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Mothers of the Civil War became ‘arsenal workers’, many serving soldiers

By Staff | May 9, 2019

BARB BARRETT/The Luminary Arranging a display of plants, medicinal herbs, and tinctures is Sue Sprout who featured the topic “Making Do” at the ELHS Victiorian tea, April 27.

HUGHESVILLE – It proved to be a festive and very informative afternoon, when several turned out to take part in the East Lycoming Historical Society’s 11th annual Victorian Tea held at Friends Church in Hughesville. Featuring guest speaker Susan Sprout, a very historical and hands-on presentation was given about plants and medicines used during the Civil War and mid 1800s.

To lead off the event, Lilly Houseknecht, head server and student at Hughesville High School enlightened guests with the proper etiquette of tea parties held in the era. “Purse and coat should be placed behind you on the chair, and your napkin folded on your lap,” she said. Guests then followed her guidelines on the proper way to hold the tea cup, “and the spoon is only for the saucer,” she explained.

Carol Mordan introduced Sprout, a former teacher and historian from Picture Rocks who plays the dulcimer and does speaking engagements on pioneer and colonial times. Going back in hisotry to Fort Sumter and 1861, Sprout related how 3 million soldiers fought combat, disease and starvation. “Civilians were scrambling for resources.” Medicine was low, schools were closed, businesses were shut down and crops were barely harvested. “Ministers were serving the soldiers, and plantations were sold out from owner’s families.”

Sprout further explained, “The women became arsenal workers.” They did the laundry, the sewing, the cooking, made bread and butter, sold goods, knitted socks and mittens, rolled bandages, collected supplies, and held the family together. “3,000 of them took up nursing.” Many wrote letters for the soldiers and provided bibles for them as well as books and newspapers.

“Men start wars and women clean up after them,” said Sprout.

BARB BARRETT/The Luminary Primitive medicines were used from plants during the Civil War to treat wounded soldiers. Shown are samples of some common species.

Some examples mothers had to come up with included tooth powder made of chalk and charcoal and ground myrrh. Baking soda was sold commercially in 1846 and was valued as a substitute for tooth powder. Mouthwash was made with sherry or wine and frankincense. “It had to sit for awhile,” Sprout said.

Flowering dogwood was used to clean teeth and for “intermittent fevers.” Soap wort plant was good for the laundry.

In 1806 Colgate started to manufacture soap. Many made their own from meat fat and lye. “Heated lye was used for cleaning.”

Olive oil had many applications. It’s still used as a carrier oil. White cedar was good for rheumatism, joints and headaches.

Lavender was another plant used often during the Civil War. It was a mild sedative, used in tea, and made an excellent insect repellent.

BARB BARRETT/The Luminary Before serving the tea, Lilly Houseknecht, a senior at Hughesville High School, gave a presentation on the etiquette of drinking tea, to those present at the East Lycoming Historical Society’s 11th annual Victorian Tea.

Sprout explained how many only had two change of apparel, hand woven and hand sewn. Lavender was made into stick wands to control the strong odors in the clothing. Potpourri jars were used in the house for smells and scented pine cones with cloves and cinnamon sticks. “Aromatics were used medicinally. For example, clove oil on the gums would numb the pain.” Cinnamon was a good astringent and preservative. “It was good for nausea too.” Gastric distress among the soldiers was common and often they asked for candied ginger to “calm the roaring lions.”

“The men came home badly injured.” Vinegars and herbs were used on bedsides of the sick to help kill certain kinds of bacteria. “They knew it worked for washing wounds too, but did not know why,” Sprout said.

Coffee was another resource and a crop appreciated in the North as a tonic and a stimulant. Chicory was a coffee replacement and also roasted okra seeds.

Dandelion root made a diuretic beverage that treated liver complaints but was a great culinary treat for wine and beer.

For the skin, they applied beeswax and raspberry vinegar. Mustard seed was made into poultice and treated for bronchitis.

BARB BARRETT/The Luminary Serving tea to guests is Hughesville high school senior, Cole Dyer.

The women made lint to pack wounds and rolled muslin for bandages that were later sent to hospitals.

“Plant roots have a tremendous amount of healing properties, ” concluded Sprout who answered many questions from guests.

The tables were decorated with Victorian teacups filled with some of the herbs mentioned such as lavender, rosemary, and mint. Following the program, door prizes and baskets were raffled that included the centerpieces.

Chairperson, Judy Egly announced the next tea will be held on April 25, 2020. Others who volunteered or donated were Joan Hartman, Donna King, Deanna Trick, Ann Hess, Shirley Crawley, Joani Yeagle, Gail Seig, Karen Secules, and Jacob Gray.

Committee members assisting Egly were Doris Babb, Mary Gray, Sharon Hughes, Valerie Ammar-Khodja and Lilly Houseknecht.

BARB BARRETT/The Luminary Sue Sprout from Picture Rocks was guest speaker at the 11th Victorian tea held at Friends Church in Hughesville on Saturday, April 27. She is demonstrating the use of hyssops to treat respiratory conditions.