I went to a performance of Taming of the Shrew on Sunday. Quite an excellent, intelligent and witty performance from the American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse right down the road from me in Staunton, Virginia. They had come touring to a sell-out crowd at my little Community College in the Blue Ridge.
In any case, Taming of the Shrew contains the memorable line,
“If I be waspish, best beware my sting”
and it gets a bit bawdy from there. I had been thinking about wasps, as it happens, because I have a wasp nest in the back of my yard right under the bird house.
This is one of those “Oh, how full of briers is this working-day world!” moments which is Rosalind’s line, not Kate’s, but it is also very properly my own line. After con
sidering several schemes I have decided not to deal with the wasps at all. I will wait till it freezes and then knock the stupid nest down. Then the ants can eat the wasps.
I feel entirely bloodthirsty and violent, but I intend to do this anyway.
This brought to mind the history of wasps and their relations with people and I decided to look into how my Regency folks would have dealt with wasp stings since I might be collecting some of my own.
Since I’m talking bugs I will just stop by for a brief nod at Charles Valentine Riley as I go by, that knowledgeable and far-sighted entomologist. He spearheaded the first US Grasshopper Commission, you know, and headed the U.S. Entomological Commission in 1876. Riley turned his back on the Big Chem of its day – pesticides based on arsenic, lead, and kerosene — and said, he’d never “had much faith in the application to the plant or the insect of any chemical mixture.” It was the insects’ natural enemies, “that carry on their good work most effectually.”
So it is kinda like me following Riley and handing over the wasps to my allies the ants, assuming the ants come out and eat the wasps during a warm spell which is by no means assured.
But onward to the Regency.
How did they deal with wasp sting?
In The New Family Receipt-book, 1811, John Murray says, “rubbing of the part stung, with a slice of onion, will give immediate ease.” Or they can be treated by applying “oil of tartar or solution of potash, and it will give instant ease; as also well bruised mallows.”
Oil of tartar is what we call cream of tartar when we use it in cooking nowadays. It’s a byproduct of wine making apparently. Potash is literally pot ash, the ash from charred vegetables. It would have been used as a fertilizer in the Regency, being all full of potassium goodness.
Mallow is a plant family. Here’s one.
Murray adds, “Sweet oil, applied immediately, cures the sting of wasps or bees.” Sweet oil being olive oil in this case.
And “The immediate application of Eau du Luce to many persons who have been stung by wasps, has caused the pain to subside in a few seconds, and after a few minutes all inflammation ceased.”
I know you are going to ask about Eau de Luce so I have this ready for you.
Per The Domestic Encyclopedia of A. F. M. Willich, Eau De Luce is a … "liquid volatile soap with a pungent smell." To make it, you dissolve white soap in alcohol, add oil of amber, (which is what you get when you heat amber till it melts,) and volatile spirit of sal ammoniac. (That seems to be ammonium hydroxide and ammonium chloride. Quicklime is involved in this somehow and I wouldn’t mess with it myself.)
You can perfume your Eau de Luce with lavender if that’s how you roll.
Willich goes on to say the use of Eau de Luce “as an external remedy is extensive; for it has been employed for curing the bites of vipers, wasps, bees, gnats, ants, and other insects, for burns and even the bite of a mad-dog, though not always with uniform success.”
Hmmm. I imagine not.
Mostly though, Eau de Luce was used as very upscale smelling salts. It came in a lovely gold-decorated bottle. Nothing like a gold bottle to rouse you from a stupor.
“I was indeed ready to faint! I was never so ill. The men, who all condemned Lord Merton’s rashness, ran for drops, &c. &c. Bellville held one of my hands in his, and with the other, an eau de luce bottle to my nose. His tender solicitude, and repeated assurances that he was not much hurt, soon restored me.”
Moving from remedies that include melted amber to the more mundane sort:
“A good remedy for the sting of wasps and bees, is to apply to the part affected common culinary salt, moistened with a little water. Even in a case where the patient had incautiously swallowed a wasp in a draught of beer, and been stung by it in the windpipe, the alarming symptoms that ensued were almost instantly relieved by swallowing repeated doses of water, saturated with salt.” John Murray
If I find myself going head to head with wasps, I will keep a canister of salt handy.
One final word from the scienc-y folks of the Regency:
“Various kinds of oil, honey, ammonia, spirit of wine, and several other reputed specifics, appear to deserve no such character, since they are found, after unprejudiced trials, to have no power of neutralizing the venom, nor of appeasing the actual pain arising from the sting. … [The best treatment is] The part is afterwards to be covered with snow, or bathed with ice-cold water, or some cooling sedative lotion. In short, the case is to be treated on common antiphlogistic principles, experience having fully proved that no specific has yet been discovered for the sting of the bee, and other venomous insects.”
The Cyclopedia: Or Universal Dictionary, Volume 38, 1819, Abraham Rees
So. What are your antiphlogistic principles?
How do you treat any wasp stings or bee stings that come into your life?