Vinegar: Miracle Elixir?

Tracy explores medicinal gardens of the past in search of folk remedies for her novels

The recent worldwide surge in cases of COVID-19 has led the World Health Organization to declare a pandemic. As of today, the death toll in the United States is at 31. National and state governments and private organizations are taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus.

My daughter’s university, like many others, will continue instruction after spring break in an online-only capacity, though the students may elect to remain on campus. I assume there’s nothing to prevent the students from interacting with each other. They just won’t be doing it in class.

My niece returned home after just one month from her semester abroad and is in home quarantine for two weeks.

We’re no longer giving high-fives and fist bumps at the gym, instead opting to touch elbows as we say, “Great workout!”

No matter how you’re responding to the news, you can’t escape the media coverage or the elevated responses to the spread of COVID-19. There’s been a run on hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial soap, and toilet paper.

And of course, the memes just keep coming.

Florence Nightingale, above, was right to look perturbed. The common-sense approach—to wash one’s hands and avoid contact with others—would never have occurred to our ancestors.

I researched medical practices of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for my books Fips, Bots, Doggeries, and More, Pride of the Valley, and Answering Liberty’s Call, and one thing I learned led me to change some of my own home practices.

Medical knowledge and innovations surged with the advent of medical colleges in Europe and the United States in the mid-1700s—but not everyone had access to trained physicians, and it took a long time for healthful practices to take hold among the common people.

Throughout the human existence, healers have fought against the unseen when they treated disease. Thought the microscope was invented in the 1590s and the first bacteria were identified in the 1670s, an understanding of germs and bacteria and their correlation to disease did not follow until the 1850s.

In Outlander, Season 501, Episode 1, set in the 1770s, Jamie says to wife Claire, who is at work in her surgery, “I’ll leave you to wage war against your wee invisible beasties.” Claire, a time traveler and surgeon from the distant future, retorts, “You mean bacteria.”

By 1770, the eve of the American Revolution, the medical field had become a professional one. Medical schools and guilds were thriving in Europe, allowing physicians to study and make new discoveries. In America, the first medical college opened in Philadelphia in 1768. King’s College followed two years later in New York City. Even with medical colleges available, most American doctors were trained through apprenticeships, and had about seven years of training before they were officially considered physicians.

Even with the advances, most people in America did not have access to honest-to-goodness physicians. For those who lived too far away from cities, eighteenth-century health care was provided in the home. Women usually assumed the responsibilities of family doctor and pharmacist, despite the fact that few women in the colonial era received any type of formal education, let alone medical training. They cared for the sick using traditional methods passed down through families and communities.

Nearly every home kept a kitchen garden, with a section dedicated to herbs used for cooking and medicinal purposes. Six or seven generations later, these are nearly all ingredients we’d call “salad.”

That’s not to say that herbs and plants are without medicinal properties—because trial and error folk remedies often contain the same properties as our modern medicine. The difference is, now doctors and researchers identify those properties and apply them more efficiently than was possible before.

Still, I’ve enjoyed exploring medicinal gardens as part of my research for the books I’ve written that are set in the past.

At Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan’s Henry Ford Museum, Doctor Howard’s home has a medicinal garden where he grew these herbs and others, which he used to treat patients in the 1860s:

Black Cohosh as an antidepressant and sedative

Comfrey to speed healing

Elecampane as an antiseptic, and for coughs

Goldenseal as an astringent and a tonic for mucous membranes

False Blue Indigo as a purgative

Virginia Snakeroot for headache, fever, snakebite

Witch Hazel as an astringent and sedative

At the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Burr Oak, Iowa, which was once the hotel in which the Ingalls family lived and worked in the 1870s, the medicinal garden near the kitchen door had:

Feverfew for migraines

Lamb’s Ear to stop bleeding

Lemon thyme for indigestion and athsma

Marigold for cuts, wounds, and sprains

Onions for croup, cough, and laryngitis

Purple Coneflower for sore throats,

Sage for colds and sore throats

How were plants and herbs used to treat disease?

Medicinal herbs could be chewed, blended and used to make tea, ground up into pastes for application directly to the skin or a wound, made into poultices (cloths soaked in a liquid made from ground-up herbs) or made into tinctures. Tinctures, in which the herbs were steeped in ethanol or vinegar for an extended period, were thought to be the most potent form of medicine.

In Fips, Bots, Doggeries, and More, Henry notes in his journal that he treated a horse’s ailment by giving it “a half pint of whiskey in water and as much indigo as would lay on a cent piece.”

When that had no effect, he tried a patent medicine that consisted mostly of alcohol and capsacin, a chili pepper extract.

In Answering Liberty’s Call, my protagonist is a healer in pre-Revolutionary Virginia. Researching treatment methods during that time gave me a chance to highlight some outlandish treatments that did not, in fact, work to cure disease, but were believed to when a patient recovered. Early healers may not have understood that correlation does not always lead to causation.

Anna, the protagonist, complains about another woman treating the sick who “clings to misguided superstition rather than embrace treatments that make the patients more comfortable while they heal.”

In Answering Liberty’s Call, Anna receives her medical instruction from one of the slaves on the plantation where she is serving her indenture. The former slave of a physician, Isabel is more progressive than the average folk healer, and trains Anna to wash her hands in vinegar and water before and after ministering to a patient and say a prayer for added protection. When Anna questions how vinegar stops the spread of disease, her mentor replies,

“I don’t know for certain, but wounds heal better when they’re treated with vinegar, and food preserved in vinegar brine doesn’t spoil. With God’s help, it all works together somehow.”

Is vinegar a miracle elixir?

No, it’s not, though washing your hands with it would certainly kill germs and help stop the spread of disease. While it was a Colonial healer like Anna’s go-to, we have much better options available to us now.

But it has a great many practical uses, including:

Removes grass stains

Dissolves glue

Added to water, makes fresh-cut flowers last longer

Mixed 1:1 with water, great for cleaning windows and wood surfaces


Cuts grease

Acts as an antiseptic

Distilled vinegar was a chief ingredient of invisible ink—so it’s great for spycraft, too!

Before you throw out all your bleach wipes and other cleaning products, understand that the EPA does not review and classify vinegar and other home remedies as sanitizers. While it is effective on burns and to treat tuberculosis, vinegar will not kill 99.9% of germs and bacteria. It is not effective against staph and other virulent strains. Neither, though, is ammonia.

Read more about different antiseptics and disinfectants here:


Since writing Answering Liberty’s Call, I’ve been using distilled white vinegar as a cleaning agent around the house. When we had our hardwood floors refinished, the contractor recommended using a mixture of vinegar and water to clean them, and it’s amazing. The simple concoction does a better job than commercial cleaning products and leaves no residue or buildup. It’s also great on mirrors, soap scum, and windows. For cleaning the garbage disposal, a mixture of baking soda and vinegar does the trick. It costs a fraction of other cleaning agents, and I feel better about not putting more chemicals into the environment.


Because vinegar is acidic, it should not be used on stone surfaces in the home like tile and countertops.

For a study on the science behind vinegar’s antiseptic properties, check out “Antimicrobial activity of apple cider vinegar against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans; downregulating cytokine and microbial protein expression:”




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