Doctors once prescribed a tonic.
Sulfur and molasses was the dose.
Didn’t help one bit.
My condition must be chronic.
Spring can really hang you up the most.
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” (1952)
lyrics by Fran Landesman; music by Tommy Wolf
Time to shed the sluggishness of winter!
Up till the middle of the 20th century, many Appalachian residents, like Americans elsewhere, downed an annual spring tonic of sulfur and molasses. It was believed the family needed a good “spring cleaning” after a sedentary winter eating dried vegetables and salted meat. Each member of the family would have their dose of this mixture to purify their blood, thin or “cut” the blood, and make them feel better after the long winter.
This particular blood tonic was fashioned from a pure yellow crystalline form of elemental sulfur known as sublimed sulfur, or “flowers of sulfur.” We now know sulfur is in the nucleus of cells and is fundamental to regeneration of strong healthy tissue. Mixes of sulfur with cream of tartar were also used and more exotic variations may include powdered pearl as well.
The name “molasses” is derived from a Portuguese word, “melaco”, and means “resembling honey.” The unsuphured tastes stronger but has more nutrients. Sulphur treated molasses is sweeter but has fewer nutrients.
Blackstrap molasses is the thick liquid separated from the solid granules of cane sugar during refining. It is not only a source of energy but contains iron and other minerals including a fair amount of calcium. It also has several B-Complex vitamins.
The use of spring tonics revolved around Victorian theories of high blood, low blood, thick blood, and thin blood.
High blood has very little to do with the modern concepts of high blood pressure and hypertension but instead is derived from the belief in humors and the practice of blood letting. It can be thought of as high blood volume which results in symptoms like headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness, feeling “flushed”, fainting, rapid pulse and nausea.
By contrast, low blood is a low volume of blood or blood that lacks vitality. Symptoms of low blood are fatigue, dizziness, pale complexion and listlessness.
Thick blood is thought to be due to the presence of toxins and waste in the blood which makes it more viscous; this is viewed to be a source of sickness if left untreated. Heat intolerance, obesity and sluggishness are symptoms of thick blood.
A person who is cold-natured, frail, and slow to heal is thought to have thin blood, which is watery and lacks vital properties.
These four blood states express seasonal variation just like the sap in trees. During the winter, blood becomes thicker and lower because of the cold weather and a more sedentary lifestyle. A poor diet of canned and dried food in the winter also contributed to this change in blood state.
Springtime blood tonics help the sluggish blood rise like sap in trees in preparation for the hard work to be done in the growing season. Sulfur and molasses is just one of the options; there are lots of regional variations on the spring tonic formula throughout Appalachia, depending on availability of particular roots and herbs and also on local traditions and preferences.