Unintended research finds: the mustard bath

By Helen Sunderland | @hl_sunderland

Getting stuck into my summer reading, I have spent the last few weeks trawling through volumes of early twentieth-century teachers’ magazines. I am scouring these weekly periodicals for references to politics in the classroom. Hidden among the teaching tips, correspondence pages and reports on government activity, are examples of political topics in the curriculum, and even teachers and students displaying political views at school.

What fascinates me about this kind of research is the unexpected discoveries. Reading the magazines cover to cover has thrown up some good examples, from the amusing to the macabre. Schoolroom ‘panics’ caused by intruding dogs and even cows cropped up on more than one occasion. On a darker note, reports of pupils’ accidental deaths at school and suicides were disturbingly frequent.

I was particularly drawn to the advertisement pages, which offer a visual snapshot of the readers’ worlds. Journals targeting women teachers contained adverts for comfortable corsets, products to revitalise hair and Virol – a malt extract food supplement marketed at young children. There were also adverts for familiar brands including Cadbury’s cocoa and Pears soap. But these could bring their own surprises, such as a series of 1913 adverts for Colman’s mustard, which recommended the brand to be used not as food, but for bathing.

One of these adverts read: “Nowadays there is no excuse for anyone not to experience the delightful exhilaration of a “complete” bath with mustard in it.”[1] Special packs of ‘bath mustard’ were available, but readers were assured that two or three tablespoons of ordinary mustard mixed with water would also suffice. Colman’s mustard was praised for its rejuvenating qualities, particularly for women: “Just try mustard in your bath when you are tired, or have taken a chill, or when your nerves are exhausted.” Such appeals are revealing of contemporary gender stereotypes of female fragility, and the expected stresses and strains of a teaching career.

In previous decades, medical professionals recommended mustard baths to treat more serious conditions. Writing in the Lancet in 1865, Dr S. Newington suggested various means of applying mustard to treat ‘maniacal patients’ including “an ordinary warm bath into which have been thrown five or six handfuls of crude mustard”. In the case of one female patient, the treatment prevented further “attacks of violent mania”. Newington concluded that “the mustard bath appears to have warded off the recurrence of the excitement”.[2] Thirteen years later, Dr Leonard Weber wrote about ‘The Therapeutic Value of the Hot Mustard-Bath in Pneumonia in Children’.[3] Similarly, in 1910, American nurse Minnie Lee Crawford recommended the treatment for “nervous and peevish children”.[4]

Although mustard bath products are still sold today as alternative therapeutic medicines, they seem less widely used, and known, than a century ago. For me, the Colman’s Mustard Bath advert captures the experience and appeal of studying the late Victorian and Edwardian eras perfectly. Often it is when I am caught off-guard drawing parallels with the present day that the fin-de-siècle surprises me most. It is a period which can seem both tangibly familiar and wonderfully unknown at the same time.


[1] Advertisements, The Teacher’s World (19 November 1913), p. 191.

[2] S. Newington, ‘On a new Remedial Agent in the Treatment of Insanity and other Diseases’, Journal of Mental Science, 11/54 (July 1865), pp. 272-5.

[3] Leonard Weber, ‘The Therapeutic Value of the Hot Mustard-Bath in Pneumonia in Children’, The American Journal of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children (1 April 1878), p. 333.

[4] Minnie Lee Crawford, ‘Why, When, and How to Bathe a Fever Patient’, The American Journal of Nursing, 10/5 (February 1910), p. 317.

Image: Colman’s Mustard Advert (photo by Oxyman via Wikimedia commons)

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