A Historical Herbal: Household Medicine and Herbal Commerce in a Developing Consumer Society

  • Susan Strasser
Part of the Worlds of Consumption book series (WC)


Like people in many parts of the world today, Americans before the twentieth century—and, in rural communities and immigrant neighborhoods, well into it—practiced remnants of traditional herbal medicine, understood as common knowledge. Doctors, midwives, and family nurses in the American colonies used imported barks and resins along with the produce of local fields and forests; medicinal substances have been at the cutting edge of global commerce as long as there has been any global commerce at all. As a consumer society developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the commodification of herbal medicine was complicated by both manufacturers’ and consumers’ changing understandings of science, nature, and expertise. Plant drugs were at the vanguard of scientific concerns at the beginning of this period. Discovering and describing them were passions for C. S. Rafinesque, the Bartrams, and other pioneering botanists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, while Justus Liebig and other ground-breaking chemists learned to extract consistent drug molecules from plant materials, and eventually to synthesize them. The nineteenth-century trade in medicinal substances—minerals as well as plant products—was central to a broader international commerce that sourced natural substances and traded them to manufacturers of drugs, oils, paints, and other products. And the businesses that produced commercial medicines, freely available to consumers without prescription, developed marketing and advertising techniques that set cultural standards for both advertising and drug consumption, and provided models for other firms.


Herbal Medicine Patent Medicine Consumer Society Medicinal Substance Plant Drug 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© The German Historical Institute 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Susan Strasser

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