A New Family Herbal (1810)

Physical Description and Creators
A New Family Herbal: or popular account of the natures and properties of the various plants used in medicine, diet and the arts is a book written by Robert John Thornton M.D. (1768 – 1837), an English physician and a botanical writer. It is a large, thick, leather-bound book, with green marbling on the inside of the hardcover. The text is a typical typeface from the 19th century fonts and can be recognized as a common serif font. Each chapter begins with an illustration of the plant followed by a description, its various medical uses, its history and how it can be prepared.

The author, Robert John Thornton, was the son of Bonnell Thornton – an English poet, essayist, and critic. Thornton devoted most of his studies throughout his life to medicine and the study of botany. He was inspired by the illustrations made by the English botanist Thomas Martyn and he began to produce British botanical publications using other distinguished artists during that time. Thornton was incredibly passionate in plants and botany and was known to have made many of his own illustrations in his other books.

While Thornton is the primary author, the prints throughout the book have been made by Thomas Bewick, a renowned wood engraver and woodblock printer. The designs, “drawn from nature”, came from a “Henderson”, most likely Peter Charles Henderson, an artist who specialized in drawing plants, especially flowers.

The book was published by Sir Richard Phillips, an unusual publisher on some accounts, in London, at “Bridge-street, Blackfriars”. The book also has a letter to Andrew Duncan, M.D. before the contents of the book begin, apparently an esteemed professor at the University of Edinburgh at the time.

At the start of the book, Thornton dedicates A New Family Herbal to her majesty, Charlotte, Queen of England. He writes “having the Honour and Felicity of dedication, with Permission to your Majesty” (v), which shows that he had the permission from the queen or her representative(s) to mention her in his work. Thus, Thornton had to be intellectual and well regarded enough in order to be trusted by royalty. This book has a vast archive of plants and remedies used for the medicine, diet, and the arts. The 19th century was the mark of the Industrial Revolution, which meant that most Europeans were working in factories, mines and workshops. “Working people had very little leisure time” (Lambert), let alone have the time and money to buy books and find these special herbs for their particular purposes. Therefore, A Family Herbal was most likely targeted for the small demographic of wealthy individuals, who did not spend all day working, or had servants to make the remedies for them.  In addition, Lambert mentions that “early 19th century cities were dirty, unsanitary and overcrowded” (“Life in 19th Century Britain”), which meant low life expectancies and high infant mortality rates.  As a result, Thornton’s book could very well be used in attempts to treat those illnesses and diseases that so many people encountered.

History of Herbs
In the early ages, herbs were used for “repelling insects, hiding … human odor from animals, [and] pleasing their mates” (“Herbs: History”). There were specific herbs used for the same purposes in different parts of the world, but with explorers like Marco Polo in the 1200’s and 1300’s, many medicinal plants were introduced in new lands. Herbs from countries like “tropical Asia, China, Persia … and India… resulted in many medicinal plants being brought into Europe” (Petrovska). Attempts were made for cultivation and remedies for both domestic and imported plants, but only in the 19th century did chemists start using herbs to discover the first pharmaceuticals. According to reports, by the 1800’s, “121 prescription medications were derived from plants, and close to 74% were discovered because of their use in herbal healing” (“Herbs: History.”). Robert John Thornton published his works around this time, so it can be assumed that he was one of the frontrunners of making healing herbs recognised for the mass audience.

This book is somewhat similar to an archive or encyclopedia of herbs as it is dedicated “for the medicine, diet, and arts”. Thus one of the main reasons for the production of the book could be aimed at the wealthy readers who have access to research materials, medical knowledge and more information about foreign herbs. Early Victorian ideas of human physiology involved the understanding of anatomy that was often allied to the vital forces focusing on the haematological and nervous system, or the ancient “humours”. They believed that the body was defined as a “closed system of energy” (Marsh). This was also the time of smallpox, scarlet fever and measles, which was treated by bleeding by cup or leech to clean out the impurities from the body.  

However, scientific developments during the 19th century changed the understanding of health and diseases with the introduction of histology, pathology and microbiology. Along with the growth of science came the grow of medicine as modern ideas and instruments were introduced to Europe through trade and globalisation.  England was trading ideas, beliefs, food and plants with other nations, particularly India and Australia. New plants and medical ideas were introduced to treat illnesses that were carried from these migrations (Beattie). It can be inferred that the introduction of herbs as medicine was relatively new during this era as scientists begin to slowly investigate into the health benefits of herbs. The book, then, shows an investment into health that may be of interest to the wealthy Middle Class at that time as herbs were still considered exotic. The author also included ways to prepare the herbs, which may lead to the remedy or cooking of herbs for its readers. The book is an indication of good education at that time. If this book was part a hobby for the author, it may lead to the speculation that the readers and producers of this book are privileged to take the time to produce and consume this book.

Comparison Between John Skelton (Herbal Practitioner) and Robert J. Thornton
John Skelton was a Thomsonian herbal practitioner in the 1800’s. In 1848, Skelton became an herbalist, and “he drew substantially from earlier British texts” (Denham 1), A New Family Herbal being one of them. Denham does explain, however, that Robert Thornton’s book only included North American native herbs. These consists of “Polygala senega Seneca snakeroot, Sassafras albidum Sassafras, Spigelia marilandica Pink root and Veratrum viride American false hellebore” (Denham 98). Thus, Skelton has several publications regarding herbal medicine, and since his career started later than A New Family Herbal’s publication, he was able to gather more herbs for his texts from all around the globe compared to Thornton – 195 herbs total to be exact.

Thomas Bewick and Woodblock Printing
Thomas Bewick (1753 – 1828) was the apprentice of Ralph Beilby, the famous Newcastle trade engraver in the 1800’s. During his time of apprenticeship, Bewick was taught to engrave “end-grain boxwood” (Campbell), a medium that was new and still being developed back then. Bewick was a naturalist artist who was able to accurately engrave plants, flowers and other organisms from the natural world. His best illustrations were those in natural history books as his passion for sciences increased.

Bewick is most often awarded as the artist who revived wood engraving and especially re-established it as a printmaking technique, leading into a long, artistic period of woodblock printing. He made use of a different method from previous artists, carving in parallel lines as opposed to cross hatching (Chelsey), where lines intersected increasingly so to emulate a darker shading.

To achieve the gray effect and intricate white lines he achieved in A New Family Herbal (1810), he used white-line printing and lowered certain areas in the woodblock carving process to achieve a gray print as less pressure was applied to the thinner parts of the block (Chelsey).

Not only was printing with wood (as opposed to copperplates or metal in general) much cheaper (Chelsey), it could be in the same printing press as the text and printed accordingly – which is the most likely option for A New Family Herbal. This of course, meant that the wood block would have to be the same height as the type. (Emerson).

Woodblock printing is most likely to have originated from China, with examples of printed textiles from before 220 AD (Vainker). Wood stamps with hieroglyphic characters, made for brick and clay, were discovered in Egypt; more were found in ancient Babylon, and tools with Roman designs had names impressed upon them (Emerson).

In wood engraving, it is very similar to typesetting: instead of cutting grooves into the surface where the design is (copperplate printing), areas around the designs are carved out instead. For his prints in A New Family Herbal, it is likely Thomas Bewick used boxwood as his engravings are very fine, and boxwood “has the closest grain of any wood now known” (Emerson).Screen Shot 2016-11-03 at 11.43.18 AM.png

Sir Richard Phillips (Publisher)
This book was dedicated to Sir Richard Phillips, a renowned publisher and founder of The Monthly Magazine in 1796 in Little Bridge Street, Blackfrairs. He was able to build his fortune from publishing newly revised textbooks in a competitive market in 1777. His publications covered a wide array of subjects such as elementary school books, manuals, dictionaries and various scientific works.

Phillips began business as a “stationer, bookseller, and patent medicine vendor”, but when he added a printing press to his store his business expanded into printing artwork, sheet music, prints and books (etc.) (Seccombe).

Not only did he have strong opinions in literature and science, he also held radical republican views when discussing politics; thus, his store began to publish and sell literature from “the revolutionary epoch” (Seccombe). This might be one of the reasons Phillips agreed to publish Thornton’s books, as in the 1814 edition of A New Family Herbal Thornton uses very provocative language about the field: that it “was long left a waste barren of improvement” (that our CU Boulder peers also mentioned), suggesting a revolutionary passion in him Phillips would have approved of.

Phillips was an important figure during the 1800’s as he was elected sheriff of London, bearer of an address from the corporation to George III, and was knighted by the king in 1808. Because of his popularity and influence in the literary world in England, many of the books were published under his publications and dedicated to him at that time.

He moved to Little Bridge Street, Blackfriars in 1806 (Seccombe).

Leather Board Binding
As for appearance, A New Family Herbal has a leather board binding. Peachey explains that board binding was an “inexpensive retail style of binding that emerged in England in the mid-18th century”. Typically, it consists of “a sewn textblock with untrimmed edges, thin pasteboards laced on and covered in paper” (Peachey). Although this was the most common style, there were other variations, which included spines covered with leather or vellum instead of paper. By the end of the 18th century, board binding became the most frequent way for books to be sold, since this method was able to help meet the growing demand for books at a lower cost. Nonetheless, it was also common for publishers to “issue books in boards at the same time they issued the same books in sheep or calf leather for those interested and willing to pay more” (Peachey). For A New Family Herbal, it would not be surprising if its binding was covered in sheep or calf leather, since it seems like it was targeted for a wealthy audience. Although book bindings were cheaper to produced and were regarded to as “temporary”, a vast number of board bindings still exist, and are kept in fairly good condition. A Family Herbal is just one example out of many.

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