Isabel A. Hampton defined the practice of counter irritants back in 1893:
Counter-irritants are therapeutic agents applied externally to produce a condition of irritation of inflammation, in order to relieve a diseased condition in some adjacent or deep-seated part of the body.
There were two kinds of cupping, wet and dry, but nurses only applied dry cupping which was used to reduce inflammation of lung, kidney, muscles or other parts of the body before anti-inflammatory or antibiotics were developed.
Cups were usually sold in sets of various sizes. A Bier's cup had a rubber bulb which would create the necessary suction. But as Hampton noted, if a cupping set was not available, the nurse could substitute a wine glass or medicine glass.
The usual method is to take a stiff metal probe or piece of wire, wrap about the end a small piece of cotton, dip this in alcohol, ignite it, swab the inside of the glass, remove, and apply the glass" [to the afflicted area] The heat causes the warm air to expand, so that some is driven off, and the partial vacuum formed is filled by the skin and tissue over which the glass is placed. The main thing to remember is that the edges of the cup must never be allowed to become warm enough to burn the patient when applied. Five to seven cups are applied at one time and allowed to remain on five minutes, after which they are removed by making pressure around the glass and inserting the tip of the finger under the edge, so as to let in the air. (Hampton, 1893, p.201).
A poultice may be applied after the treatment.
Wet cupping involves breaking the skin after the application of the cup and was not generally performed by nurses.
Cupping is an ancient treatment modality that is still used in Eastern and non-traditional medicine. Cupping sets can be purchased that are either antique or contemporary.
Hampton, IA (1893) Nursing: Its Principles and Practices Philadelphia: WB Saunders.
For some contemporary cupping information: