helping sick people get better. The triumph of the germ theory of disease, the institutionalizing of patient care, and the ascendance of scientific medicine transformed American medicine. At the same time, the industrial production of chemical drugs coincided with the exploitation of new marketing techniques. And people treated their bodies in new ways, thanks to artificial light, industrial work schedules, new sleep and exercise patterns, and an industrial diet.
Like other consumption habits, everyday medical practices changed piecemeal. Daily habits incorporate products and practices both old and new, and people adopt new ones in ways that vary by age, gender, ethnicity, region, and personality. Throughout the early history of industrialization, healing with plants – based on tradition, observation, and experience – was universal. In the United States, it was practiced by people of all ethnic backgrounds. As a consumer culture developed, Americans solved problems by purchasing goods and services rather than by cultivating skills and knowledge for self-reliance. Medicines made from plants became old-fashioned compared with new chemicals, and self-dosing came under serious attack.
Herbal medicine survived, especially in rural areas and urban ethnic neighborhoods, often among the poor and the elderly. Doctors were expensive–for many, the last resort, their assistance sought only for very serious illness. Local healers continued to grow, gather, prepare, and prescribe herbs. Immigrants brought medicinal plants and home remedies from the old country. Gardeners cultivated “mint for the tummy” and spread the lore of herbal medicine even if they didn’t quite believe in it. Plant healing persisted even as it got commodified, a representation of producer habits in consumer society and consumer resistance to a commercializing medical system.
Today, after more than 150 years of industrial pharmaceutical development, medicines extracted from some powerful plants are still used, and drug companies continue to bioprospect for new ones. Despite organized opposition, effective chemical drugs, government support for scientific medicine and the durability of stereotypical views of herbalism as quackery, Americans’ interest in herbal remedies persists, and they demonstrate it in the marketplace. Some of the companies they patronize began as hippie businesses, expressions of rural life and of countercultural rebellion.
Historians of medicine have described some of these topics, especially domestic medicine and the botanical medical sects. Herbstory views herbal medicine, as an industry and as a body of knowledge, through the additional lenses of consumer history, business history, and environmental history. The people of industrial cultures conduct complicated and ambivalent relationships with plants, and they have done so particularly with medicinal herbs. There is much to know.