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n. A soft composition of various materials, as meal, bran, or a mucilaginous substance, to be applied to sores, inflamed parts of the body, and the like; a cataplasm. v.t. To cover with a poultice; to dress with a poultice. — Webster, 1882

Almanzo’s face was blistered and his eye was swelled shut. But Mother put a poultice on it at noon, and another at night, and next day it did not hurt so much. – Farmer Boy, Chapter 20, “Late Harvest”

In Farmer Boy, Almanzo Wilder’s eyelid and face were burned when a roasted potato exploded and a piece of the hot potato struck his skin. Since Almanzo couldn’t open his eyelid, Father Wilder was worried that a piece of the potato had damaged Almanzo’s eyeball, but once he determined that this was not the case, Father Wilder merely tied his handkerchief over the eye and Almanzo went back to work. The burn wasn’t treated until an hour or more later, when Mother Wilder made a poultice for it. While treatment today might be to immediately cool the burn under running water, then apply a topical ointment, treatment for a superficial burn (or one in which the surface of the skin is damaged, but the epidermis is still intact) in 1866 (when Farmer Boy takes place) would have been to apply either butter, some other grease, or a poultice. It is not known if the story in Farmer Boy is true, and there is no poultice mentioned in the manuscript.

Poultices, technically called cataplasms, were an important class of remedies intended for external application in inflammation, wounds, ulcers, abscesses, and burns. They were used to provide warmth and moisture, and were applied directly to the skin when it – or the structures beneath it – were inflamed. The poultice relaxed the tissues and removed some of the tension due to the inflammation, and thus often also eased pain. In many cases, it was believed that poultices should be applied as hot as could be borne; they were changed as soon as they became cool. To avoid exposure of warm, moist skin, the old poultice wasn’t removed until the new one was ready to replace it.

A poultice was constructed of various materials; while bread was the most common, poultices were also made of other grains or vegetables. Each had its peculiar characteristics; while a linseed meal poultice might irritate the skin, a bread poultice, for example, would be soothing, but would hold heat for a shorter time than the meal. To make a bread poultice, sufficient boiling water was poured into a clean bowl, and thick slices of bread were added. The bowl was set close to the fire while the bread softened. The bread was pressed and the water poured off, and more boiling water was added; this process was repeated until it became a thick, hot dough. This was beaten quickly with a fork, then spread on a cotton or linen bandage of suitable shape, and placed over the desired area. If available, the poultice was covered with a piece of rubber or oiled silk or linen to keep the moisture in, and cloth bandages were used to tie it all in place. — Sydney Ringer, A Handbook of Theraputics (London: H.K. Lewis, 1869): 424-432.

Sometimes plant oils or other medicines were added to the poultice. Examples include camomile, alum, opium, morphine, wine, turpentine, charcoal, or vinegar. The poultices mentioned here, as well as those below, should not be used to treat any burn or other ailment. They are provided merely as an example of the kind of treatment that would have been known and used when Almanzo Wilder was a young boy.




Bread-and-Water Poultice. Crumble down the soft part of a slice of bread into a jug; pour boiling water over it; let it soak; break it with a spoon, and if too thin pour off a little of the moisture, and spread it on a cloth to apply as usual. Bread and milk the same, but may be boiled a minute. A little fresh butter or lard is often laid over this or a similar poultice of Oatmeal, which must be long boiled. — Christian Isobel Johnstone, The Cook and Housewife’s Manual (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862): 563.

Emollient and Slightly Stimulating Poultice. Take of slippery elm powder two parts, white pond lily root, pulverised, one part, green lobelia powder, half as much as of the white pond lily; mix with warm water. This forms a suitable poultice for acute inflammation of the eyes, and when a part is burned with a red-hot iron or live coals, so as to sear the flesh. — J.W. Comfort, M.D. The Practice of Medicine Adapted to the Use of Families as to that of the Practitioner (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1859): 568-569.

Mustard Poultice or Plaster. Take powered mustard, two ounces, and vinegar, as much as necessary to make a poultice. This may be too strong for young persons having very thin skins. In such cases, from one-third to one-half of flour or Indian meal may be added, and instead of vinegar, water may be employed. It is seldom that it can be borne longer than half an hour. — Keith Imray, A Popular Cyclopedia of Modern Domestic Medicine (New York: Gates, Stedman and Company, 1849): 804.

Poultice of Flaxseed. Take of ground flaxseed, one part, barley meal, one part, and water, enough to make a poultice. This is useful for painful inflammations of all kinds. — Keith Imray, A Popular Cyclopedia of Modern Domestic Medicine (New York: Gates, Stedman and Company, 1849): 804.

Carrot Poultice. Take one pound boiled, bruised carrots. Add an ounce of flour and a little butter. Mix them with a sufficient quantity of hot water to form a pulp. This is a valuable application to sores and swellings. — Wooster Beach, The American Practice Condensed, Or, The Family Physician (New York: James M’Alister, 1859): 713.

Poultice for Burns and Frozen Flesh. Indian meal poultices covered with tea, moistened with hot water, and laid over burns or frozen parts, as hot as can be borne, will relieve the pain in five minutes, and blisters, if they have not, will not arise, and that one poultice is usually sufficient. — Alvin Wood Chase, M.D., Dr. Chase’s Recipes (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Published by the Author, 1867): 111.


poultice (FB 20)