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From Medieval Alchemy to Tennessee Moonshine

Woodblock from Ulstadt's 1525 work

Woodblock from Ulstadt’s 1525 work, Coelum philosophorum seu de secretis naturae liber

Special Collections continually seeks new areas on which to focus acquisitions. We look for topics with regional significance that have potential for broad impact. One such area is the ancient art of moonshining. Bootlegging has long been the subject of storytelling in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains. The illegal distillation of spirits was a popular trade in Tennessee well before prohibition; and when legal distilleries were forced to shut down in 1920, the demand for illegal spirits dramatically increased. Although moonshine could be a toxic combination of many ingredients which might include paint thinner, antifreeze, and even embalming fluid, thirsty locals were eager to imbibe. After prohibition ended and legal distilleries opened their doors, the moonshine tradition carried on in Tennessee. Perhaps the most famous moonshiner was Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton who continued to practice his craft until 2009 when he was arrested by federal authorities. He even self-published guides and taped videos documenting his process.

But the craft of distillating spirits began long before prohibition or Popcorn Sutton and can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece and Egypt. Special Collections recently purchased an extremely rare first edition of one of the earliest texts documenting the practical process of distillation written by Philipp Ulstadt, a physician and professor of medicine in Switzerland. Ulstadt was closely connected with the German alchemist Hieronymus Brunschwig who in 1500 published Liber de arte destillandi (The Book of the Art of Distillation). In 1525, Ulstadt published his seminal work, the Coelum philosophorum seu de secretis naturae liber. Denuo reuisus & Castigates (The Book of the Secrets of Nature, or of the Heaven of the Philosophers). The manual served as the standard authority on the preparation and use of distillates for nearly a century. This first edition is very rare with the only other copy in the United States held by the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It went through more than twenty editions, and was translated into German and French. Ulstadt’s ideas reappear in the later writings of other prominent scientists including Konrad Gesner and Andreas Libavius.

Ulstadt’s work was influential largely due to his clear and concise technical descriptions of the processes of distillation and the apparatus used. Other alchemy guides of the time were intentionally written obscurely or even in code to keep the information hidden from those who might abuse it. His was the first accurate and accessible summary of distilling methods. In addition, he discussed the practical use of the remedies for physicians and apothecaries and lists recipes for spiced wines and clarets. His detailed directions were accompanied by the same type of woodblock illustrations used by Brunschwig. Many of the illustrations depict the apparatus used in the distillation process. During the middle ages, astrology, alchemy, and pharmacology were all considered to be genuine sciences and were seriously pursued by physicians. Ulstadt’s practical text helped define boundaries between the practices of astrology and chemistry paving the way for the establishment of medicine and chemistry as partner disciplines.

With the assistance of the B.H. Breslauer Foundation, Special Collections was able to secure the purchase of this unique volume. The foundation was established and endowed by the late Dr. Bernard H. Breslauer with the main purpose of giving grants to libraries that collect rare books and manuscripts in the United States. Now this influential rare piece can serve as the cornerstone for Special Collections’ growing assembly of materials documenting the history of moonshine and distillation from its earliest practitioners to bootleggers in the communities of Appalachia.

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