Colonial Williamsburg® The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Official History and Citizenship Website

CW Foundation navigation

Looking to Buy Tickets & Gifts or Book a Vacation? Click Here

Page content
Reset text sizeResize text larger
Colonial Home Remedies

GRADE LEVEL: Elementary School through Middle School


A colonial household could not function properly without an herb garden. Housewives were well-informed about herbs and their uses and were prepared for any emergency whether it was deodorizing a home for guests or ministering aid to someone ill or injured. Household gardens were close at hand and contained a wide variety of plants for both food and medicine. Many of the herbs used by eighteenth-century families were native to Europe and were brought to the American colonies because of their medicinal value. The colonial housewife would sometimes supplement what was in her garden with plants such as nutmeg which was imported and could be purchased at a local store.

TIME REQUIRED: Two class periods of 45 minutes each


18th-century patient attended by family and physick

[Note: "Every Man His Own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter's Physician" may be purchased through the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation by calling (757) 565-8328. Fore more detailed information regarding this item click here.]



As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • identify plants used in the eighteenth century for medicinal purposes
  • compare eighteenth-century remedies with remedies of the twentieth century


Emphasize to the students that Every Man His Own Doctor was a home medical guide and that just like today there were also professional phramacy books available for doctors. Review the background information with the students. Ask the students how this is different from today. What does this tell them about colonial health care and beliefs? Probe students for any information they have on eighteenth-century plants and their medicinal uses. Ask the students what more they would like to know about medicinal plants of the eighteenth century.


Using Every Man His Own Doctor, read a suggested treatment in answer to one of the plants they would like to know more about. Refer to the Index on pages 70-71 for assistance. Have the students rewrite the treatment you read in their own words. Compare the treatment with modern methods. How are they the same and/or different? What does this tell us about colonial health care and beliefs?

Divide the class into five cooperative groups. Give each student a copy of the graphic organizer Plants & Their Medicinal Uses. Have each group appoint a scribe and a reporter. Give each group a copy of Every Man His Own Doctor. Instruct each group to investigate three of the plants listed in "Plants & Their Medicinal Uses". Assign the first three plants to group 1, the second three plants to group 2, and so on until all the groups have three plants to investigate. Have each group refer to the Index on pages 70-71 of Every Man His Own Doctor and to a modern dictionary for assistance. Ask each reporter to report to the class on their group's findings. As the reports are being given, the class may fill in the rest of the graphic organizer "Plants & Their Medicinal Uses".

Continue to work in five cooperative groups. Give each student a copy of the graphic organizer Medicine: Then and Now. Have each group select an illness from the graphic organizer they just completed ("Plants & Their Medicinal Uses") and research its eighteenth-century and its twentieth-century remedy. Next each group will answer the question, "How are they the same and how are they different?" Group reporters will report the group's findings to the class. As the reports are being given, the class may fill in the rest of the "Medicine: Then and Now" graphic organizer. In concluding this activity, emphasize that these medical treatments were home remedies. Just like today, professional is always better.


Have students construct their own eighteenth-century garden. If possible use white glue and actual dried herbs. Students could plan, design and describe their eighteenth-century garden and the plants they decide to include.

Have students make a sweet bag (sachet) which in the eighteenth century would have been used in the family's linen chest. Each student would need a plain piece of cotton cloth, 8inches by 8 inches square and a ribbon to tie it together. The following is a receipt from Mrs. Glasses' book The Art of Cookery, 1784. A mortar, pestle and a grater are essential for creating a strong scent.

Sweet Scented Bags to Lay with Linen

Eight ounces of damask rose leaves, eight ounces of coriander seeds, eight ounces of sweet orriroot, eight ounces of calamus aromaticus, one ounce of mace, one ounce of cinnamon, half an ounce of cloves, four drachms of musk-powder, two drachms of white loaf sugar, three ounces of lavender flowers and some of Rhodium wood. Beat them well together and make them in small silk bags.


Students will make a poster showing plants and their eighteenth-century uses based on Every Man His Own Doctor.

This lesson plan was developed by Dianne Graves, fifth grade teacher from Painted Rock E.S., Poway, California. If you have a lesson plan which you would like to share, please send to School & Group Services, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, PO Box 1776, Williamsburg, VA 23187