Artefacts: plasters & poultices

One hundred years ago preparations to soothe and medicate the skin were regularly prescribed and compounded, including ointments, creams, plasters and poultices

Preparing a plaster involved spreading a pliable base (resin, wool fat or beeswax) into which the active ingredients were incorporated were incorporated, onto a soft material such as sheepskin, chamois leather or calico, which was then cut into a shape that facilitated its application to the affected part of the body.

Pharmacists had templates to trace these onto the materials so they could be prepared into shapes to make the plasters a close fit to the affected parts. Once the appropriate stencil of the shape had required had been applied to the material, the pharmacist would slightly warm the base and ingredients over a water-bath and spread the warmed base over the stencilled shape, using a warm plastering iron (pictured).

When cooled, the shape would be cut out, leaving about a one-inch (2.5cm) margin and supplied to the patient for bandaging onto the body part.

More recently the kidney-shaped ABC back plaster was available (Arnica, Belladonna and Capsicum), being used for its heating qualities in the treatment of lower back pain. Another more recent product, used for the treatment of varicose ulcers, was the “Viscopaste bandage” (not quite a plaster) consisting of Zinc Oxide Paste spread on a roller bandage.

In the years before the discovery of antibiotics, boils, carbuncles (multi-headed boils) and abscesses were a frequent problem.  The application of heat via a poultice was the usual treatment.  “Cataplasma Kaolin” (kaolin poultice) was the most common, but this was in the days before the microwave oven, so the poultice had be heated over steam before application. The medication was usually spread on oiled silk ready for use.  The objective was to draw the pocket of infection to a head and release the infected material.

These days the only remaining product is “Magnoplasm” (magnesium sulphate and glycerine paste) spread generously on lint or gauze and applied for its drawing qualities.

By Ralph Tapping

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