I’m old enough to remember, not fondly, mustard plasters applied to my chest during my childhood bouts with the “croup,” and Vicks Vapo-Rub spread beneath a warm humidifier to help keep my perpetually clogged sinuses clear. So I was filled with a kind of warped nostalgia when someone gave me a little booklet at the Autauga County Heritage Association’s “Prattaugan” Museum in Prattville, Alabama, earlier this week.
More about those folks and Prattville next week.
The booklet didn’t directly relate to Alabama. But it was straight from early, rural America, and it brought back many mustard-plasterian memories. (If they can say “Prattaugan,” I can say “plasterian.”)
The booklet, written by what appears to be some anonymous country doctor many years ago, is called “A Century of Home Remedies,” with the important footnote: “For Entertainment and Historical Value.” I endured quite a few of these “remedies” myself.
If you’re under 50, you probably have no idea that we did some of those things to each other!. And that’s just as well.
With apologies to VOA’s real health reporters, I’ll list some of the “cures” alphabetically, by the nature of the condition or complaint.
I don’t advise attempting any of these remedies at home!
Two TABLESPOONS of castor oil, boiled and then poured into a glass of orange juice or Dr Pepper (a non-medicinal American soft drink). Take before breakfast!
What a way to wake up!
“Repeat in 3 weeks, then again twice more within a year,” the instructions advise. This is said to prevent arthritis, if you can ever get the foul taste of castor oil out of your mouth.
There are several options here.
“Use a mixture of soot from the chimney and lard or oil. Right. A big glop of oily soot is going to help an open cut!
“Place a spider web across the wound. [No doubt being careful to check that the spider is not in residence.]
This is an actual remedy, and so are the rest the ones I’m telling you about.
“If cut is small, wet a cigarette paper and place over the cut.”
Since everybody smoked back then, the third option was handier than, say, the nearest spider web.
“Take a wasp nest, make a paste by mixing water and put on a boil to bring to a head.” Doesn’t this REALLY irritate the wasps and lead to other problems?
Pay close attention, ladies: “Place an old pair of shoes upside down under your bed.” Works every time, and best if you have big feet.
Vinegar warmed and applied will remove it. (Yes, those unsightly flakes are gone, but you reek of vinegar.)
This entry had a curious footnote: “DON’T cut hair in the dark of the moon, or it will cause baldness.”
I’ve been most fortunate in that regard. I don’t ever remember getting a haircut at night, no doubt explaining my full, if bone-white, head of hair.
“Dig up yellow-root, boil, and drink.”
But isn’t just about EVERY root yellow? What if I pick one from a poison oak?
Here’s an example in which the cure for this painful colon condition sounds as bad as the ailment.
After each meal — each meal! — take a teaspoon of petroleum jelly. That’s right. SWALLOW some of the stuff you rub on burns and chapped baby bottoms. The petroleum product forms little globs in the inflamed pouches (the “diverticula”) that have formed in your intestine, supposedly soothing the pain.
To get this stuff down “easy,” the remedy booklet advises, “take a small swallow of blackberry or concord wine.”
Recipe for a “Pick-Me-Up for the Elderly”
Here’s a real “country” concoction:
1 Tbsp powdered sugar
1 raw egg — dash of salt
1 Tbsp. brandy
A “pick-me-up,” all right. Why do you think those “patent medicines” you see being sold out of the backs of “medicine show” wagons in old movies were 60 to 90 percent alcohol?
Fish Bone Stuck in Throat
I am not making any of the following up. Imagine, as you read it, that you’re choking for air or feeling intense pain from a sharp bone stuck halfway down your gullet.
“Eat cornbread; bone will disappear. If bone becomes stuck in the throat, eat a lemon or part of one. The lemon juice causes the bone to dissolve. [I like lemon on fish. Will that save me?] Eat banana to help move the bone.”
“Bind wilted beet leaves on the forehead.” The headache disappears, and so will your friends.
“Rub leg in kerosene, eases the pain every time.” Yes, but please refer to “treatment for burns” after you set the house on fire.
This starts with the usual advice to keep the victim quiet. Sure. A rattlesnake has just bit you, your leg has swollen to the size of a tree trunk, but you are to remain calm. The instructions then describe the kind of incision to make along and through the bite, followed by this:
“Do not cut into nerves or muscles. [Duh!] Apply suction with mouth for 30-60 minutes.” Thirty to 60 minutes!?
A scary snake has sunk its fangs into you, and then someone sucks on your ankle for an hour. Memorable.
Something in Your Eye
“Put a flax seed in the eye, keep eye shut, it will work the particle out.” This, the old remedy book insists, “is a sure cure.”
Yes, but now there’s a flax seed in your eye!
“Mix well 1/3 honey, 1/3 whiskey, 1/3 lemon juice.” More booze in the back 40.
“Kill a mole, cut off one of its feet, tie a string around the foot; then tie the string around the baby’s neck as a necklace. Teeth will pop through the gums without pain.”
This is a sure cure, endorsed by all but moles.
“Take some bark from the south side of a red oak tree. Boil and add a pinch of salt. Hold it on the tooth that is aching.” If you don’t have any red oaks around, or you’re bad at directions, you’re out of luck.
“Stump water is real good for warts and other skin ailments.” I keep stump water handy. Don’t you?
“Steal someone’s dishrag, rub it on warts and hide it. The warts will go away. (This is true, I tried it — the Writer.)
Not THIS writer. Those are the country doctor’s words, before he was arrested for stealing dishrags.
The little book of tips from a century ago also has a section on homespun household hints. You’ll laugh at some of them, since we have modern appliances and some sort of spray purchased at Wal-Mart to solve these problems today. Here are just a few:
• Never use a tree for firewood that has been struck by lightning. (Why not? Beats me. Because it has already burned?)
• Try using a thread instead of a knife when a cake is to be cut while it’s hot. Presumably the cake, not the thread.
• If you keep a muleshoe in the stove oven it will prevent hawks from getting the chickens. (Now there’s a real head-scratcher! For which, by the way, there’s a remedy, involving beaten eggs and vinegar.)
• Use mayonnaise to remove water-glass marks on your tabletops. (Yes, but what about the mayonnaise stains?)
• Suppose you are right-handed but have only a left-handed rubber glove. Turn it inside out, and it becomes a right-handed one!
• Rub candle wax over an address for mailing. It will weatherproof it. (This was devised years before Scotch tape was invented.)
And here’s a homespun thought from the book, reminiscent of the aphorisms on the wall at Wintzell’s Oyster House in Mobile, down the road from Prattville in Alabama, about which I wrote another time:
“‘Tomorrow’ is the greatest labor-saving device ever thought of.”
There’s much more, but I’ll leave you alone now.
I did want to explain “mustard plasters” in a fuller fashion than the Wild Words section would permit:
The thinking in the “olden days” was that chest congestion could somehow be loosened by applying, directly to the chest, a poultice made from a cloth soaked in smelly and disgusting things.
Turpentine, tallow or tar, and Vicks Vapo-Rub, for example.
Or, the recipe from my childhood:
A plaster made from dry mustard, flour, and water, spread onto a cloth and applied — after first rubbing the poor sufferer’s chest with oil to keep it from blistering.
Yup, blistering. The stinky yellow goo really burns.
That’s why, just now, I count . . .
— wait a sec —
. . . only 12 hairs on my chest.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Back 40. Rural parcels in America were often 40 acres [16 hectares] in size. The “back 40” was an uncultivated plot behind the house and plowed fields.
Croup. Inflammation of the larynx and trachea, producing labored breathing and, often, a hacking cough reminiscent of the bark of a seal.
Muleshoe. While this word could refer to a metal shoe similar to a horseshoe, it also describes a kind of casual human shoe, closed in the front and completely open in the back.
Remedy. . A medicine or treatment for a medical condition.
Tallow. Tallow. A solid, slick substance made from boiled animal fat. It is used to make candles and soap.