A Statement of Purpose

Since 2012 I have been responsible for
the garden at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on Antietam National Battlefield. The Pry House garden began as a 19th century style medicinal and kitchen garden, including medicinal plants, herbs, and vegetables. As close as possible, these plants mirrored those available to the Pry Family in the 1860s, meaning heirloom varieties. Since then, the garden has transformed to focus exclusively on medicinal plants, becoming an exhibit of the flora that was employed by military and civilian caregivers in the Civil War Era.

I am strictly an amateur, with no real experience in growing a garden. The purpose of this blog is to document my experiences as I learn by doing. It is anything but authoritative and I welcome any comments and advice for a greenhorn. Please be kind!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Anti-Bacterial Herbs

I was shopping at the supermarket recently and purchased a disinfecting multi-surface cleaner made by Seventh Generation, a company that sells household cleaners and other products which are supposed to "help protect human health and the environment." The active ingredients in green alternative products like this one are very often plant-based. This particular cleaner lists "Thymol," a component of thyme oil, as its active disinfectant agent.

Seeing thyme oil listed on the bottle as an important ingredient of this very modern product reminds me of a continuity from 19th century household practices and today. A century and a half ago, thyme was a very popular cooking herb, just as it is today, but it also had medicinal and other household uses.

Common Thyme and the Chemical Structure of Thymol
In the 19th century, thyme was sometimes used in home medicine when washing wounds, a practice that could help prevent infection and sepsis. Today we understand that this is because compounds in thyme oil have anti-microbial properties and can kill infection-causing microorganisms. Civil War Era Americans did not understand the importance of bacteria and germ theory, but they did recognize strong, fragrant herbs like thyme as promoting a healthful influence.

Thyme was not the only common garden herb that was used this way. Savory was also utilized in washing wounds. Savory seems to often be a forgotten herb in today's cooking, but it was quite popular among Victorian Americans and imparts a very tasty Italian herb flavor to food.
Winter Savory

Common Sage
Sage was even more frequently used as a home remedy in washing or dressing dressing wounds. Its anti-microbial properties may contribute to its traditional role as an ingredient in pork sausage, further helping to prevent spoilage.

Herbs weren't just used in cleaning wounds, but also in everyday cleaning around the household. Fragrant herbs like thyme, sage, rosemary, and lavender were a common ingredient in cleaning mixtures for washing floors, tables, and other surfaces in the home, not merely because they smell quite nice, but because they were believed to help promote a clean and healthy atmosphere.

A Ward of Armory Square Hospital, Washington, DC in 1865

General hospitals during the Civil War also made use of herbal cleaning supplies for just the same reasons. We can appreciate today that those practices may have helped to reduce the spread of disease and infection among sick and wounded soldiers.


  1. Have you ever heard of using rosemary mixed with mint and vinegar as a product with which you would wash your hair? Supposedly it was a cure for dandruff.

  2. I have not, but it sounds very plausible. Have you known anyone who has tried it?

  3. I would never have suspected that this counter spray would somehow lead us back into the 19th century! ;)