Updated: Aug 13
Editor’s Note: Guest blogger Emma Verstraete is a doctoral candidate in Archaeology at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Why would a person buy this medicine? What were they trying to treat? As a historical archaeologist who focuses on consumer medicine, I’m faced with this question more frequently than many historians of medicine. Archaeologists rarely have access to journals, letters, or other primary sources that mention specific products present in an archaeological assemblage—such as the one pictured below from my own research about the material culture of consumerism. Historians of business and economics who research drugstores or pharmacies, too, are frequently faced with daybooks that list the product being purchased and by whom, but without specific context or rationale for the purchase.
A photo of a typical artifact assemblage from a an urban archaeological site. Dating to the 1870s–80s, this assemblage featured over 50 medicine bottles, including vials from a medical field kit and 15 embossed bottles indicating specific drugstores or proprietary medicines. Photo courtesy of Fever River Research, a Cultural Resource Management firm that has conducted extensive research in the Springfield, Illinois, area.
Despite differences in research methods and artifact access, archaeologists and historians frequently confront such uncertainties relating to medicine use and disease treatment. Such subjects are also often considered taboo and are therefore sometimes not as extensively discussed in the written record. These circumstances place a burden of speculation on the researcher that demands acknowledgement of personal bias and, importantly, the biases of information recorded in archives.
Many cultures and communities, for example, rely on oral traditions, which can sometimes limit a researcher’s ability to find archival sources that deal with specific folk traditions or beliefs. Historically, who has been allowed—or not been allowed—to write down knowledge can also influence possible interpretations. And the places researchers go to verify and fact check information can also have limitations. Books and manuscripts accessioned by archives or libraries and institutional collecting policies, themselves, often reflect the history and the values of the majority culture at the expense of other groups . Current efforts to decolonize and diversify the archive are working to improve these issues, but such efforts are long processes.
As a small case study, this post will discuss how such biases and silences in archival sources may have led a popular 1984 article about Abraham Lincoln to arrive at incomplete and (unintentionally) biased conclusions about the Lincoln household’s use of pennyroyal, a common plant used in nineteenth-century pharmaceutical preparations, folk medicine, and herbals.
Despite the burden of speculation, archaeologists and historians can supplement traditional archival records by consulting alternate sources to better interpret material culture and craft richer and more complete interpretations of site studies and microhistories. Oral histories and cultural accounts recorded by folklorists, anthropologists, and local historians, for example, can be instrumental in helping researchers understand the sentiment of the public and discover the type of everyday “common knowledge” that rarely seems to get written down and deposited in archives.
Such accounts can also reveal information that has normally been tightly controlled by specific groups—particularly for information that surrounds taboo subjects such as sexual activity, menstruation, or supernatural beliefs and customs. Enslaved peoples’ oral histories collected by historians and folklorists through the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, for example, have proven invaluable for re-interpreting plant and patent medicine use from antebellum archaeology sites in the South . By consulting information in these oral histories, researchers were able to improve their understanding of the material culture left behind by enslaved individuals and, later, sharecroppers.
This brings us to Abraham Lincoln and pennyroyal (Mentha Pulegium or European pennyroyal). In 1984, James T. Hickey, the curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Illinois State Library, published his article “Lincolniana: The Lincoln Account at the Corneau & Diller Drug Store, 1849-1861 a Springfield Tradition”. Focusing on the daybooks from the Corneau and Diller Drug Store, the article analyzes the purchases made by the Lincoln family—with a particular focus on their medicinal applications—over the twelve years before they moved to Washington, DC. In the article, Hickey notes that the Lincoln family purchased the herb pennyroyal and suggests pennyroyal was probably used as a flea repellent, before quickly moving onto to discuss the other aliments that plagued the youngest Lincoln sons:
“Many items, of course, were purchased for the Lincoln children. Pennyroyal, purchased on April 14, 1852, was used to prevent flea and mosquito bites. Possibly, the Lincoln dog brought home a little problem for the boys.” (p. 62)
It is important here to emphasize that this pennyroyal might very well have been used as an insect repellent. This application of the herb is still commonly promoted in many published herbal guides today and was one of the earliest recorded uses for pennyroyal by Pliny the Elder in the first century CE  .
Section of the page from the original 1852 daybook entry recording the purchase of pennyroyal on April 14th by “A. Lincoln.” Photo taken by the author at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum where the complete Corneau and Diller collection can be seen.
Oral histories and recorded folklore, however, indicate that consumers also used pennyroyal for a variety of other applications throughout history—and particularly in the nineteenth-century United States. A volume about folklore in neighboring Adams County, Illinois, by Harry Middleton Hyatt, for example, reports that, in addition to repelling insects, people used pennyroyal to treat colds, remove warts, and as an emmenagogue (an herb used to bring on menses) . Oral histories and accounts from midwives also indicate that pennyroyal was occasionally used as an abortifacient when taken as a tea or powdered pill . Though these other uses are mentioned less commonly today, modern purveyors of natural healing are reviving the use of pennyroyal to treat menstrual issues and to fight infections—while also warning about the potential toxic effects of the ingestion of pennyroyal oil .
So, why did Hickey not mention these potential alternative uses in his discussion of Lincoln’s purchases? He does not provide a citation for his assertion that pennyroyal was used as an insect repellant, but the answer to this question may bring us back to the biases of the archives and the written record. While Harry M. Hyatt spent the 1930s recording common folk uses for various herbs such as pennyroyal in Adams County Illinois, pharmacist John Uri Lloyd wrote his famous reference book, Origin and History of All the Pharmacopeial Vegetable Drugs, on behalf of the American Drug Manufacturers Association.
Picture of European Pennyroyal (Mentha Pulegium) from English botany, or, Coloured figures of British plants (1863). Image courtesy of Hathi Trust.
In this work, Lloyd noted that American pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegoides) “is mainly employed as a protection again insects,” and he observed that medicinal applications of European pennyroyal had fallen by the wayside in prescribing guides—a fate suffered by many other herbal drugs as the United States moved to a medical profession dominated by men . In the mid-nineteenth century these two pennyroyal variants were used slightly interchangeably since both had similar therapeutic effects. Common dispensing guides and herbal reference manuals available to Hickey in 1984, though—like Lloyd’s tome and subsequent works that relied on it—probably did not mention uses for pennyroyal besides its treatment for fleas or as an insect repellent since the herb was rarely prescribed by (male) physicians for other purposes.
We cannot know for sure why the Lincoln family purchased pennyroyal in 1852. But the possibility that the herb was intended not “for the Lincoln children” and their (potential) flea problem certainly raises interesting historical questions. Taken in context with the other purchases that August for carminative balsam, calomel powder, and a custom prescription, the use of pennyroyal to treat a stubborn fever or cold seems to be a distinct possibility. The health problems of the youngest Lincoln boys and Mary Todd Lincoln are well documented and summer colds are common. Or, perhaps, as scholar Erika Holst suggested in a 2014 article, Mary Todd Lincoln intended to use the folk medicine pennyroyal as an emmenagogue or, even, an abortifacient .
James Hickey’s presumed reliance on traditional (male-dominated) medical and pharmaceutical sources like John Uri Lloyd limited the range of his interpretations about the Lincoln family’s medicinal purchases—especially when each purchase is considered in isolation. A more well-rounded source base that includes oral histories and regional folklore allows us to consider a broader range of potential pennyroyal uses by the Lincoln family that might provide a better understanding of their health needs in the 1850s.
Historical archives contribute new and exciting discoveries every day. But sometimes, going beyond the written record can provide potentially transformative information allowing for new directions of inquiry. As historians of medicines and social drugs, it is especially important for us to consider alternative interpretations since the archives are so often silent about healthcare motivations. Rarely, will we be able to say with absolute certainty why specific preparations and treatments were obtained, but we owe it to our historical subjects to consider all possibilities to explain their actions and medicinal choices as accurately as possible.
 Tesa Lark Burns, “Privilege and Silence in the Alice Marshall Women’s History Collection,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 87, no. 4 (2020): 690–713, https://doi.org/10.5325/pennhistory.87.4.0690.
 Stephen A. Mrozowski, Maria Franklin, and Leslie Hunt, “Archaeobotanical Analysis and Interpretations of Enslaved Virginian Plant Use at Rich Neck Plantation (44WB52),” American Antiquity 73, no. 4 (2008): 699–728, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0002731600047363.
Laurie A. Wilkie, “Medicinal Teas and Patent Medicines: African-American Women’s Consumer Choices and Ethnomedical Traditions at a Louisiana Plantation.” Southeastern Archaeology 15, no. 2 (1996): 119–31, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40713072.
 James T. Hickey, “Lincolniana: The Lincoln Account at the Corneau & Diller Drug Store, 1849–1861, a Springfield Tradition,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 77, no. 1 (1984): 60–66, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40191667.
 See, for example, these herbal guides at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/search.php?query=herbal%20guides%20medicine
 Henrique Silva, “A Descriptive Overview of the Medical Uses Given to Mentha Aromatic Herbs throughout History,” Biology 9 no. 12 (Dec. 21, 2020), https://www.doi.org/10.3390/biology9120484.
 Harry Middleton Hyatt, Folk-Lore from Adams County, Illinois (New York: Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935), http://archive.org/details/folklorefromadam00hyat.
 Laurie A. Wilkie The Archaeology of Mothering, 1st ed, (New York: Routledge, 2003), http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/51942705.
 See, for example: Barbara Pleasant, “What You Need to Know About Pennyroyal,” Mother Earth News [website], https://www.motherearthnews.com/natural-health/herbal-remedies/pennyroyal-safety; and “Pennyroyal,” Encylopedia.com, https://www.encyclopedia.com/plants-and-animals/plants/plants/pennyroyal.
 John Uri Lloyd and American Drug Manufacturers Association. Origin and History of All the Pharmacopeial Vegetable Drugs: 8th and 9th Decennial Revisions (Botanical Descriptions Omitted) with Bibliography (Cincinnati: Caxton Press, 1929), https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/002075567.
 Erika Holst, “A Puzzling Lincoln Purchase at Corneau & Diller’s Drug Store: What is Pennyroyal,” For The People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association 16, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 9–10. See also: Daniel Mark Epstein, “A Note on the Purchase of Pennyroyal,” For The People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association 16, no. 3 (Summer 2014): 8; and Jean Baker, “A Teachable Moment: Speculation, Pennyroyal, and Mrs. Lincoln,” For The People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association 16, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 9–10.