A New Family Herbal (1814)

A New Family Herbal by Robert Thornton is a medicinal book detailing plants, their uses, and healing practices of early 19th century medicine. At the time of publishing, Herbal texts were a source of knowledge for the medical use of plants. Circumventing the need for a doctor, these books provided detailed advice (Noviell). Since the costs of production were so high, only those who could afford the same binder and printer owned them. Indeed, it was a sign of wealth to have one’s books printed and bound by the same person.  Thornton’s motivations for creating this book were to improve the medical field. He states that, “The accounts have been so vague, and in every sense so credulous and vulgar…These works are a degradation to the human intellect; and highly dangerous to the community; and this beautiful field [was] long left a waste and barren for improvement.” (vi). His inflammatory language suggests the passion he feels for his subject. Thornton’s book provides details he believes are missing from such other books


The book is organized by plant type, with more common plants followed by more obscure plants and their uses. Among the first are Indian spices such as cardamom and turmeric, which are used to enhance food and cure common ailments. The book then dives into the less well known, such as the silver fir tree and Indian rubber. Thorton goes into over 700 pages of meticulous detail in order to improve the “barren” field of herbal medicine (vi).

Printing History

The care taken in the book’s content also extended to its physical properties. This volume was rebound in cloth and leather covers. The spine and spine label includes gilt lettering. Each temporal plate was created and painted by Thornton himself. In 1811, Thornton organized a lottery to sell his floral plates.  The use of hand-painted color prints demonstrates Thorton’s desire for both aesthetic pleasure and scientific accuracy.  


Despite its level of detail, the book was made out of inexpensive materials, making it accessible to middle class citizens. Thomas Bewick also published numerous illustrations in it as well. In this edition, there is some offsetting, browning, and soiling. The spine is rubbed, cracked, and chipped at the head and foot. The covers are bound in a gravel leather. The paper is less expensive due to the quality (Skinner i).

Thornton’s family herbal was remade into many editions that further embody his passion for the dissemination of herbal information. His dedication and delicate illustrations of plants later in his career also show how he carried this passion on after this edition was published. The second edition of A New Family Herbal also contains the intricate plates Thornton produced (Orbis).

Visit the Norlin Library’s record of this book here.

Students at the University of British Columbia researched the 1810 edition of the same title. To learn more about the book’s history and changes over time, visit their page here.

-Jackson Barnett and Kai Aptidon

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