A Powder for the Cough

cough[This was one of my very early A&S competition entries. It was plagued with trouble, mostly due to poor planning that meant I ran out of ingredients unexpectedly. The finished project was an odd shade of green. Needless to say, it wasn’t a winner. I didn’t own a camera at that point, so there are no pictures.]

Submitted for Northern Lights A&S Competition 15 (2006).
Lady Elinor Strangewayes, College of St Cuthbert.

  What: An English herbal cough remedy dating from the 1570s.

“Take eyght penniwaight of fine Ginger, and sixteene peniwaight of powder of Elicompane rootes, and one ounce of the powder of Liquoras, and to [sic] ounces of the powder of Aniseedes, and three ounces of sugar Candy: mingle all those together, and use to eate it when you will at all times in the day, and you shall finde ease therein, for this medicine is well proved.”

– From An Hospitall for the Diseased, probably compiled by Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603), published in London in 1579.

 In period, herbal medicine was usually the most effective way of treating most ailments, especially common complaints. Many culinary herbs also have medicinal properties, and the prudent housewife knew both sets of uses. These ingredients would probably have been readily available in the kitchen, stillroom, or garden.

I started by looking up the conversion rate for pennyweights (1.55517384 grams) and figuring out what amounts I needed. Since there was no way I was going to need all that cough medicine, I scaled the recipe down by half. I purchased the herbs (1 ounce each, since that was their required minimum) from an organic herb shop nearby, but was unable to purchase my elecampane or licorice roots in powder form. In period, they probably could have been obtained in the wild or kept in a garden. The stuff I bought was in chunks varying around ¼ inch. My trusty mortar and pestle saved the day, at the expense of my arm muscles. (Grinding elecampane to powder is like making sand out of gravel by hand.) Although unpleasant, powderizing these ingredients is the more period way of preparation.

Disaster almost struck when I discovered I was out of rock candy. There was too short notice for me to make up replacement sugar, and the stuff I had been planning to use had been purchased in Boston’s Chinatown, which is too far away to get more before the event. It had been made from raw sugar, thus probably closer to the sugar available in period. I called around and was saved by Baroness Aine Callaghan, who lives near me, happened to be making colored sugar, and was willing to give me some. This is why it is green – food coloring. I suppose the medicine could have been colored green in period using contemporary culinary techniques, but it wasn’t the goal I was going for. The sugar I had to end up using was also standard finely-granulated white sugar, which I am aware is different from the expensive cone sugar available in period.

The sugar I got also had the additional drawback of being an insufficient amount. Rather than attempting to rescale the recipe again, I chose to make up the herb mixture and shake it together with the rock candy. Whatever stuck would be fine. This has the additional benefit of ensuring each “lozenge” has a sufficient amount of herbs.

Does it work? It sure tastes good, especially for a medication. The sugar itself helps to coat the throat. The Merck Manual confirms licorice’s use in controlling coughs.1 Elecampane has expectorant and antiseptic properties, so it is certainly a good ingredient for treating cough symptoms and potentially aiding in healing. Post-period research suggests its efficacy in tuberculosis treatments, which certainly falls under “the Cough.”2 Anise is also helpful in controlling coughs. I suspect the ginger is included as a flavoring ingredient, but it is also useful for nausea (from personal experience, I get nauseous during prolonged coughing fits).

My biggest issue was pounding the licorice and elecampane to a powder. Dealing with the different weight-based measurements was also annoying, but now that I have an idea of the recipe, next time will be easier. Next time, to ensure that enough of the herb mixture is present in each “dose,” I think I will mix the herbs in with the sugar during the crystallization process.




1. Balch, Phyllis. Prescription for Herbal Healing. Avery Books: New York, 2002.

2. T. C. (probably Thomas Cartwright, 1535-1603),An Hospitall for the Diseased. London: 1579. [Available on microform via the Early English Books collection, STC P&R 1811:5]


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