Pages from the Past

The Herbalist Almanac, I was to learn, was started in 1925 and came out every year for more than fifty years

| March/April 1999

 The Herbalist's Shelves 

The treasures and the trash that we find in antique stores, flea markets, and antiquarian bookshops seldom have their histories intact. Recently I found myself holding the delicate, worn pages of a publication called The Herbalist Almanac, two copies of which were passed on to me by a friend who discovered them, encased in plastic, in a stack of old magazines at a Chicago flea market. Dated 1932 and 1941, they were given to me to unravel the story behind them.

Both feature artwork on the cover depicting a Native American brave holding out a plant to a chief sitting by a campfire. Inside, tiny print and old-fashioned line drawings fill the pages, which are yellowing, crumbling newsprint with occasional color plates of medicinal plant illustrations.

The booklets are packed with articles about herbs, native plants, common ailments, and traditional medicines, as well as excerpts from newspaper articles that reflect the early herb industry’s concern about credibility and its wrangling with the medical establishment. Charts include detailed month-by-month weather forecasts and advice on everything from the best fishing days to the luckiest days for pulling teeth, castrating livestock, harvesting tobacco, and weaning babies. The readership clearly was a rural one.

Many personal testimonials from readers on the efficacy of herbal treatments are tucked in as fillers among quaint ads hawking these products. “‘I am using your Peach Tree Leaves at 25¢ per box as a tonic and my hair sure is growing in new and coming in thick. My friends all even notice it.’ Writes Mrs. S. R., Evansville, Ind.”

I was intrigued because these charming booklets carry no name other than the imprint of a small, now-defunct herb business in South Holland, Illinois. Yet they are infused with someone’s personal dedication to herbs and herbal ways. It seemed a mystery to me that the author, clearly an opinionated and passionate man, had effaced himself so completely from their pages. Who was he?

My first clue was a tiny line on a page that I almost overlooked: the copyright, held by one Joseph E. Meyer.

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