Long the staple of many household first aid supplies, the mustard plaster has had an interesting history dating back two thousand or more years.
The use of the mustard plant for medicinal purposes goes back several millennia. Mustard was used as both a condiment and medicine by the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians and Chinese. The first century CE Greek physician, Dioscorides, prescribed mustard for everything from tonsillitis to epilepsy, and the Romans combined ground mustard seed with vinegar to make an ointment for snakebites and scorpion stings and chewed the seed to relieve toothaches.
However, the most common medicinal use of mustard through the centuries was the mustard plaster, first recommended by the father of medicine, Hippocrates, as a treatment for pulmonary illnesses and rheumatism. Although there are various recipes for making a plaster, all basically use ground mustard seed, preferably from the pungent black variety, and flour mixed with water. The paste is then wrapped in a flannel or other cloth and placed on the affected area, the original theory being that the heat caused by the substances in the mustard would draw out poisons from the body. If not applied properly or used too long, the heat generated could cause burning and blistering of the skin.
The Mustard Plaster Goes World-Wide
By the late 1500s, the use of mustard plasters had spread to England and other parts of Europe, and then to the New World. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, doctors in Russia were using them as a treatment for mental illness and Spanish missionaries in California for a variety of illnesses. Thomas Jefferson was growing mustard plants at Monticello, in part for their medicinal value, and the Lewis and Clark expedition relied upon various poultices, including mustard, for the treatment of bruises, wounds, infections, and muscular aches.
The Mustard Plaster in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Valuable as a first line of defense against injuries, illnesses, and diseases, plasters, including those made with turpentine and belladonna as well as mustard, reached the height of their popularity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, both with doctors and as a home remedy, particularly in rural or isolated areas. Although the benefits could never match an 1801 Edinburgh newspaper’s claim that mustard could “cure rheumatism, gout, sciatica, headaches, numbness, palsy, and stomach complaints,” the heat generated from the mustard did increase blood circulation; and it was for this reason that when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated the first physician to reach his side immediately applied a plaster to the president’s chest. In addition, plasters could also help to break up chest congestion and temporarily relieve pain.
Newspapers and periodicals of that day regarded them as a necessary part of every household’s first aid remedies, along with bicarbonate of soda, camphor, and whiskey; and they were often mentioned in the literature of the day. In his short story, “Curing a Cold,” humorist Mark Twain told of having a large mustard plaster ready by his bedside only to see it eaten by his hungry roommate.
During the latter half of the 1800s, improvements were made to the product. Some users recommended using egg whites rather than water in order to minimize the risk of burning. Others suggested vinegar or alcohol. In 1874, “Fougera’s Ready-Made Mustard Plasters” were introduced to the market. Advertised as non-burning, clean, and cheap, the paper-wrapped plasters were activated by simply dipping them in warm water.
This period also saw the development of other ointments based on the mustard plaster theory, such as the camphor and menthol based analgesic heat treatments VapoRub™ and Ben-Gay™. Around 1910, the chemist, J. A. Begy, created an ointment containing mustard and turpentine to specifically replace plasters. Sold as “Begy’s True Mustarine,” it could be used without danger of skin burning or blistering. Imitators such as “Rawleigh’s Mustard Ointment” soon followed.
The Mustard Plaster Today
Although mustard plasters are no longer a common form of therapeutic medicine, they are still often recommended by herbalists and advocates of natural remedies. Powdered black mustard and ready-made plasters are available in some drugstores or online. And, the Internet is teeming with directions for the “perfect” recipe.