Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, February 17, 2005


Page 17



Everthing You Ever Wanted to Know About Mustard Plasters




Mustard has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes—and researchers have recently come upon new applications. But the mention of “mustard” and “medicine” is most apt to conjure up the image of a cure of old: the mustard plaster.

Used primarily on the chest to counteract congestion, it was applied also to the neck and stomach to remedy other conditions.

There are far better remedies today that don’t run the risk of causing blisters if left on too long. Yet, the efficacy of the mustard plaster as a means of drawing blood to the area on which is placed, and the oft-beneficial nature of that action, is not modernly doubted.

As a virtual cure-all, however, it was obviously over-valued. When Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, the moribund president was carried across the street to the Petersen house, and, instinctively, mustard plasters were applied.

Just what is a mustard plaster? It’s mustard paste spread inside a protective dressing. Views varied as to how to prepare it.

“How many people are there who really know how to make a mustard plaster?” an article in the  Aug. 9, 1877 edition of the Indiana (Pa.) Progress asked rhetorically, continuing:

Not one in a hundred at the most, perhaps, and yet mustard plasters are used in every family, and physicians prescribe the application. The ordinary way is to mix the mustard with water, tempering it with a little flour; but such a plaster as this makes it simply abominable. Before it has half done its work it begins to blister the patient, and leaves him finally with a painful spot, after having produced far less effect in a beneficial way than was intended. Now, a mustard plaster should never blister at all....[U]se no water, but mix the mustard with the white of an egg, and the result will be a plaster which will ‘draw’ perfectly, but will not produce a blister on the skin of an infant, no matter how long it is allowed to remain on the part.”

An article in the Athens (Ohio) Messenger on Jan. 12, 1882 likewise bemoaned lack of awareness of how to make a mustard plaster. Ignoring the supposed advantages of egg whites over water, it said:

“I shall now tell you how to prepare a mustard paste [for a plaster], though it is one of those things which everybody is supposed to know; and I do this because very faulty directions are given in many popular books on domestic remedies, written by those who should know better. Mix equal parts of ground mustard and fine flour with sufficient warm water to make an even paste; then spread it thinly on a bit of old linen, cover the face with another bit of old linen, or, better still, old muslin, and apply. Do not use any vinegar, boiling water, or alcohol, all of which destroy the efficacy of the mustard.”

The Victorian Era ushered in “ready-made” clothing, as opposed to that made from cloth at home, ready-made cigarettes, ready-made draperies, ready-made this, and ready-made that. The “this” and “that” included ready-made mustard plasters.

“Fougera’s Ready-Made Mustard Plasters are ready for use in a moment’s notice...,”  an ad in the April 8, 1874 issue of the Davenport (Iowa) Daily Gazette declared. “They are neat, clean and cheap.”

The Reno (Nev.) Evening Gazette on Oct. 13, 1887 admonished: “In every house there should be a little nook in which a few, simple remedies are kept. Among them should be some...ready-made mustard plasters.”

(Other items listed included “bicarbonate of soda,...camphor,...[and] a bottle of pure-whisky.”)

But ready-made mustard plasters had detractors. “The Dispensatory of the United States of America,” published in 1918, had this to say:

“Experience has shown that the ready-made mustard papers err rather from too much than from too little activity. Moreover, their action cannot be regulated with the same nicety as can that of the mustard poultice. Unless in the case of travellers, and of others who must wait upon themselves, the domestic application is preferable. The mustard leaves can rarely be borne for more than ten or fifteen minutes. Care should be observed to protect the leaves, as they are popularly called, from the action of moist air by keeping them in well closed containers.”

Magic and Medicine of Plants,” a book published in 1986 by Reader’s Digest, said:

“The plaster was effective because the mustard seed oil is a counterirritant—an agent that, when applied externally to an inflamed area, causes the blood vessels to dialate. The resulting increased blood supply to the area carries away the toxic products that produced the original inflammation.”

There were also mustard “poultices,” mustard baths, and mustard linaments. More about that later.


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