Old-Time Medical Remedies . . . by One o’the Nine

This is a another article by my uncle (see picture inset), one o’the nine, written June 18, 1987. This memory is about medical remedies practiced by a lot of rural people during the great depression and beyond. Heck, it was still going on when I was growing up the 1940s and 50s. While folks didn’t have to spend a lot of money on doctors or medical treatment, it’s the reason I had a hole in my eardrum (surgically repaired a few years back) and never learned to swim. I wasn’t allowed to get my head under water lest I invite another ear infection.


009_9-2The other day I saw a little boy that had skinned his knee just enough to make it bleed and burn. The little fellow began to cry like he was at the point of death. The mother grabbed him up and rushed him to the doctor’s office and asked, “Doctor, do you think he needs stitches?”

When I was a boy growing up on the farm in the great depression, we didn’t run to the doctorevery time we cut our foot, stepped on a rusty nail or skinned a knee. We’d soak it in kerosene and tie a rag around it (which soon came off) and continued to work.

Mama was the family doctor. She doctored us for all our childhood diseases. In the wintertime she had us wear a mustard plaster on our chest for a cold and a ball of asafetida around our neck to keep the flu off. The way that mustard plaster and asafetida smelt? It kept the flu and everything else away.

We took turpentine for the croup and put beef tallow on our hands and lips to keep them from chapping.I knew an old lady that took turpentine for everything that got wrong with her. If she had a cold she took turpentine, if she had a backache she took turpentine. Her grandson said she had taken so much turpentine in her day that when she cut herself she didn’t bleed like most people, but pine tar came out instead.

I remember an old man that had what was called then “milk leg.” His leg was covered by a large sore. He wore a collard leaf wrapped around it and tied with a rag. This, he said, was to draw the poison out and make it heal.

My grandmother was a very religious woman and hated the thought of booze or beer, but she made up a batch of blackberry wine, just for medicidal purposes of course! When I went to her house she would give me just a little in a glass if I had a cough. Now,  every time I went to her house, I did my best to cough when she was near.

I knew many men and women who kept a bottle of moonshine whiskey in the kitchen cabinet for the rheumatiz. They had to have a snort in the morning and evening of each day.

When I as a boy, my brothers and I were small and skinny, pale faced younguns. When Papa decided we had hookworms, he got some old careless weed root and boiled it to make a tea. Then he gave us some of the tea to kill the hookworms. After the tea, we had to do without food for about 24 hours, and then take a dose of Epsom salts. After a few days we got a dose of Castor oil just to be sure that we didn’t retain any of the worms.

Maybe we didn’t have modern medicine and doctors like we have today, but were always seemed to be healthy and didn’t have the kind of doctor’s bills we do today. I only wish I could feel as good now as I did back then. Maybe turning back the clock about 25 years would help.

Postscript: From my childhood, I remember regular doses of Castor oil laced with lemon juice to make it taste better, and I can’t begin to count the number of Carter’s Little Liver Pills my siblings and I swallowed over the years. Most of the time people just suffered and got well eventually, but chronic ailments were commonplace. I remember bedridden neighbors and older family members as common and often occurences when I was a child. Houses smelled like Vicks VapoRub and other ointments. My own frequent earaches were never treated by a doctor. Instead Mama poured salt into a sock to make a makeshift heating pad) to lay over my ear in an effort to bring me relief. The aches would continue until the eardrum filled up with infection and finally burst, bringing relief at last and–unknown to them then–permanent damage. When this kind of repeated ruptures occur, perforations and permanent ear damage is the result. I guess I don’t have to tell you, I don’t think much of old home remedies.

4 thoughts on “Old-Time Medical Remedies . . . by One o’the Nine

  1. I don’t know about Oil O Sol, but I sure remember the Merthiolate! Merthiolate didn’t hurt too much but it sure did leave your skin orange. I knew kids who went to school with orange skin sometimes. I wonder if it’s even available anymore? There was Iodine, too. It stung like crazy!

  2. My mother treated us humanely with oil of camphor. Whenever we had swollen glands (probably tonsillitis) she would heat the oil of camphor and place it on a clean rag or towel then wrap the material around our necks. A safety pin was used to secure this. I have no idea if this worked. I reckon that anything warm and aromatic would make us feel better, along with juice and hot soup. I do know that my brother and I are a rarity for our generation because we still have tonsils.

  3. well i have never used that before. i wounder if it really works. i have used the sessores under the pillow for a headache and that works.

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