It was more likely a household had an enema kit in the medical cabinet than not in the nineteenth century. They were used to treat any number of things, from constipation to acne to reviving a drowning victim.
One of the most common enemas used at the turn of the century was the tobacco smoke enema. This procedure was promoted by The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead From Drowning in London (later the Royal Humane society). Kits were readily available (pic) and the smoke blown up the rectum was thought to warm the victim and stimulate breathing. Artificial respiration was only used if the enema failed. Eventually it was shown to be toxic to the heart, but not before tobacco wmoke enemas were used to treat headaches, respiratory failure, colds, hernias, abdominal cramps, typhoid fever and cholera. 1
Another medical use for enemas during the nineteenth century was the treatment of acne. It was believed that food rotted in the colon and released toxins that became visible through acne. Therefore irrigating the colon removed the rotten food and cleared the skin.2
The following is a list from an article by Doyle “Per rectum: a history of enemata” published in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 01/2006; 35(4):367-70
Commonly used North American enemas of the late nineteenth century.
• Aloes enema for round worms. (Aloes, potassium carbonate and starch.)
• Compound aloes enema, also for round worms, constipation and amenorrhoea.
• Cathartic enema for refractory constipation and diarrhoea! (Castor oil, molasses and olive oil.)
• Compound lobelia enema for muscle spasm and tetanus. (magnesium sulphate, starch and olive oil.)
• Opium enema for inflammation of the bladder, uterus or prostate, calculi, nephritis, dysentery and painful conditions of the large bowel. (Tincture of opium, starch and infusion of elm bark.)
• Tobacco enema for strangulated hernia, ileus, faecal accumulations and other bowel obstructions, as well as tetanus. (An infusion of 20 grains of tobacco leaf in eight ounces of boiling water.)
• Turpentine enema for tympanic distension of the intestines when confined to the colon, and also for hysteria and amenorrhoea. (Turpentine and starch.)
• Compound turpentine enema for flatulence, colonic distension especially during peritonitis as well as for round worms, obstinate constipations and amenorrhoea. (Castor oil, turpentine and tincture of opium.)
The 1899 Merck manual lists over 30 conditions that may be treated by enema, including coma, worms, post-partum hemmorhage, jaundice and insomnia as well as the more obvious diahrrea, constipation and hemrhoids.
One of the more common compounds to be used in enemas was turpentine. It was recommended to treat catalepsy, coma, hydroencephalus, hysteria, flatulence and amennorhea. Many sedatives and narcotics were also administered via the rectum, such as opium, chloral hydrate, as well as the now-known poisons lead acetate and creosote. Even digitalis was recommended to be administered by enema in certain cases.
Over the years, enemas have fallen out of favour with the medical community as safer and more effective drugs and procedures have been developed but are still used, especially in naturopathic and kink practices.
1 “Tobacco smoke enemas” Issue: BCMJ, Vol. 54, No. 10, December 2012, page(s) 496-497 News & Notes by Sterling Haynes, MD