Tar-water is a Medieval medicine consisting of pine tar and water. It was foul tasting and so slowly dropped in popularity, but was revived in the Victorian era.
The use of the medicine is mentioned in Great Expectations, Chapter 2 by Charles Dickens. Young Pip and his brother in law Joe were often force fed it by Mrs. Joe, Pip’s elder sister, whether they were ill or not, as sort of cruel punishment.
In the introduction of his Journal of A Voyage to Lisbon, Henry Fielding considers tar-water a panacea for treating dropsy: “But even such a panacea one of the greatest scholars and best of men did lately apprehend he had discovered (…). The reader, I think, will scarce need to be informed that the writer I mean is the late bishop of Cloyne, in Ireland, and the discovery that of the virtues of tar-water”. By the Bishop of Cloyne, Fielding refers to the above mentioned philosopher George Berkeley.
Pine tar is widely used as a veterinary care product. It is a traditional antiseptic and hoof care product for horses and cattle. Pine tar has also been used to make medicinal soap for people with skin ailments.
Bishop Berkeley (George Berkeley, Siris, Philosophical Reflexions and inquiries concerning the virtues of tar-water, and divers other subjects connected together and arising from one another.) was convinced of the medicinal value of tar water. He even wrote a treatise on the matter, a “chain of philosophical reflections that start with tar and end with the Trinity”. Then he wrote a poem on tar. He called it:
Hail vulgar juice of never-fading pine!
Cheap as thou art, thy virtues are divine.
To shew them and explain (such is thy store)
There needs much modern and much ancient lore.
While with slow pains we search the healing spell,
Those sparks of life, that in thy balsam dwell,
From lowest earth by gentle steps we rise
Through air, fire, æther to the highest skies …
(And so on and so forth)
DIRECTIONS FOR THE MAKING AND USING TAR-WATER By the author of Siris
To prevent mistakes in the making tar-water, the public is desired to take notice that Norway tar, which is liquid and of a brown colour, is fittest for this purpose. Four quarts of cold water having been poured on a quart of this tar, and strongly stirred together with a flat stick for three or four minutes, must, after it has stood eight and forty hours to settle, be poured off and kept for use either in battles or other vessels corked up.
The same tar will not do well a second time, but may serve for other uses. Water drawn off the tar the second or third time, if long stirred, may be as strong as the first water, but has not that spirit, and is more disagreeable to the stomach.
After various trials I fix on this as a good general rule, which may yet be varied as people have stronger or weaker stomachs.
Putting more water or stirring it less makes it weaker, as putting less water or stirring it longer gives it more strength. But it should never be made too strong for the stomach; weaker constitutions require milder medicines. For this everyone’s experience is the best guide. It should not be lighter than French or deeper coloured than Spanish white wine. If a spirit be not sensibly perceived on drinking, either the tar was bad or already used, or the tar-water carelessly made. He that would have it good should see it made himself.
Alteratives in general, taken little and often, mix best with the blood. Of tar-water one pint a day may do in chronical cases, drunk on an empty stomach either at two or four doses, to wit, night and morning and two or three hours after dinner or breakfast; but to children it should be given in less quantity. It may be drunk cold or warm, as anyone likes best, but in acute cases, as fevers of all kinds and pleurisies, it should be drunk warm and in bed, as much and as often as the patient can bear.
For instance, half-a-pint or even a whole pint every hour, which will be made easy by the heat and thirst of the patient. I never knew it fail in the most threatening fevers. For outward fomentations or for beasts to drink, it may be made much stronger by infusion of warm water.
I am persuaded tar-water may be drunk with great safety and success for the curing of most diseases, particularly all foul cases, ulcers and eruptions, scurvies of all kinds, nervous disorders, inflammatory distempers, decays, etc.
Tar Water, to make (1785)
Pour a gallon of water on two pounds of Norway tar, and stir them strongly together with a wooden rod: after they have stood to settle for two days, pour off the water for use.
Though tar-water falls greatly short of the character which has been given of it, yet it possesses some medicinal virtues. It sensibly raises the pulse, increases the secretions, and sometimes opens the body, or occasions vomiting.
A pint of it may be drank daily, or more, if the stomach can bear it. It is generally ordered to be taken on an empty stomach, viz. four ounces morning and evening., and the same quantity about two hours after breakfast and dinner.
Domestic Medicine 2nd edition 1785