Old-Time Home Remedies

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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Sam Moore

Whenever we old timers begin to long for “the good old days,” we should hark back to some of the home remedies with which we were tortured, as kids, by our well-meaning parents, notably chest cold and cough home remedies.

The following (slightly edited) recollection of home “medicare” in those far-away days was written by Lula Walker in The Rural New Yorker magazine of Jan. 7, 1950.

“In the winter, at the first sniffle we were dosed generously with castor oil minus any camouflage of peppermint oil or other pleasant disguise. At bedtime, the chest was thoroughly greased with coal oil and lard. The next step was to ‘bake it in,’ a feat accomplished by standing in front of a hot stove until the chest had taken on a violent hue of red. Then a piece of flannel was clapped on and pinned securely to your long woolen underwear.

“These preliminaries over, next was a hot foot bath. A tablespoon of mustard in water hot as one could bear was Mother’s standard formula. Of course, our ideas of what ‘one could bear’ differed radically. My fervent pleas for just one dipper of cold water were unavailing. It took real heat, Mother maintained, to properly open pores. When my feet resembled a pair of boiled lobsters, the treatment was concluded.

“Next day, a batch of cherry bark was brewed and converted into a sticky, sickish syrup of which I was given hourly doses. If hoarseness accompanied the cold, there was further punishment with a mixture of honey and alum. If a coughing spell struck, Mother invariably administered black pepper. Her belief in this remedy may have been justified since, to forestall a second dose of the fiery mixture, I made a superhuman effort to suppress my bark.

“On that autumn morning each year when I looked out on a world covered with frost I knew my doom was sealed. It was goodbye to summer and farewell to cotton underwear. At breakfast would come the verdict, ‘Time to put ’em on.’ Pleas for a stay of sentence were unavailing. Highly redolent of mothballs, the hateful woolens were hauled from the attic trunk and hung out on the clothesline to air.

“Saturday or not, a bath would be in order and this would come at bedtime. All day I lived in a state of dread. At school, games failed to cheer me. The juicy Jonathan apple in my lunch pail lost its savor. When nothing was said at suppertime, I took hope at the possibility of slipping off to bed to gain another 24 hours’ grace and quickly retired to the sitting room to work on my arithmetic. From the kitchen came the ominous rattle of a wash boiler and the sound of water being poured. Mother appeared in the doorway with: ‘The water’s hot. You can go right ahead. I’ve laid out your underwear.’

“My fate was sealed when Father came in from chores and remarked: ‘Air’s pretty nippy. Likely to be ice on the rain barrel in the morning.’ Before the glowing old range was a steaming washtub and across a chair the obnoxious underwear. The bath over, I gingerly drew on the garment that for the next six months would literally be a thorn in the flesh. Nights would bring no respite, for in the ‘Gay Nineties,’ underwear worked on a 24-hour shift, from Saturday to Saturday. And, no night was more hideous than that first one of the season. No sooner had you relieved an itch in one spot than another claimed your attention. You scratched yourself to sleep.

“Finally, the first day of spring arrived and I eloquently pleaded to ‘take ’em off.’ My Mother would retort: ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer,’ but eventually even she had to agree that the hated wool underwear could be retired in favor of the cotton variety.”

My mother had been forced to take castor oil when she was in the hospital having me and she hated it! Consequently, we kids never had to swallow the stuff. However, the dreaded mustard plaster was Mom’s own favorite form of torture. At the first sign of a chest cold, she mixed a paste of dry mustard and water and smeared it all over half of a large cloth, which was then folded over and applied to the chest. In about one minute, it started to burn and kept getting hotter and hotter, searing the skin on the chest. No amount of wailing and begging could induce Mom to remove the thing until the allotted time was up and the skin was just short of blistered.

Instead of cherry bark syrup for a cough, Mom melted a tablespoonful of Vick’s and made us swallow that, although it just tasted odd, not yucky. We wore cotton underwear and long cotton stockings, but I don’t remember woolen long johns. And, of course, you never, never sat on the ground, or went without your coat buttoned up, or you’d “catch your death.”

Those were the days, weren’t they?

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