In the latter half of the 18th Century and the early 19th Century, illness of any kind was not to be taken lightly. A simple head cold or case of influenza, if not properly cared for, could easily prove fatal.
Isabella Alden illustrated the point in her novel Jessie Wells, when Jessie’s friend Mate came down with a cold and died within days of complications from a fever.
Illness, disease and death were topics Isabella Alden regularly dealt with in her books; but she also gave insight into the remedies of the time. Patent medicines were widely available but home cures were even more popular. (You can read a previous post about the Molasses Cure by clicking here.)
By far the most popular cure Isabella mentioned in her books was beef tea, and for good reason. Beef tea was more frequently prepared for invalids and patients than any other curative. In 1863 The New York Times published an article about care Union soldiers received during the Civil War, citing their “beef-tea diet” as part of “their daily fare in hospital, its excellence and variety, and the admirable arrangements for their comfort.”
An 1886 article in Arthur’s Home Magazine called it “the food which is perhaps more valuable and more frequently prepared for invalids than any other.”
“When first supplied in cases of weakness, beef-tea is usually taken with great relish. It seems to give strength and to supply just what is wanted, and a patient will look for it and enjoy it heartily.”
.That was certainly the case in Workers Together: an Endless Chain. In the story Mrs. Saunders took a sick young man named Robert into her boarding house. Following doctor’s orders, she immediately began nursing Robert with doses of beef-tea:
The new nurse was ready-handed and cheerfully authoritative. She tucked a fine damask napkin under her patient’s chin, and skillfully fed him with spoonfuls of beef-tea from a solid silver teaspoon. When she decided that he had taken nourishment enough, she whisked away spoon and cup without question, straightened the bed-clothes, beat up another pillow and arranged it dexterously under his head, telling him, meantime, that he looked better already, and that he must keep up good courage, which was always half the battle in everything. Then she drew down the shades, and told him to mind the doctor and go to sleep; and assuring him that Tommy, the bell-boy, should sit just outside the door and would hear if he but just touched the little silver bell by his side, she disappeared before Robert had time to reflect on the questions that he wanted to ask her.
In Her Associate Members, Chrissy Holmes served her husband a cup of beef tea every night to help him recuperate from an illness. When she found out her neighbor Mrs. Carpenter was ill, too, Chrissy took some of the beef tea to her:
“I should recommend some beef broth for a change, and fortunately I put into my basket a bottle of some which I made fresh today for my husband. I brought my little spirit-lamp along also, to heat it on, for the day is so warm I thought you might not have any fire.”
While she spoke she busied herself in getting out the bottle and lamp, and a delicate china cup, tinted in pale blue. Mrs. Carpenter watched her with severe eyes.
“Mrs. Holmes,” she said, at last, “there isn’t the slightest need for that, and I wish you wouldn’t. If you think you make me more comfortable doing it, you don’t. I would much rather be let alone; I’m not used to being taken care of. I have had no care since I was a young girl, and I never expect any again. I don’t want it. All I ask of this world is a chance to work and be let alone.”
Chrissy did not react to Mrs. Carpenter’s ungrateful comments.
In silence she poured out and administered the beef tea once more, standing silently by while the contents of the cup were being drained again and pronounced very good.
“I can feel that it is giving me strength,” said Mrs. Carpenter, as she returned the cup; “and I am obliged to you, though I’ve almost forgotten how to express such feelings.”
Beef tea was widely believed to give strength to the ill, but by the 1880s the medical community began to frown on it as a cure.
“Beef tea is a stimulant rather than a food. A person may be hungered to death on it,” declared J. Milner Fothergill, M.D., in an 1880 paper to the Royal College of Physicians in London.
But by that time, belief in the healing powers of beef tea was deeply entrenched in public lore, helped in large part by the manufacturers of beef extracts. The products were a boon to homemakers, since making beef tea in the kitchen was time consuming and wasteful (a pound of beef yielded barely a pint of tea.)
This 1896 trade card for Armour’s Extract of Beef promotes the product’s use in making soups.
But in other ads, the same company also promised health benefits to people who used their product, as this 1895 magazine ad shows:
In the 1860s a whiskey distiller in Cincinnati, Ohio began producing a “tonic elixir and liquid extract of beef” they claimed could cure “female diseases,” indigestion, and weaknesses of all kinds.
American companies like Cudahy Packing Company and Armour & Company—which originally manufactured beef products to make broths, soups, and gravies—boosted their sales by claiming healing properties in their products.
Johnston’s Fluid Beef, which originated in Scotland, took great care to publish testimonials in America that strengthened their health claims:
Soon other companies like Liebig Company followed suit. They promised good health, strength and vitality to individuals who consumed their product.
Bovril, a British product developed by Johnston’s Fluid Beef of Scotland, didn’t promise simply to cure American consumers of disease. They went one step further and promised to prevent disease.
Bovril’s advertising to Americans typically featured images that reinforced their claims of strength, vitality and energy. Strong, charging bulls, healthy, masculine men and beautiful, energetic women graced Bovril’s advertisements.
And this ad conveyed a subliminal message that if Bovril was used in hospitals throughout the world, the product’s health claims must be true.
Today Bovril is still marketed around the world, although the company no longer makes inflated health claims based on dubious scientific testimony. The product has a loyal following, particularly among fans of football (that’s soccer to us in America), who take it along as a hot drink to sip while cheering on their favorite team on chilly mornings.