Civil War Medicinal Herb Garden – How Mint Was Used As A Remedy
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You’re probably familiar with John Cleese’s character offering Mr. Creosote “A wafer thin mint” in the classic Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life, Joey Dee and the Starlighters singing about a dance called the Peppermint Twist, or getting after dinner mints when getting the check at a restaurant. But what is the history of mint, and how was mint, specifically peppermint and spearmint, used during the Civil War?
The name “mint” comes from a nymph in Greek mythology named Minthe or Menthe who, according to legend, was Pluto’s girlfriend. Pluto’s wife, Persephone, became jealous and transformed her hated rival Minthe into a plain looking, ground-clinging plant that people could step on. Although Pluto was unable to change Minthe back into a nymph, he gave her the ability to sweeten the air when her leaves and stems were crushed so people could appreciate her sweetness.1-3
The ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BC, describes mint as a digestive and a therapy to treat flatulence. In ancient Greece and Rome, the sweet smell of mint was used in funerary rites and to scent the body. Pliny the Elder believed when applied to the temples in the form of a broth, mint could get rid of a headache. Greek physicians such as Galen and Dioscorides thought mint kept people from vomiting blood and speculated it could prevent women from becoming pregnant.4
Peppermint (Mentha Piperita)
Peppermint is described as the most agreeable of the mints having a peculiar, penetrating, pleasing aroma in both the fresh plant and dry state. The taste is aromatic, warm and pungent, glowing, bitter and associated with a sensation of coolness when air is drawn into the mouth. These properties depend on the volatile oil of the mint plant obtained by distillation with water. Peppermint is most commonly used as a simple stimulant, to treat nausea, relieve spasmodic, griping pains of the stomach and bowels, gastritis, expel flatus and to cover the taste or limit the nauseating or griping effects of other medicines. The fresh herb when bruised and applied to the upper abdomen was used to treat an upset stomach. Its cooling and moistening effect in the mouth were often used when drinking water was not recommended.
Spearmint (Mentha Viridis)
Spearmint is viewed as an equal to peppermint with essentially the same properties but being less powerful in both smell and taste. The effect of spearmint depends on the volatile oil, also obtained by distillation with water, but is much less abundant that peppermint. The properties and uses of spearmint are the same as those of peppermint.6
The medical and pharmacy textbooks available during the Civil War describe the most commonly used preparations of mint which included the oil, spirit, water and tincture, and troches (lozenges). The Union Army Standard Supply Table for General Hospitals included peppermint tincture and the Confederate Army Standard Supply Table for Field Service and General Hospital included oil of peppermint and spearmint herb.8,9
Volatile oils of mint
Volatile oils of mint were never used alone due to their extreme heat and pungency which, in some oils is so great that a single drop may burn and blister the tongue. Thus, they were the primary starting ingredient used to make other formulations such as spirits, tinctures, waters and troches because they easily dissolve in water and alcohol. The more graceful oils such as peppermint and spearmint were frequently used for masking medicines that were unpleasant tasting or nauseating. The more pungent oils were employed externally to treat paralytic complaints, numbness, pains and aches, cold tumors and in other cases where a particular body part required heat or stimulation. Toothaches were sometimes relieved by a drop of these caustic oils, such as clove oil administered on cotton, and cautiously introduced into the cavity of the tooth.11
Oil of Peppermint (Oleum Mentha Piperita)
Peppermint varies in the amount of oil it produces. Two to four pounds of the fresh peppermint herb when in flower yields approximately 4 to 13 ml of oil. Oil of peppermint is stimulating and was commonly used to treat flatulence, nausea, spasmodic pains of the stomach and bowels and as an adjuvant or agent to improve the taste of other medicines. The dose of peppermint oil was typically 1 to 3 to 2 to 5 drops of oil rubbed with sugar and then dissolved in water. In addition, oil of peppermint could be rubbed upon a painful area of the body to topically treat pain.5-8
Oil of Spearmint (Oleum Mentha Viridis)
Ten pounds of fresh spearmint herb yields 1 ounce of oil. Its use is the same as oil of peppermint but in a dose of 2 to 5 drops.8
Peppermint and Spearmint Water (Aqua Mentha Piperita, Aqua Mentha Viridis)
Preparing these mint waters according to the 3rd edition of the United States Pharmacopea, was to mix approximately 2 ml of oil of peppermint or spearmint, with approximately 4 mg of magnesia carbonate and 2 pints of distilled water. The oil of peppermint or spearmint was first rubbed with magnesia carbonate, and then water was gradually added, and the mixture filtered through paper. Alternatively, 3 pounds of fresh peppermint in flower or 1 ½ pounds of fresh spearmint was mixed with as much water as to prevent charring during the distillation process and distilled to a final volume of 1 gallon.8,12
The mint waters were among the most pleasing and the most commonly used medicinal water preparations for serving as a vehicle for other medicines to conceal their taste or that tended to produce nausea or gripe and were typically prescribed in doses of three fluid ounces or less for this purpose. Spearmint and peppermint water were commonly prescribed in doses of 1 to 3 fluid ounces when used to relieve flatulence or to increase the activity of the stomach.5,9,10
Peppermint Troches (Trochisci Mentha Piperita)
Peppermint troches (lozenges) were made by mixing approximately 4 ml of oil of peppermint with 1 pound of powdered sugar and a sufficient quantity of binding agent, usually mucilage of tragacanth. The oil of peppermint was rubbed with the sugar until they were thoroughly mixed, then with the mucilage and formed into a mass to be divided into troches each weighing 10 grains (600 mg). The troches were used to treat slight gastric or intestinal pains, nausea, flatulence and to prevent seasickness. They also were used to increase the flow of saliva and to relieve dryness of the mouth. They were used more for their agreeable flavor than for their medicinal effects and could cause an upset stomach in individuals who used them to excess.5,6,10,13
Spirit of Peppermint and Spearmint (Spiritus Mentha Piperita, Spiritus Mentha Viridis)
Spirit of peppermint and spearmint could be made using several different methods and different recipes depending on the dispensatory or materia medica textbook used as reference. One method recommended mixing approximately 12 ml of oil of peppermint with 1 gallon of proof spirit. Alternatively, another recipe recommended mixing 1 ½ pounds of dried peppermint in flower or dried spearmint with 1 gallon of proof spirit and enough water to prevent charring distillation and macerating for 24 hours with a slow heat to distill 1 gallon. Lastly, a third reference recommended dissolving 1 fluid ounce of oil in 15 fluid ounces of alcohol and filtering through the powdered herb. The two spirits were used for the same purposes in doses from 2 to 12 ml of spirit of peppermint or 2 to 8 ml of spirit of spearmint given on sugar or in water to relieve flatulence and slight gastric or colicky pain. A few drops could also be used to produce a sense of coolness in the mouth and stimulate the flow of saliva.5,6,10,11,13
Tincture (Essence) of Peppermint and Spearmint (Tinctura Olei Mentha Piperita, Tinctura Olei Mentha Viridis)
Oil of peppermint or spearmint was frequently used, dissolved in alcohol, to make a tincture or essence of peppermint or spearmint by dissolving 2 fluid ounces of oil of peppermint or spearmint in a pint of alcohol as a convenient method for quickly administering a dose of oil of peppermint or spearmint. The dose of tincture of peppermint was 10 to 20 drops, while the dose of tincture of spearmint was 20 to 40 drops dropped on a sugar or mixed with sweetened water.9,10,12
Infusions of Peppermint and Spearmint
Infusions were used to treat irritative conditions of the stomach, such as nausea and vomiting and gastritis in individuals subject to gastralgia and enteralgia after meals, and also taken between meals to prevent such attacks. Nervous headaches, palpitations of the heart, hiccups, were often alleviated by these infusions. A warm infusion of peppermint was described as remarkedly effective in treating dysmenorrhea, accompanied by chilliness, pandiculation, muscular and especially rendering uterine pains. Infusions were also recommended as an ordinary drink in typhoid infections and in the cold stage of Asiatic cholera and other excessive fluxes. They were also used as a vehicle for other remedies to cover the taste of disagreeable medicines similar to oil of peppermint and spearmint and peppermint and spearmint water.5,9
An infusion peppermint or spearmint was made using a half an ounce of fresh herb added to a pint of boiling water or using the spirit of peppermint in doses of 5 to 20 drops mixed with a wineglassful of sweetened hot water. Other sources recommended using about ¼ ounce of dried spearmint leaves and enough boiling water to provide 6 ounces of strained liquid. The normal dose was 1 to 2 fluid ounces taken as needed.9
A more complex infusion was made by taking ¼ ounce of dried spearmint leaves and enough boiling water to provide 6 ounces of strained liquid. The liquid sat for an hour in a covered vessel until the solution was cool. Then ¼ ounce of refined sugar, 3 drops of spearmint oil and ½ fluid ounce of compound tincture of cardamon were added and mixed. The normal dose was 1 to 2 fluid ounces taken as needed.9
The history of mint dates back more than 3,500 years with its use attributed to its pleasant aroma and pleasing taste. Consistently over time, mint was used to settle general complaints of the gastrointestinal tract such as gastritis, nausea and flatulence and to cover the taste of unpleasant medicines. This tradition is carried on today in the form of after dinner mints, chewing gum and other breath refreshing candies, toothpaste, mouthwash, mint flavored teas and as a flavoring agent for a variety of medicines.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about the Pry House Medicinal Garden. Click below to be directed to the others.
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About the Author
Greg has been a volunteer at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine since January 2011. Greg’s interest in the Civil War stems from his home town, Torrington, CT, the birth place of the abolitionist John Brown. Greg received his pharmacy degrees from the Universities of Connecticut and Florida and completed a critical care pharmacy residency at the Ohio State University Hospitals. Greg spent the majority of his career as the ICU pharmacist at National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD and is a Fellow in the American College of Critical Care Medicine. Greg retired as the Associate Director of Medical Information at MedImmune in Gaithersburg, MD. Greg is a University of Maryland Extension – Frederick County Master Gardener Intern. Greg and his wife Lisa live in Frederick, MD.
- A Brief History of Mint, from Air Freshener to Breath Freshener. Available at Eater.com. Accessed January 17, 2021.
- Goldberg J. The History of Mint. Available at: Gardenguides.com. Accessed January 17, 2021.
- History of Mint – Folklore & Medicine. Available at ourherbgarden.com Accessed January 17, 2021.
- Plant of the Month. Available at daily.jstor.org. Accessed January 17, 2021.
- Stille A. Therapeutics and Materia Medica: A Systematic Treatise of the Action and Uses of Medicinal Agents, Including Their Description and History. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1874.
- Edes RT. Therapeutic Handbook of the United States Pharmacopeia. New York: William Wood & Company, 1883.
- Pereira J. The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1846.
- Wood GB and Bache F. The Dispensatory of the United States of America. 11th ed. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1858.
- Standard Supply Table. In William Grace. The Army Surgeon’s Manual. New York: Baillier Brothers, 1864
- Surgeon General’s Office. C. S. A. Standard Supply Table of the Indigenous Remedies for Field Service and the Sick in Hospitals. Richmond, VA March 1, 1863.
- Duncan A. The Edinburgh Dispensatory. 8th ed. New York: James Eastburn and Co., 1818
- National Medical Convention. The Pharmacopea of the United States of America. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co., 1851.
- Wythes JH. The Physician’s Pocket Dose and Symptom Book. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blankston, 1853.
Further Reading List
1. Stille A. Therapeutics and Materia Medica: A Systematic Treatise of the Action and Uses of Medicinal Agents, Including Their Description and History. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1874.
2. Edes RT. Therapeutic Handbook of the United States Pharmacopeia. New York: William Wood & Company, 1883.
3. Pereira J. The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1846.
4. Wood GB and Bache F. The Dispensatory of the United States of America. 11th ed. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1858.
5. Standard Supply Table. In William Grace. The Army Surgeon’s Manual. New York: Baillier Brothers, 1864
6. Surgeon General’s Office. C. S. A. Standard Supply Table of the Indigenous Remedies for Field Service and the Sick in Hospitals. Richmond, VA March 1, 1863.
7. Duncan A. The Edinburgh Dispensatory. 8th ed. New York: James Eastburn and Co., 1818
8. National Medical Convention. The Pharmacopea of the United States of America. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co., 1851.
9. Wythes JH. The Physician’s Pocket Dose and Symptom Book. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blankston, 1853.Tags: Greg Susla, herbal medicine, Mint, Pry House Medicinal Garden Posted in: Civil War Medicinal Herbs