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Preserving Herbalism Books From Centuries Past

A history of early herbals and the need for preserving herbalism books from centuries past, includes information on old herbal books, decoding the book catalogs and tips for book collectors.
By Christine Wittmann
December 1991/January 1992
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Discover the history of herbals and information on preserving herbalism books.
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Learn about preserving herbalism books and why these historical books are of such great value.

One of the most intriguing aspects of herbalism is the array of beautifully bound and carefully produced books of herbal knowledge from centuries past. These old books, known as herbals, offer a glimpse into a way of life that largely revolved around the use of plants for medicine and food. The herbalism books' yellowed pages and faded ink can transport the reader back to the garden of someone who may have known Shakespeare.

Much useful information can be found in the bewildering array of new herb books that are flooding the market nowadays, but early herbals are special books. Besides chronicling the history of herbalism, they hark back to a more personable era, and the ­personalities of the writers are clearly evident in many of them, reflecting ­beliefs of and opinions about the times and even attitudes toward certain ­colleagues. After reading the 400-year-old herbal of John Gerard, few can deny that he was a true “dirt gardener”. And the flamboyant, roguish personality of seventeenth-century astrologer-herbalist Nicholas Culpeper emanates like a beacon from each page of his classic herbal. His writings are rife with irrational beliefs and outlandish arguments, yet centuries later, they are still being reprinted!

Interest in collecting old herbals often begins in the fascinating world of old cookbooks, which may contain health-related recipes and advice, remedies for farm animals, and gems of gardening wisdom along with the bill of fare. When I was young, I was attracted to a copy of Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management, an English book that contained a wealth of information on ladies’ toiletries and cookery for invalids, and an 1835 volume (also English) entitled Domestic Cookery, or The Complete Family Economist, which offers the following remedy for “oppression of the chest and hoarseness in children”:

Apply a plaster of coarse brown paper, spread with deer’s suet or old tallow, and dipped in rum; at the same time giving occasionally a teaspoonful of syrup of violets, and oil of sweet almonds. If these should not afford a speedy relief, it may be necessary to apply a leech or two to the chest.

Although children of that day may have questioned whether the cure was worse than the disease, such quaint, sometimes preposterous, always heartfelt prose is part of the charm of early herbals.

The old styles of type, writing, and language in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century herbals can be a struggle to read, especially at first. For a fanatic like me, this is a minor problem when I’m holding in my hands a book that was treasured and depended upon in earlier times for the healing remedies it contained, however primitive they may seem today. But if you feel the need to make sense of the information in the older herbals, you can find relief in the works of some of the great garden writers of our own century, such as Mrs. C. F. Leyel, Eleanour Sinclair Rhode, Helen M. Fox, Maude Grieve, Alice Morse Earle, Helen Noyes Webster, and Rosetta E. Clarkson. These women drew upon and interpreted the writings of the early herbalists, illuminating the old ideas with valuable knowledge from their own experience. Their books contain many woodcuts and engravings from those precious old volumes; thus, those of us who do not own the original herbals of Gerard or Parkinson can experience the flavor of their work through the writings of Leyel and her colleagues.

Some Old Herbals

Few of the earliest Greek and Roman herbals are available today, even to the collector who is willing to pay a high price. We must be satisfied to study them in carefully guarded rare book rooms in libraries and museums. If you’re fortunate enough to find an original edition of an early herbal, be prepared to dig deeply into your pocket; even when they’re in relatively poor condition, some of them are fetching high prices because of the growing interest in collecting them. On the other hand, with patience and diligent searching, you can find fine facsimile editions of herbals published from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, though many of these are becoming scarce, too. Purchasing high-quality facsimiles is an economical way to gain the benefits of ownership; the information is largely the same, and the books are equally enjoyable to read.

The herbal of Dioscorides, written in Greek about A.D. 100, was translated into English in 1655 by John Goodyer, but Goodyer’s work wasn’t published until Robert T. Gunther edited and printed it in 1933. The 1968 reprint I own is a largely uncorrected edition of Goodyer’s translation and retains the character of his style. (An early edition of Dioscorides is well outside of my price range.)

The list of American herbals is much shorter than that from European writers, yet the American books are among the rarest of herbals and of exceptional interest to serious collectors: they contain some of the earliest recorded uses of herbs learned by the white settlers from Native Americans.

The earliest “American” herbal was a 1569 work by Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish doctor. About 100 years later, “John Josselyn, Gentleman” wrote New-Englands Rarities Discovered, published in London just 50 years after the landing of the Pilgrims. His herbal contained the first lists of English plants that would thrive in America, and notes on the uses of wild herbs by Native Americans. A little softcover facsimile edition of Josselyn’s herbal was issued by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1972.

John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris (1629) was reprinted recently by Dover Publications. It is a complete, unabridged republication of this first great English garden book.

The works of John Gerard and Nicholas Culpeper, already alluded to, have been reprinted in many editions. I am fortunate to own a copy of Culpeper’s English Family Physician, Volume I, dated 1792. This medical herbal is laced with astrological calculations, the “occult qualities of plants”, and other eye-opening tidbits for which Culpeper came under severe fire. Nonetheless, his works became extremely popular with the underdogs of London’s East End. When, in 1649, he issued his Physicall Directory, which was a translation of the London Dispensatory, he drew down the wrath of the College of Physicians, who denounced him as a “rogue”. Culpeper argued that herbs should be dried in the sun: “For if the sun draw away the virtues of the herb, it must needs do the like by hay, which the experience of every farmer will explode for a notable piece of nonsense.” He used the same negative reasoning to argue that the sap rose in plants throughout the winter: “If the sap fall into the roots in the fall of the leaf and lies there all the winter, then must the root grow all the winter; but the root grows not at all in the winter, as experience teaches, but only in the summer . . . . What doth the sap do in the root all the winter that while? Pick straws?”

Culpeper remained popular despite his far-fetched ideas, and his famous herbal is still available in high-quality softcover editions today. Besides this book, Culpeper published other, lesser-known works. While in England, I came upon a charming little book entitled Culpeper’s Every Man His Own Doctor, containing the Medical Part, to which is added Directions for Making Syrups, and the Appendix to Culpeper’s British Herbal, dated 1861. Among the hair-raising recipes in this book is “the Fetid Julep”, a concoction of rue, asafoetida, hartshorn, and sugar which, when properly prepared, gives the maker a fine “antihysteric water” used to treat “a defective state of the menses and hypochondria”.

An American herbal more recent than Josselyn’s and easier to locate is Samuel Stearns’s The American Herbal or Materia Medica (1801). Stearns was an American physician and astronomer who was deeply concerned about the lack of standardization in the practice of medicine. He found many discrepancies in medical books while preparing his own herbal, especially regarding the treatment of disease. This delightful volume contains interesting tidbits on ants, rattlesnakes, tame cats, and diamonds as well as many herbs.

Decoding The Herbal Catalogs

You may encounter a bit of “old book jargon” when you peruse your first antiquarian book catalog, and because some catalogs don’t explain their systems of letter and number abbreviations, I’ve listed the most commonly use “codes” here (see the chart in the image gallery). Some refer to the condition of the book, some to its manufacture, and some to its contents.

Stillroom Herbal Books

The early stillroom books, often kept alongside cookery books, were usually nothing more than “receipts” handwritten in a bound journal. Handed down from one generation to the next, the stillroom book was vital to the running of a household. Many can be viewed today in British country houses. The often-meticulous handwriting reflects the care the writer took in recording her important recipes. These included remedies for almost every ill that could befall her family or their farm animals as well as recipes for delicately scented floral waters, pomades, lotions, soaps, and potpourri. Though it contained food recipes as well, it more closely resembled an herbal than a cookery book, and its wealth of herb lore made it the real descendant of the herbal.

With the appearance of the first books on botany in the late seventeenth century, herbals began to fall out of favor. Herb lore, however, was still esteemed, and stillroom books persisted for some time. One of these, published in 1651 under the title A Choice Manual of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgerie Collected and Practised by the Countesse of Kent, went through 19 editions!

Today, finding an early stillroom book is more difficult than finding an early herbal, especially one that is not so thumb-worn from constant use and the ravages of time as to be unreadable. The late Rosetta E. Clarkson, who wrote numerous books on herbs and published an herb journal during the first part of this century, was instrumental in having a good many facsimile editions of stillroom books and herbals printed. Two of these are Sir Hugh Plat’s Divers Chimicall Conclusions Concerning the Art of Distillation, originally published in 1594, reprinted in facsimile in 1941 from the copy owned by Rosetta Clarkson; and the Toilet of Flora, 1779, reprinted in facsimile in 1939 (current value about $85) from an original copy also owned by Rosetta Clarkson. Another stillroom book written by Plat (1602) was reprinted in 1939 by Violet and Hal W. Trovillion. It lives up to its title, Delights for Ladies, with recipes for everything from the art of preserving to secrets in distillation. It’s a handsome little book printed on heavy paper with ragged edges, as are so many of these facsimile reprints. Some of the medical recipes are truly alarming, but no more so than the prescriptions of the eminent physicians of the day.

A New Family Herbal by Richard Brook was one of many compilations of popular authors’ work. Hand-colored art improved botanical accuracy as well as visual appeal.

Finding Old Herbal Books

Perhaps by now you’re wondering about the likelihood of coming across an early copy of Gerard, Parkinson, or Culpeper. The chance is remote that you’ll turn up a truly rare herbal in some dark, dusty corner of an ordinary used-book store, but reprints of early herbals can often be found in such shops, even those that don’t specialize in rare books.

One of the best ways to begin your search is to visit an antiquarian bookshop. Dealers who specialize in rare books can tell you about the availability of a particular title and the price you can expect to pay for it. Be sure to leave your name, address, and phone so that the dealer may contact you if he or she locates a copy. Many shop owners will be glad to do a search to run down older, more obscure volumes.

Catalogs of old herbals and horticultural books can be a great help in judging the value of old books. Prices vary from one dealer to another, but you can get a rough idea of what to expect. Let dealers know your interests and ask that your name be placed on their mailing lists. If you purchase from them fairly regularly, you’ll probably continue to receive catalogs.

I love finding a catalog of herb and gardening books in my mailbox; I put everything else on hold and sit down to pore over it. On the first run-through, I get a little carried away, circling all the titles I’m even remotely interested in. Then I go back a second time and check off the really important books. And finally, I get realistic with myself and my budget, and I decide which books I simply can’t do without. This can be tough.

Over the years, I’ve had good luck finding herbals through catalogs. I’m always delighted with the books when they arrive, and the only one I’ve ever sent back was entirely in Latin—a characteristic I’d failed to notice in the catalog listing. Sometimes, though, the books I want have already been sold by the time the catalog reaches me; I recommend that you phone the dealer and make sure the books you want are still available before sending in your order.

Prices of Herbals

A portion of the celebrated herbals and botanical books belonging to the Society of Herbalists was auctioned at Sotheby’s in London on March 13, 1967. Some extremely rare early herbals were offered, including the Grete Herbal of Peter Treveris. At the time of the sale, only 11 copies of this herbal were known to exist: 4 in England (of which 2 were imperfect) and 7 in America (of which 2 were also imperfect). The Society’s copy sold for £10,000, or $28,000 in U.S. currency at that time; yet some of the early works of Culpeper and other herbalists were auctioned at very reasonable prices. Obviously, the scarcity of a volume has a lot to do with its price.

A sound copy of Gerard’s Herball (1597) was recently offered through a catalog for $2450. Until my ship comes in, I’ll be content with my hardcover Dover reprint which, though it’s as massive as the original, sports a modest $75 price tag. Most facsimile editions of old herbals printed during this century can be purchased for $100 or less, as can copies of later (nineteenth-century) reprints of Culpeper’s English Family Physician or Medical Herbal Enlarged.

The simplicity of language in Sir John Hill’s 1755 Useful Family Herbal contrasts sharply with today’s medicinal literature, herbal or otherwise.

Preserving Old Books

Owning an early herbal is a bit like owning fine china. You want to use it, but you’re afraid it might get damaged, so you end up putting it behind glass, taking it out only now and again to remind yourself that it’s really there. Facsimile reprints of herbals often are so faithfully reproduced and beautifully made that they look much older than they are, and you may want to give them as much protection as you do your earlier editions. Fortunately, less expensive softcover editions of some of the early herbals exist; I like to use these as working copies of the more valuable editions that I don’t want to handle daily.

The care of old herbals is the same as the care of other old books. Above all, keep them dry. If you have to store them for a long time, leave them with a relative or friend, not in a damp, musty building where they’re likely to mildew

Another threat to books is dust, which draws and holds moisture against the cover and the edges of the pages. Rare herbals or any book you cherish should be kept in bookcases with glass doors. Extremes in temperature are not advisable, either, though your books will probably fare better in a cold room than in a hot one. Never store them near a wood stove or other heat source. The pages, already dry and brittle from age, will deteriorate further, and the leather covers may crack. To prevent the latter problem, I have seen book dealers rub melted lanolin into the leather covers of old books. This is an excellent preservative and can be obtained at pharmacies (ask for anhydrous lanolin). Some book dealers recommend saddle soap to keep the leather covers supple. I’ve used both with success, but I’m partial to the lanolin. Simply melt a tablespoon of it over low heat, and while it’s still warm, touch a small amount to your fingertips and massage it into the leather. The leather will darken slightly.

Sometimes the bindings of old herbals are very weak, and when handling them you’ll have to be careful not to bend the spine too much. If you have many old books, I recommend that you purchase one of those book stands that allow you to lay the book open at an angle without straining the spine. These stands hold fairly large volumes easily, and the better ones have a swivel base so that you can turn the book.

An ideal spot for your early herbals would be a glass bookcase in a room of average temperature (60 to 70°F). They should be out of direct sunlight, which might fade the covers. If you can’t protect them behind glass, keep them in a clean cupboard. If you must resort to open shelves, dust the books periodically with a feather duster or cloth treated with lanolin. Some of the all-natural wool dusters are ideal.

I started collecting old herbals 28 years ago with an old edition of Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss. From that bible of the back-to-the-land generation, my collection of herb literature has grown to the point where I have nightmares about sagging farmhouse floors. I keep vowing to organize, catalog, and index it all so I can find what I’m looking for in less than half an hour.

But book collectors just can’t seem to stop collecting. Any day now, there’ll be another catalog of antiquarian herb books in my mailbox, or I’ll see an announcement of a rare book sale that I simply must attend. There are so many books I don’t have, and they’re out there waiting for me. I’ll put up yet another shelf or find another bookcase, and give thanks to the herbalists of ages past for the countless hours of pleasure they’ve given me.


Chris Wittmann is an herbalist and author in Alton, New Hampshire. The name of her thriving herb business, Cats in the Cradle, aptly ­describes the population of her renovated farmhouse home.


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