The Salts of Epsom

My grandmother swore by Epsom salts for lots of things, particularly as a remedy for what ails a person, inside or out. I still have a box on my shelf, and use them from time to time, just as Grandma taught me. Yet it was not until recently that I linked the name of this universal remedy with a place by the same name in England. And research has shown that those so-called "salts" did indeed come from the market and racing town of that same name.

The origin and uses of Epsom salts through the Regency . . .

The town of Epsom is in the home county of Surrey, and is located about fifteen miles south-west of London. The original name of the town is believed to have been Ebbasham, derived from the name of an ancient Northumbrian princess, Ebba. Over time, it became corrupted to Evesham, and eventually, to Epsom. The area was a significant meeting place in Anglo-Saxon times, but does not appear to have been an important settlement during that period. In the mid-sixteenth century, Henry VIII built his famous Nonesuch Palace a couple of miles to the north-east, which did bring more visitors into the area. But even with a royal palace nearby, Epsom remained a small village in a quiet rural region of England for another century.

During the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, the bitter salty water in the well in the Epsom area became popular with locals for the treatment of ulcers and other internal ailments. But it would not be until the mid-seventeenth century that people began to travel from distant places to take the waters. In 1645, Lord North published a volume of essays and meditations which he entitled A Forest of Varieties. In one of his essays, Lord North touted the health benefits of the fine saline spa of Epsom, thus making them known to the wider world. Within a year of the book’s publication, people from across Britain, and even some from the Continent, came to Epsom to take the waters. By the time Charles II was restored to the throne of Britain, large numbers of courtiers, aristocrats and affluent citizens flocked to Epsom Wells. The King himself was known to resort to Epsom on more than one occasion during his reign, and not just for the racing at the nearby downs.

After the Restoration, Epsom became a fashionable resort and spa town. At that time, it was preferred to Tunbridge Wells by many since it was closer to London, thus reducing the time required to traverse the notoriously bad roads of the era to reach a spa town. To support the increased number people coming to Epsom Wells take the waters, several new inns and public houses were constructed in the area to accommodate all these visitors. One of these inns was believed to be the largest inn anywhere in England at that time. It was said that during the height of its popularity, as many as sixty coaches and travelling carriages carrying spa visitors rolled into Epsom on many days. It was so popular and well-known that the poet and playwright, Thomas Shadwell, wrote a comedic play called Epsom Wells in 1672. The comedy was a great hit in London and is considered one of Shadwell’s best plays. The Epsom Wells spa remained a popular health resort for English royalty and aristocrats through the reign of Queen Anne.

After 1714, with the arrival of Queen Anne’s Hanoverian successor, George I, the Epsom Wells spa soon fell out of favor. Neither the Hanoverian royal family nor their courtiers chose to visit the spa town and the upper classes soon followed suit. As with most spa towns of the era, Epsom had a large complex of public Assembly Rooms which had become the centre of activity for visitors who had come to take the waters. Once the spa fell out of fashion, the Epsom Assembly Rooms were deserted and neglected. Those buildings were in such a ruinous state by 1804 that they had to be pulled down. So it was that by the time the Regency began, Epsom Wells was no longer a popular spa resort. King Charles II granted permission for a weekly market and two fairs to be held at Epsom. Those rights were renewed by his successors until it became tradition. Therefore, during the Regency, Epsom was an important market town for the area. It had also become a popular stopping place for those who attended race meetings held at the nearby Epsom Downs race course.

Decades before Epsom became a popular spa resort, locals learned that when they boiled down the water from the Epsom well, they could obtain "salts" which gave them the same benefits as the water. However, it must be understood that at that time the term "salt" was not restricted only to sodium chloride. That same term was also used to refer to any chemical compound, usually in crystalline form, for example, smelling "salts." The chemical compound that was recovered when the water of the Epsom well was boiled was actually magnesium sulfate. In its dry form, it has a white crystalline appearance and thus became known as Epsom salts.

Magnesium sulfate is a fairly common mineral which has a number of medicinal applications. Many of those applications were known as early as the sixteenth century. Soaking in water laced with magnesium sulfate eases and soothes sore and tired muscles, reduces inflammation and speeds the healing of wounds. Applied externally, water in which Epsom salts have been dissolved can draw toxins from the body, ease migraine headaches, and reduce high blood pressure. A long soak in an Epsom salts bath stimulates the production of serotonin and thereby improves relaxation, which typically results in a deeper, more concentrated sleep. That same Epsom salts bath can also minimize the effect of skin ailments such as psoriasis and eczema, as well as leaving skin softer and smoother. An Epsom salts foot bath will not only ease the pain of aching feet, multiple soakings can soften rough skin and alleviate skin conditions such as athletes foot and toenail fungus, as well as eliminating foot odor.

Epsom salts can be used for both beauty treatments and simple first aid. The salts can be mixed into a paste which will gently exfoliate the skin and clear clogged pores. The anti-microbial properties of the sulfate in the compound will also help to combat acne. A strong solution of Epsom salts and water can be used to remove excess oil from hair, increase the volume of thin hair and protect against dandruff. A thin paste made of Epsom salts and cool water can be applied to sunburned skin to ease the pain and reduce itching. A compress made of a cloth soaked in a strong solution of cold water and Epsom salts pressed against a bee sting or mosquito bite will reduce the pain and draw out the poison. With bee stings, it also makes it easier to remove any stingers which remain embedded in the skin. Repeated applications of Epsom salt solutions will reducing itching and promote rapid healing.

When taken internally, usually dissolved in water, Epsom salts could promote good digestion and cleanse the intestinal tract. It is also a natural laxative or purgative. The presence of magnesium sulfate in the body can regulate sugar levels in the blood, which can help to maintain or improve energy levels. It also promotes stronger bones and improves the formation of proteins needed to maintain joint health. Magnesium supports the healthy functioning of cells in the body and is a component in the prevention of hardening of the arteries, heart disease and strokes. It also aids in the absorption and use of oxygen in the body. [Author’s Note:   Though Epsom salts are indeed a naturally occuring mineral and have been used for centuries in the treatment of many ailments, they may have different effects on different people. The use of Epsom salts, particularly when taken internally, should be done only after consulting a physician. Because the magnesium sulfate in Epsom salts can be easily absorbed through the skin, pregnant woman in particular, should not use Epsom salts externally until they consult their physician.]

But treating human ailments was not the only use of Epsom salts. Some horse breeders and trainers also used them to relieve the overworked muscles of their race horses. They were also administered to some horses internally to cleanse the gut or as a purgative. Epsom salts also had uses in agriculture and gardening. An Epsom salt solution was used as a plant tonic. It would restore the magnesium and sulfate which could be leached from the soil by rain, and it facilitated the plant’s ability to absorb the fertilizers in the soil. The application of Epsom salts to plants supports germination, foliage and flower production, and improves the production of chlorophyll. Because Epsom salts are essentially neutral, they do not increase the acidity or alkalinity of the soil, which is also beneficial to most plants.

Epsom salts were known to be sold as early as the reign of King Charles I, in the first decades of the seventeenth century, even before Epsom became a fashionable spa town. At that time, they were sold for the rather high price of five shillings per ounce, since they were all made from the waters of the single Epsom well, and were intended primarily for human consumption. However, over time, the mineral compound which made up these salts was identified as magnesium sulfate and it was then possible to mine it very economically in various limestone deposits throughout Britain. By the Regency, Epsom salts could be purchased quite inexpensively at most apothecaries across the British Isles.

Epsom salts had become a popular ingredient in tonics for many people from the mid-seventeenth century. They might be taken mixed into a glass of water, but due to their very bitter taste, some people preferred to mix them into a cup of tea or coffee. From at least the end of the eighteenth century, Epsom salts, usually scented with an essential oil, such as lavender, were used as bath salts by many ladies. Strong solutions of Epsom salts, often also scented, were used as a hair rinse which kept hair clean, thick, soft and shiny, as well as preventing dandruff. A foot bath of a solution of warm water and Epsom salts would soothe tired feet after a long night of dancing, as well as softening any rough skin and protecting against foot odor. Dear Regency Authors, can you find a use or two for Epsom salts in one of your upcoming romance stories?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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7 Responses to The Salts of Epsom

  1. funnily enough I just read about the benefits and have started using them for my aches… the plot bunny that springs to mind is when the hero has been hurt and the heroine makes him a bath of epsom salts. He protests that he is not a horse but she insists and he finds it very beneficial.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I like that plot bunny, so much potential for humor and a maybe a slightly naughty scene or two!


      • hehe yes indeed! I have a plot outline which I am hoping to write at some point in which the impoverished hero is revolted by the idea of marrying money to recoup his fortunes, and as all he knows is being a sportsman and a gentleman goes into hiding to become a pugilist, secretly betting huge sums on this new fighter’s success. He rescues the heroine from a predicament and she is appalled at how attracted she is to the low-born fighter, as well as grateful. Naturally eventually he tells her the truth and she turns out to be an heiress, but of course he doesn’t tell her until he has made enough from his fighting to be able to meet her on more equal terms. The scene would fit in quite nicely after he’s rescued her and they are at an inn somewhere…

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