Thursday, May 19, 2016

Handmade History: Herbals and Botanicals

by Kate McCreight, guest blogger

People have been using herbs and botanicals for cosmetics and medicinals for millennia - even before the written word. Honey, henna, cucumber, frankincense, verbena, sage, melaluca (or, tea tree oil), garlic, ginger, chamomile, and lavender have been in use for thousands of years all over the world. Evidence exists in ancient graves holding bodies buried with medicinal plants and cosmetics, and the Lascaux Caves give us the first images of herbal medicine, dating back to 13,000-25,000 BCE.

Faith, Soaps & Love, Tea tree essential oil soap with seaweed

In 65 AD, a Greek scholar, Dioscorides, wrote Matera Medica, a complete text detailing the medicinal use of more than 600 plants, complete with full color illustrations. Matera Medica remained in heavy use through the 17th century. 

Wayfaring Art, Green leather gardener's journal with Russian sage photo
Herbs and botanicals were used for cosmetics, as well, often in combination with binding agents like Ancient Egyptians famously lined their eyes with kohl. The purpose was both cosmetic and medicinal - not only did the heavy black kohl highlight the eyes and deflect light, it was also antibacterial. Ancient Romans were also heavy cosmetic users. Like the Egyptians, Romans used many of the same ingredients they used medicinally, such as olive oil, saffron, and rosewater. Romans also used lead in cosmetics to achieve a pale, smooth countenance. Pale skin - not natural to native Romans - was a mark of wealth and beauty. Despite it's danger, lead continued to be used in cosmetics through the Renaissance.

All Things Herbal, First Aid Bar
The first apothecary dates to 754 A.D., dispensing herbal remedies and medical advice. Beginning in the Eastern world, the apothecary spread westward. Mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, we know that apothecaries were widespread by the 14th century.

Monasteries of the Middle Ages were also places of healing and kept extensive medicinal gardens. Many nuns and monks possessed extensive herbal knowledge.

Gemstone Talisman, Garden gemstones talisman

As early as the 16th century, the new medical professionals, physicians, discredited herbal knowledge as unreliable and dangerous folklore and superstition. More than one herbalist was prosecuted for witchcraft, including Agnes Keith of Kent, who was burned at the stake in 1590 for using herbs to ease childbirth pains.

The gradual push to move away from herbalism has several causes. One is financial - physicians could not gain clients if said clients had access to all their medical remedies in their back garden. Another is urbanization - an increasing number of people were living in increasingly populous cities, without access to gardens.

Mirasol Farm, Organic herbal tattoo salve
Despite the rise in chemically based medicines and cosmetics, herbal remedies were still sought, as many people feared the concoctions of druggists. Rightly so, in many cases, with drugs containing such frightening ingredients as mercury and arsenic commonplace in tonics. In the Victorian era, widespread usage of medicines like Laudenum caused opiate addictions even in very young children. One "snake oil" tonic was analyzed by chemists in 1917 and proven to contain mineral oil, fatty oil (probably a beef fat), red pepper, turpentine, and camphor.

In America, oral traditions relay histories of Native American herbal use, which they learned from observing animals in the wild. The Native Americans then passed their herbal knowledge on to the European settlers.

Bath-n-Beads, Lavender bath bomb
Today, herbs and botanicals are widely used in cosmetics, bath products, teas, essential oils, and medicines. Active herbal societies around the world promote the usage of the same plants our ancestors used for healing and beauty. Thanks to global commerce and the Internet, we have easy access to far more than can be grown in our own back yards.


Sharon Parker said...

That was really interesting! I didn't know that lead was a common ingredient in early cosmetics. Yikes!

Shelly Daood said...

Very interesting!

Kate (KnitsInClass) said...

Yes! Lead was used for centuries - which also meant that the disturbing (and often deadly) side effects of using lead were known. Yet, people (mainly women) continued to use it because lead made an incredibly fine face powder that achieved the desired paleness and was light on the skin.