J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 06, 2022

Franklin and a “common Complaint among unmarry’d Women”

Slate just published an article by Molly Farrell that puts more light on how eighteenth-century Americans really viewed abortion.

In 1748 Benjamin Franklin was preparing an edition of The Instructor by George Fisher, a popular British book of advice on “everything from arithmetic to letter-writing to caring for horses’ hooves.”

Any American printers willing to set the type could publish their own edition of The Instructor, so Franklin looked for a way to make his publication stand out. He announced his American Instructor would be “better adapted to these American Colonies, than any other book of the like kind.”

Americanizing the text meant replacing British place names with American ones, inserting histories of the colonies, and adding large chunks of new material.

Franklin’s American Instructor ended with the text of Every Man His Own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter’s Physician, by John Tennent (d. 1748). Tennent was a British phyisician who published this advice in 1725 soon after arriving in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Franklin had reprinted Tennent’s book in 1736, adding the doctor’s thoughts on pleurisy. In 1749 he would copublish a German translation. So he was quite familiar with its contents.

One of Dr. Tennent’s topics included in The American Instuctor was a “common Complaint among unmarry’d Women, namely, the Suppression of the Courses.” In other words, not having their regular menstrual periods.
For this Misfortune, you must purge with Highland Flagg, (commonly called Bellyach Root [and angelica]) a Week before you expect to be out of Order; and repeat the same two Days after; the next Morning drink a Quarter of Pint of Pennyroyal Water, or Decoction, with 12 Drops of Spirits of Harts-horn [or century plant], and as much again at Night, when you go to Bed. Continue this 9 Days running; and after resting 3 Days, go on with it for 9 more.
Angelica, pennyroyal, and century plant were all long known in Europe as abortifacients.

As Farrell points out, Tennent also advised women in need of this remedy not to “long for pretty Fellows, or any other Trash whatsoever.” Everyone knew how a pretty fellow might produce a troublesome stoppage of an unmarried woman’s menstrual flow.

The American Instructor contained a lot of other basic advice in various fields. Still, it’s striking how, forty years before Benjamin Franklin participated in the Constitutional Convention, the successful printer deemed an abortifacient regimen part of the information his fellow American colonists should know.

1 comment:

adkmilkmaid said...

Thank you. Anyone who knows the 18th century knows that most women expected to be married and expected to have to face death repeatedly as they bore five to twelve children over their reproductive years. It's infuriating to me that Alito looks to this period as one we should be using as any sort of model for decision-making today.