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, February 19, 2013

Civil War Cigars and Medicinal Tobacco

Most people that know me personally are aware that while I am not a habitual smoker, I do very much enjoy smoking my pipes or a good cigar. Especially when Civil War reenacting, I might be seen with a cigar or pipe in hand.

Soon, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine will be coming out with its own line of 1860s-style cigars. The museum also hosts a special Cigar and Whiskey Night, and the museum's new cigars will be incorporated into that event. These cigars will be made for us by F. X. Smith's Sons Co., a small family-owned and operated business that has been producing cigars in southern Pennsylvania since 1863. Many of the cigars they offer are very similar to those which smoked by soldiers and civilians during the Civil War. They are made with 100% American tobacco, mostly from Pennsylvania.

As someone who appreciates a good cigar, I have been tapped as our official taster as the museum chooses which cigars to carry. It's been a tough and demanding assignment, but someone had to do it.

Tobacco growing in southern Pennsylvania
Trying these different vintage-style cigars for the medicine museum had me thinking about the diverse and pervasive usage of tobacco as a medicine through history. I thought that might make a good post on the blog for the medicinal herb garden.

Today, most of us rightfully associate tobacco usage with significant health risks. The dangers of smoking have now been so deeply ingrained into our current social consciousness that it seems counter-intuitive to remember that throughout most of history tobacco was venerated a "holy herb" with great medical properties. Early English colonies prospered in America because of an insatiable demand for tobacco in medicine just as much as recreational smoking.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, native peoples in North and South America made extensive use of tobacco and its related plants. They believed that green and dried tobacco leaves and smoke promoted health both in and outside of the body. It was used to prevent and treat diseases, to cleanse both body and environment, and as an anesthetic, all with some spiritual connection.

Spanish and Portuguese settlers were quick to discover and appropriate tobacco for their own recreational and medicinal uses. It quickly became a miracle cure, a panacea that could treat virtually every ailment known to mankind. Tobacco is all forms was applied to ailing bodies both internally and topically to combat cold and flu, wounds, burns and other skin conditions, bodily pain, constipation and diarrhea, sexually transmitted diseases, and ironically enough, respiratory complaints, heart conditions, and cancers. Even earaches could supposedly be treated by blowing smoke into the ear. In the 16th, 17th, and early 18th century, there were very few ailments that might not be improved by the proper application of the "holy herb."
An 18th century illustration of a tobacco enema device

In the Civil War era, tobacco was no longer the cure-all it had once been in Western medicine. However, it still had a real place in the pharmacopeia. By the mid-19th century, chemists had isolated the nicotine as the active ingredient in tobacco and pure nicotine often become the base of medicine rather than raw tobacco. Nicotine mixtures remained a popular treatment for a variety of skin afflictions and complaints. As retched as it may sound, tobacco-smoke enemas continued to be used in some medical circles through the Civil War period as a treatment for severe constipation, hernias, and other intestinal complaints. Nevertheless, tobacco usage was in decline following the revelation that high doses of nicotine act as a cardiac poison.

Folk medicine would continue to make ready use of tobacco. It was frequently used to treat insect bites and other skin irritations as well as an ingredient in poultices for swelling and injuries. Such uses continued well into the 20th century as tobacco was included in salves for superficial wounds and ulcers, ringworm, athlete's foot, and other itching skin conditions.

Not surprisingly, tobacco as a medical treatment is not currently endorsed by the American Medical Association or the Food and Drug Administration.

I am hoping to add tobacco to the Pry House Garden. I first want to be sure that the variety I obtain and plant will be correct to Civil War era use and cultivation.

Shameless Plug:
If you are interested in the museum's Cigar and Whiskey Night, click here:
Cigar and Whiskey Night 2013


  1. I think adding tobacco to the Pry garden would be neat if you could find the right variety!

    1. Thanks!. There are so many varieties out there for ornamental gardens and many of the cultivated varieties were just not widely around in the 1860s yet. I think I might have a source or two though.

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