July 16, 2020

Fight Scurvy! Drink Lemonade!

A Herreshoff-era recipe for lemonade and some complementary history of one of the deadliest diseases in maritime history

Botanical illustration of a lemon by Franz Kohler, 1897

We know you've all been home for a while now. Being cooped up at home can feel a little like being on a long voyage: you don't have a lot of room to move around or a lot of privacy and all the good snacks are gone way too fast after every provisioning trip. Your family may be feeling more like a crew of unruly sailors every day. There is one thing we can do to help make sure you don't suffer like sailors of the past though: drink lemonade, and prevent scurvy!

What is scurvy exactly?

Scurvy is a nasty disease that results from a vitamin C deficiency. When you don't get enough vitamin C, your gums start bleeding and you are easily bruised, and if it goes untreated you will eventually die. Today, most people today get plenty of vitamin C from eating fresh fruits and vegetables. But in the centuries before fast steam ships could get you across oceans in a matter of days instead of weeks or months, many sailing voyages lasted for months or even years. It was common for sailors to go a very long time without eating any fresh fruits or vegetables at all. It was such a huge problem that historian Stephen Brown estimates more people died of scurvy than of storms and shipwrecks, battles at sea, and all other diseases combined before a cure was discovered. The first inkling that citrus might be a cure came in 1747 with with Dr. James Lind's experiments onboard a British naval vessel. But even then they didn't know it was the vitamin C that was saving lives, or that there were such things as vitamins at all. It took more than a century for the connection to be widely recognized and understood. If you want to read more about the history of scurvy, click here to read more, perhaps while enjoying a nice cold glass of lemonade (recipe below). You can swap out limes for lemons if you prefer, but do note that limes have only about half as much vitamin C as lemons if you are planning any long voyages.

Image Right: Title page of Lind's treatise on scurvy, published in 1772; image courtesy the University of Virginia Health Sciences Library

The history of lemonade is just as interesting as the history of scurvy! Here is one recipe from the Herreshoff era, published by Isabella Beeton in her cookbook, “The Book of Household Management" in 1861. We recommend you scrub your lemons in hot water before starting. Let us know how this historical recipe goes!


The rind of two lemons

The juice of 3 large or 4 small lemons

1 lb. loaf sugar [equivalent today to 1 lb. of regular granulated sugar]

1 quart of boiling water

Mode [a.k.a., method!]

Rub some of the sugar, in lumps, on 2 of the lemons until they have imbibed all the oil from them, and put it with the remainder of the sugar into a jug; add the lemon-juice (but not pips); and pour over a whole quart of boiling water. When the sugar is dissolved, strain the lemonade through a fine sieve or piece of muslin, and, when cool, it will be ready for use....

From Isabella Beeton's "Book on Household Management"

3 replies added

  1. John Gearing July 19, 2020 Reply

    If you peel the lemons….do so before you juice them….and….be careful not to include any of the bitter white matter that lies just beneath the peel. While acknowledging Mrs. Beeton’s doubtless expertise in lemonade making, readers may wish to muddle the strips of peel with the sugar. This will serve to release the lemons’ essential oils into the sugar. If going the muddling route, let the peel and sugar mixture sit for an hour or two, then muddle again before adding the boiling water. Seems to help extract maximum lemon flavor.

    • e.ansel July 20, 2020 Reply

      Thanks John! This is great advice 🙂

  2. Mary Ann January 7, 2024 Reply

    Is there a way of doing this without all of the sugar?

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