A Guide to Health from the 19th Century

Written by Justin Burkett
11 · 11 · 19

Looking around at the world of health and disease, I am not really surprised that so many people are in a state of suffering. The lifestyle of the contemporary American consists of activities of mind and body that necessarily and inevitably lead to death and disease. We could list a few in broad strokes covering the most basic categories.



The input would include the food, the drink, the air, the information, the drugs, the media consumed

The output would include the work, the exercise, the breath, the words, the thoughts, the vomit, the piss, the sweat the tears and feces.

In all of this is the balancing act we experience as the self.

I tell you, it is not for a lack of medicine or some un-possessed thing that they are suffering. It is for the quality and quantity of input and output.

I invite you to read this excerpt from “A guide to Health by Benjamin Colby” from 1846. There is great deal of practical wisdom here.

by Benjamin Colby

Health—the poor man’s riches, and the rich man’s bliss.
A STATE of health consists in the power of all the different
organs to perform, in an easy and regular manner, all their proper
offices.. This state, on which our happiness so much depends, is the
legitimate result of a correct mode of living. The man, woman, or
child, who daily transgresses the physical laws of their nature, can no
more expect to be healthy, than they can expect to breathe without air
or live under water.
Ask the man who has not been free from pain a single day for a
series of years, what he considers the greatest earthly blessing, and he
will tell you, health. When deprived of this, all nature wears a gloomy
aspect. The glistening sun beams, the opening flowers, the green-clad
trees, the rippling streams, or the soul-cheering notes of the feathered
songsters, have for him no charms. The aching head, the hacking
cough, and the hectic flush, admonish him, that soon he must close his
eyes on all things earthly. Then it is he looks back with sorrow and
deep remorse on a life spent in constant violation of the laws of nature,
the result of which is always to produce misery and disease in
proportion to the extent of those violations.
Thousands there are, who are this moment rolling in wealth,
who would give a quit-claim deed of all creation, and place themselves
in the condition of the man who depends on his daily labor for
his daily bread, if they could enjoy perfect health.
If health be thus valuable, that the miser will pour out his gold,
the epicure give up his sumptuous fare, and the young lady bid
defiance to the life-destroying fashions of the age, that they may
obtain it when lost, is it not worth preserving ?
How then can we preserve our health ? Here is a question of
more importance than any other of the great questions that are now
agitating the world. Any question or enterprise, having for its object
the accumulation or preservation of wealth, would weigh as little in
comparison with this, as the bubble in the opposite scale with the
mountain. It may be argued that health is a blessing conferred upon us
by Divine Providence, and He continues or destroys it according to his
own pleasure, without any agency of our own. This doctrine has
prevailed to an alarming extent, and has been sanctioned by those who
profess to know more about the mysterious dealings of Providence
than they do the physiological laws of our nature. Is it not the height
of injustice to charge upon Him, whose “tender mercies are over all
the works of his hands,” our own folly? He, in infinite wisdom and
goodness, has established certain unchangeable laws, by which all
matter, animate and inanimate, is governed. Obedience to these laws
secures to us health and all its blessings, with as much certainty as
obedience to moral laws secures peace of mind.
In order therefore to preserve health, a proper regard must be
had to food, drink, clothing, excercise, air, and bathing.
FOOD AND DRINK —On no one thing does perfect health so much
depend, as on the quantity, quality, and proper mastication of food;
notwithstanding which, a majority of mankind swallow down, half
chewed, and in large quantities, a heterogeneous mass of beef, pork,
butter, cheese, mince pies, cakes, &c., regardless of consequences or
the object of eating and drinking. So long as we thus transgress
nature’s laws, so long we must suffer the consequences; which are
pain, debility, and untimely death, in spite of physicians, regular or
irregular, homoeopathic, hydropathic, or Thomsonian even. Such is
the difference in the habits and constitution of man, that no universal
system of diet can be prescribed, adapted to the circumstances of all;
but a few simple rules should always be observed. Eat, three times a
day only, a moderate quantity of such food as is the most easily
digested, which should be well chewed or mixed with the saliva before
it is swallowed. The best food is coarse wheat bread, potatoes, rice,
ripe fruit, rye pudding, peas, beans, &c., and the best drink is pure cold
water; avoiding tea, coffee, fat meat, butter, cheese, &c. The real
object of eating should be kept in view, viz. to supply the system with
a proper amount of nutriment, varying according to the amount of
active exercise taken, and the power of the digestive apparatus, and
not to gratify a depraved appetite. Every man and woman should
become acquainted with the physiological laws of their nature, so as to
eat and drink and provide for their children in accordance therewith.
CLOTHING.—The principal object of clothing is to protect the
body from cold and inclement weather, and therefore should be
adapted to the climate, season of the year, age, &c. The practice of
dressing children very warm, serves to enfeeble and relax the system,
rendering them subject to colds and all their attendant evils. They
should be accustomed to wear but little clothing when indoors, and
that perfectly loose about them. It will be observed that those children
who, from necessity, are poorly clad and coarsely fed, are usually
more robust than those who are warmly clad, and are pampered with
all the nice things a fond mother can obtain; the good intentions of
whom do not prevent the suffering she is unavoidably bringing upon
herself and offspring. This consideration only should be kept in view
in dress, regardless of fashion, that is, its adaptedness to the
convenience and comfort of the wearer, and the season of the year.
Too much cannot be said against compressing the chest, as is the
custom of many females, who have thereby sacrificed themselves to
the goddess fashion, and we fear many more must be sacrificed at the
same shrine before the practice will be abandoned. Tight bandages
about the neck, or any part of the system, should be avoided, as they
obstruct the free circulation of blood.
If a man would live in accordance with his nature, take proper
exercise in the open air, and thereby produce a free circulation of
blood, but little clothing would be required; but as he is enfeebled by
disease, want of exercise, &c., he must keep himself warm by flannels,
stoves, and stimulating meats and drinks, until exhausted nature gives
up the struggle to sustain its requisite quantity of heat, which suddenly
sinks to the temperature of the ground six feet from the surface.
The real object of clothing seems, at the present day, to be
almost entirely overlooked; fashion, instead of convenience and
comfort, must be consulted. How many render themselves miserable
because they have not the means of following every foolish fashion
that is introduced! while others toil incessantly, giving themselves no
opportunity for the improvement of the mind or innocent amusement,
destroying their health and happiness to obtain the means of rendering
themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the really wise. But so the world
goes, and so it must continue to go, until dress and shape become so
ridiculous and fantastical as to be a laughing-stock for each other.
Says the celebrated Cobbett on this subject, “ Let our dress be as
cheap as may be without shabbiness; attend more to the color of your
shirt than to the gloss and texture of your coat; be always clean as your
situation will, without inconvenience, permit; but never, no, not for
one moment, believe that any human being, with sense in his skull,
will love or respect you on account of your fine, costly clothes.”
The man or woman, who has independence enough to dare dress
consistently and decently, in defiance of a foolish and pernicious
fashion, if holding a rank in society that gives them influence, will do
much for the benefit of his or her race. Ye professed followers of the
despised Nazarene, shall we not look to you for the example ? or must
Christianity itself yield to fashion, and its professors vie with each
other in obtaining the most gaudy and costly apparel ?
EXERCISE.—It is a law of our nature that a certain amount of
active exercise in the open air must be taken every day in order to be
perfectly healthy; and it is supposed that the amount necessary to
procure all the food, clothing, &c., for the whole, together with what
would be naturally taken in amusement and walks of pleasure, if
divided equally among those who were competent to labor, would be
the proper amount of exercise for each; but in the present arrangement
of society, the few must labor incessantly in active employment,
exhausting the powers of nature, and leaving the moral and intellectual
powers uncultivated; while the many are engaged entirely in sedentary
employments, or no employment, except to consume what the hard
labor of the few produces. Both classes transgress the laws of nature
—the one, in not exercising enough; the other, in exercising too much.
The facilities for locomotion are such at the present time, and the
disposition of man to avail himself of them so general, that nearly all
action of the lower extremities will be suspended by those who have
the means of paying the expense of being trucked or cabbed to the
cars, and by the cars to their desired town or city, and then trucked or
cabbed again to the residence of a friend or the travelers home. The
result of which is invariably, coldness of the extremities, costiveness,
head-ache, indigestion, lowness of spirits, weakness; then come Indian
purgative pills, calomel, blue pills, steam and lobelia, a visit to the
springs, a miserable existence, and premature death. This is no picture
of the imagination, but a facsimile of what is daily transpiring around
us, and he whose eyes are open cannot help seeing it. But we do not
expect to turn the tide that is thus carrying so many on the bosom of its
waters to the grave. But the law and its penalties cannot be evaded by
its violators.
Walking is probably the most healthy exercise; riding on
horseback, sawing wood, digging the soil, are also excellent modes of
exercise. Those who cannot exercise in the open air in consequence of
ill-health or the inclemency of the weather, should engage in such
exercise as they can bear within doors; and if not able to take active
exercise, make use of the flesh-brush or a coarse towel two or three
times a day.
AIR.—But few are aware of the importance of inhaling pure air,
or duly consider the consequences of inhaling that which is impure. A
fruitful cause of pulmonary complaints, colds, coughs, &c., at the
present time, is the practice of heating rooms with stoves, which
destroy, to a certain extent, the oxygen, and leave the air unfit for
respiration; and if the rooms were kept perfectly tight, the air would
soon be rendered incapable of sustaining life. Our forefathers, by
living in houses well ventilated, and being almost constantly in the
open air, and sleeping in apartments where the pure air of heaven was
permitted to circulate freely, were robust and healthy; while their
posterity are so enfeebled by the pernicious customs of the age, as to
be under the necessity of wrapping up head, ears and mouth, when
they go out, lest they should take cold, and by this very means
predispose the system to take cold.
BATHING.—Ablution, or bathing the surface once a day in cold
water, is a very important means of preserving health. It invigorates
and strengthens the system, cleanses the surface, and renders a person
less liable to take cold. It should be done in the morning on rising
from bed. Take a bowl of water, and with the hand bathe the whole
surface, and rub briskly with a coarse towel. Those who are feeble can
use the tepid weak lye-water, followed by brisk friction. We shall
treat of baths as remedial agents in another part of this work.
Let those who consider health of more importance than the
gratification of a depraved appetite, or conformity to foolish and
destructive fashions, seek them a healthy location in the country, if
they are not already thus situated; eat the fruits of the field and garden
alone; dress consistently, with reference to comfort rather than
fashion; construct houses so as to be well ventilated; throw aside
feather beds, air-tight stoves, tea and coffee, beef, pork, butter, &c.,
take four hours active exercise in the open air every day when the
weather will permit, and bathe the surface in cold water every day; and
above all, keep a conscience void of offense: and with as much
certainty as the earth revolves round the sun, or water inclines to run
down hill, will they enjoy health, peace, and competence. But those
who are determined to follow the foolish customs of the age; live in
indolence or in constant toil, breathe the contaminated air of cities and
large villages; eat hogs and sheep, rich pies and cakes, and live in
constant violation of the laws of nature, must suffer the consequencespain,
suffering, anxiety, parting with loved children, constant sickness,
&c. When will mankind be wise, and observe the laws of their nature,
and thereby avoid the suffering that inevitably follows their
transgression ? In consequence of the unnatural state in which man
lives, his body is constantly diseased, requiring the aid of medicine to
assist nature in her efforts to regain lost energy. To supply this
demand, physicians and secret medicine-manufacturers, as thick as the
frogs of Egypt, have sprung up in every town and city, many of whose
remedies are as well adapted to cure disease as a hand-saw would be
for shaving, and the aggregate of whom, undoubtedly, increase vastly
the amount of disease and suffering.
The following remarks on the promotion of health and longevity
are from the pen of the celebrated Dr. COURTNEY, surgeon, R. N., of
Ramsgate, England:—
“The human frame is so constituted that it may, by wise
training, not only be brought to bear with impunity every vicissitude
of climate, but even be strengthened and hardened thereby. The
stomach—the great store-house of the body, and without the integrity
of whose functions life itself is but a burden—can be rendered capable
of digesting any kind of food, and our bodies of performing almost
any amount of labor, so long as we observe the rules which
experience, physiology, reason and common sense dictate. Of these
rules, the most important, perhaps, are the following:— moderation in
eating and drinking, great personal cleanliness, early rising, fearless
and daily frequent exposure to the weather in all its vicissitudes, and
total abstinence from intoxicating liquors. Persons who would enjoy
health and length of days must give up the effeminate and luxurious
habits now so fashionable; and must not live in rooms defended from
the breath of heaven, by means of closely-fitting doors and windows,
and heated by enormous fires to a temperature that must relax and
enervate—rendering them living barometers, or like so many hothouse
plants, to whom every change is blight or death. The so-called
“comforts” of life are the very bane of health. Lounging on sofas and
in carriages, late hours, soft beds, lying in bed till nine or ten in the
morning—these, and the like luxurious habits, combined with the
sedentary amusements of card playing, novel-reading, &c., are of
themselves sufficient to dilapidate the strongest constitution.
“ The more exercise any person takes, the larger is the quantity
of oxygen he inhales, and the warmer he becomes; consequently the
person who takes but little exercise, inhaling little oxygen, loses in a
great measure its warming, vivifying, and strengthening agency.
When there is a deficiency of oxygen in the system, the black blood
from the veins is but imperfectly changed by the air in the lungs, and a
blood unfit for the purposes of life flows through the body; the
consequence of which is—must be, a falling off in the health, to a
greater or less extent. Hence arise those very prevalent affections—
chilliness, languor, low spirits, head-aches of different kinds,
faintness, palpitations, stupor, apoplexy, &c.
“It has been imagined by persons ignorant of the mechanism
and physiology of the human frame, that females cannot bear much
exercise or exposure to atmospherical vicissitudes, and that passive
exercise is more suited to their constitutions. This is a mistake
altogether—an error which has caused the loss of health in thousands
of instances. Constant and daily exercise in the open air, early rising,
a daily ablution of the body with cold water, and the avoidance of
over-heated and badly-ventilated rooms, are essentials in the code of
health, which can no more be dispensed with by the female than the
male. Indeed, when we take into consideration the many causes that
tend to weaken and impair the health of the female, which do not at all
interfere with man, this necessity of the avoidance of enervating habits
is even more requisite on the part of the weaker sex. To both sexes we
would say, avoid easy chairs, and cushioned sofas and carriages, and
sleep not on beds of down, but on hard mattresses, and keep not on
these beyond the time that nature requires for repose. Let the pure
breath of heaven gain free admission to your apartments, but
especially to your sleeping apartments: and if you would not, as you
ought not, respire over and over again the same corrupted air, do not
stop its free circulation by surrounding your bed with curtains. Our
fashionable habits are “ the silken fetters of delicious ease,” which
entail spleen, melancholy, &c., on so many of the fair sex, and too
many of whom contrast, alas! too forcibly, with Gay’s vivid but
correct description of a country girl:—
“She never felt the spleen’s imagined pains,
Nor melancholy stagnates in her veins;
She never loses life in thoughtless ease,
Nor on the velvet couch invites disease.“
“ It is more essential to have our bed-rooms well ventilated than
our drawing-rooms, because we pass more time in them; and when we
consider that the oxygen (oxygen is the great supporter of life and
heat) contained in a gallon of air is consumed by one person in a
minute, and that a lighted candle consumes about the same quantity in
the same time, it must be evident to all that thorough ventilation is
essential to health—that perfect health, in fact, cannot be maintained
with out it; and that lights in our bed-rooms, when a frequent renewal
of the air in them cannot be maintained, are exceedingly pernicious.
According to Dr. Arbuthnot’s calculation, three thousand human
beings, within the compass of an acre of ground, would make an
atmosphere of their own steam, about seventy-one feet high; which, if
not carried away by winds, would become pestiferous in a moment. It
should be remembered that the same air cannot enter the lugs more
than four times without carrying with it properties inimical to the
principles of life. A moment’s consideration of the state in which the
air must be, that is confined all night within bed-curtains, and is
respired innumerable times, will explain how it is that many persons
rise in the morning with pale faces, bad taste in the mouth, want of
appetite, &c.; symptoms, however, which often arise from other
causes, and especially from the use of intoxicating liquors. ‘Being
buried every night in feathers,’ says the celebrated Locke, ‘melts and
dissolves the body, is often the cause of weakness, and is the
forerunner of an early grave.’ ”

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Justin Burkett

Justin is an Licensed Acupuncturist and songwriter in Grass Valley, Nevada County, California. He believes our bodies make all the medicine we need.

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