Folk Remedies of the 1930s (from my memoir)

The 1930s, a house full of small children and the usual run of childhood ailments, minor mishaps and contagious diseases.  With no money to spend on doctors, dentists and hospitals, what did parents do?  In our home prevention was vital.

We always knew when winter was near, it was time to put on our shoes and socks after running barefoot for months.  Out came the first bottle of cod liver oil of the season.  Mother lined us all up, ignoring the loud complaints and panic attacks, and firmly dosed each of us with a brimming teaspoonful of the nasty stuff, followed by a spoonful of sugar to kill the taste. The sugar was the worst part of the whole procedure.  That gritty, grainy stuff just prolonged the effect of the awful taste.

On the rare occasions when we had oranges in the house, a section of orange worked so much better; however, oranges were a rare treat, saved for the toes of our Christmas stockings.  I guess if we’d had oranges every day we wouldn’t have needed the cod liver oil.

We had our share of head colds, chest colds and sore throats, and the treatment was always the same.  A good rubdown with Mentholatum plus a supply of soft old rags for the drippy nose, a piece of flannel or washcloth pinned to our undie shirts if our chests were congested, or a well chilled cloth wrapped tightly around our necks for a sore throat.

There was always a hunt for enough safety pins to hold the make-shift wrappings together.  In a large family the most ordinary things were always scarce.  On one occasion, the safety pins showed up as a sparkly necklace being worn by one of the daughters. (Well, O.K., it was me.)  My dolls had necklaces, too.

Cough syrup was always some vile homemade concoction, not quite as bad as cod liver oil, but close.

Pneumonia was greatly feared, and was one of the rare times when the money had to be found for a doctor’s house call.  Thinking back to the previous generation, my grandparents often told about saving my mother’s life during the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic.  A doctor had been at the house to examine her but could only shake his head sadly as he hurried off to his next patients.

My grandparents spent the whole night sitting with their 16 year old daughter, applying hot poultices of fried onions, of all things, to her chest repeatedly until her fever broke at dawn. Whether the pungency of the onions, the moist heat or plain old luck saved her, no one knows, but she went on to live to the good old age of ninety-one years.

Influenza, or Flu as we now know it, called for all of Mother’s skills.  Somehow she always managed to keep a bottle of bourbon whiskey hidden away for emergencies. Her hot toddies, made with a good slug of whisky, hot water, sugar and a squeeze of lemon if she had any, were tried and true.  She would appear at our bedside with a glassful and orders to drink every drop. By then we were too sick to fight her off, and soon dropped  into a sound sleep, feeling better when we woke up.  To this day the smell of bourbon turns my stomach to the point where I couldn’t drink a Julep, mint or otherwise, for all the roses in Kentucky.

The big four of childhood complaints, measles, mumps, chicken pox and whooping cough came and went. Usually one child would infect 2 or 3 others, who in turn passed it on down, taking weeks to run its course through the family.   Measles were either “German” or “Red,” one being much more serious. After all these years, I have no idea which was which; I know we all had both at one time or another.

The usual treatment for all four of these diseases was the same, bed rest in a darkened room, cooling sponge baths and mugs of weak tea with toast. When all the boys had gotten through the mumps, everyone was relieved. I recall the aunts whispering “it’s just as well to get them over with now.” I didn’t know until years later about the danger of sterility in men from mumps. We now know this is extremely rare.  The worst thing about chicken pox was trying not to scratch the blisters, they were so itchy. Everyone around my age probably has a few souvenir pox scars.

Whooping cough was the most horrible of the four. The constant, painful “whooping” that gave it its name was extremely exhausting, and it could be deadly in the most serious cases.  We four oldest children all had it at the same time. When we finally began to recover, our paternal grandfather was sent over in his new car,  Grandma’s hired girl along, to get us out in the fresh air, give our parents some relief and to air out the house. Off we went for a ride in the country, all piled in the back seat and happy to be out and about.

Grandpa was a terrible driver: who else would be tooling along at about fifteen miles per hour on a perfectly straight deserted road on a clear, sunny afternoon and suddenly run off the road,  turning over into a steep ditch?  No one was injured but the stress was too much for us convalescents in the back seat. We all started whooping, choking, gagging and crying.  After the confusion and excitement finally settled down and the car was returned home (with someone else driving), it took the rest of the afternoon to clean up the mess in the back seat, including the roof.

Toothaches and bee stings, two painful conditions, two simple treatments.  Every household had a tiny bottle of Oil of Cloves in their medicine chest.  A few drops of that on a wad of cotton pressed in and around an infected tooth worked very well.  Mother’s remedy for bee stings was even simpler.  She would grab her bottle of old fashioned laundry bluing, shake it up to wet the cork and dab it on the bee sting.  Two or three fast dabs and the stinger would pop right out, to everyone’s relief.  I wonder if anyone knows what bluing is anymore, or if it’s still available.  A big glug of that deep blue concentrate in the rinse water made the white clothes sparkle.

Her remedy for carbuncles and boils was also successful.  A poultice made of bread and milk, heated and plastered over the infected area, drew the infection out.  Sometimes this took a few applications but it did work.

Our school managed to escape the worst outbreaks of several conditions that were the most difficult to clear up.  Impetigo and ringworm passed us by, other than a very rare case now and then. Impetigo was treated with a bright purple liquid so we steered clear of any child sporting a purple stain on any visible spot of skin. Head lice were almost unheard of.   Styes and Pink Eye, also very contagious, were treated with boric acid rinse.

Diphtheria, one of the most dreaded of all diseases at that time, was taken very seriously. A doctor would quarantine the house and family, placing a large yellow sign in a conspicuous spot near the front door, and visiting the patient every day. It seemed to take ages before the quarantine sign was removed.  Fortunately we never personally knew anyone who had diphtheria, although every neighborhood would end up with a yellow sign on a house somewhere sooner or later. Everyone mourned along with the family when the yellow sign was replaced by a black drape.

Rabies, or Hydrophobia as we called it, was very rare, fortunately, as the treatment was long and extremely painful. A vaccine had been developed for Lock Jaw some years earlier, so that summertime scourge of bare feet and rusty pieces of metal was controlled.

Polio was the one most frightening diseases of all, every community’s nightmare, every parent’s dread. August with its long, hot, humid days was usually the worst month.  Swimming pools would close, public gatherings were limited and children were kept in and as quiet as possible, not that difficult with the weather so unpleasant.  A polio vaccine wasn’t developed until we children were grown with children of our own, and it was considered one of the greatest discoveries in medicine.

Our family only ever had two serious problems, very fortunate for such a large clan.  My sister developed Scarlet Fever, a type of strep throat with a bright red rash, and was immediately removed to the local Isolation Hospital, or “Pest House,” as we called it.  She was there for two weeks in total isolation except for the other “pests.” We visitors would stand out on the lawn and talk to her across a safe distance.

Our oldest brother, age 15, and his band of bad boys were on a “watermelon run” one summer night, making their getaway in an old car with the headlights turned off. The 16 year old driver drove up a slight incline to cross the railroad tracks and ran into a freight train sitting there, also with no lights.  My brother, sitting in the passenger seat with the plunder clutched on his lap, was the only casualty, besides the watermelon. He suffered a broken thigh, and the squashed melon looked like chunks of flesh to the ambulance attendant, who nearly had to be revived, herself.  My brother spent a couple of weeks immobilized in traction in a hospital bed, something unheard of in today’s world.

Health care has come a long way in the past 75 or 80 years.  Vaccines, miracle drugs and modern treatments have removed so much of the fear and danger from childhood illnesses, they’re no longer the threat they were.  Today’s children can enjoy their fill of fresh citrus and be thankful cod liver oil and a lot of killer diseases are  things of the past.


The Fun of Aging

What could possibly be either fun or funny about aging?  It sounds like an oxymoron to me. Aging is not fun, there are too many circumstances we can’t control, but the more I think about it, the better I like the idea of laughing it off. There’s a lot of humor to be found, we just need to look for it.   A good hearty laugh can be healthy and beneficial, often easing pain we’re unable to express otherwise.  Our need for laughter is as real as any other need.

So, what makes us laugh?  I can think of several things that I find funny. Maybe you can relate to these; if not, forming a list of your own might be helpful.  I usually start my day with a quick peek in the mirror just to be sure I’m still around, never a pretty sight.  I inventory the normal damage; baggy eyes, saggy mouth, multiple chins; all dismal and depressing.  The other morning I took a second look at the eyes peering back at me, sharp and piercing, almost hidden in their nest of wrinkles, for all the world like an ancient Galapagos tortoise checking me out.  Was there intelligence there? curiosity?  I burst out laughing.

A second, deeper look and this time I detected a definite relationship with my simian ancestors.  Darwin had it right,  we must be descended from amoebas, swamp creatures and tree climbers! I kept laughing, the similarities were so obvious.  Maybe I should get my DNA tested (right after someone tests my sanity).  Making faces in the mirror at 6 o’clock in the morning may not tickle everyone’s funny-bone but it certainly got my day going.

Later that day I ran into my favorite neighborhood character; he’s always good for a laugh.  I have no idea who he is or what his name is and I don’t want to know.   If I did know him, then I’d have to feel guilty.  As it is I can be amused by his odd bird-like appearance and he’ll never catch on.  I call him Bird-Man of the Oaks.

I picture him standing on one leg among the reeds around the ponds, the other leg tucked up under his comfortable belly like the world’s tallest heron.  The quick darting movements of his head and his sharp pointed nose add to the effect.  I’ve never heard him chirp, tweet, quack or honk but he always makes me laugh.  I’m thinking his DNA might show a distinct relationship to avian ancestors.

Another great opportunity to enjoy some laughs; I love being with my great-grandchildren, now ages 3 and 5. They’re sure-fire entertainers who never let me down.  Every family needs small children just for the entertainment value if for no other reason.  Fun, funny and fantastic, what a combination!  So far, neither one bears a resemblance to either an amoeba, a turtle, a bird or any of the great apes.  Their gene pool must be diluted.

Dining with compatible friends in the evening while sharing a glass of wine is always good for an hour or two of light hearted chit-chat and laughter.  I’m of the firm opinion that dinner conversation should be light and cheerful.  Save the serious stuff for later; who knows, maybe it’ll go away.  The evenings when conversation centers around the olden days and childhood memories are sure to be a lot of fun. Reminiscing is wonderful therapy.

A recent discussion of our grandparents and a comparison of old photographs  started a group of us wondering how far back we could trace our ancestry, and whether we really would want to.  DNA testing is a great tool and has long had its place in modern science, but how far should we take it before it gets too personal?  Do we really want to establish the fact that our first cousins started as amoebas and are now a bunch of monkeys?  I’ve always been dubious about a few of mine, do I need proof?

So, how does your list of laugh getters compare at this point?  We each have our own sense of what’s funny and it’s  all good. My message is simple: look for humor in the little things and keep on laughing. It’s good for you.

Fashion Follies and Flops

Envy the lucky caveman; he had it made when it came to clothing. If he wore anything at all, it was an animal skin for warmth, held on with a bone or a stick piercing a couple of holes. His morning routine was simple; roll off the pile of leaves and boughs in the corner of the cave, make a quick run out behind the nearest bush and he was ready to face the day.

No dawdling in front of the closet, trying to match an outfit or find something that would impress the boss, just get up and go. If his garment was getting a little too raggedy after a year or two, too many lice for comfort, he’d pick out a sharp rock, find a likely looking critter, bring it down and peel off a new suit. He might smell a little ripe for a while, but so did everyone else.

Fabrics as we know them, spun or felted, probably didn’t appear until the late Stone Age, as early as 100,000 years ago. Makes you wonder how we know these things, doesn’t it?  Well, we’re told that anthropologists have studied the differences between head lice and body lice. That’s right about where my research stopped. I ask you, who really cares besides a few anthropologists and possibly the lice. I don’t think the caveman cared and I certainly don’t. One louse is the same as another louse to me. And that applies to a few men I’ve known, too.

Anyway, back to fashions and their accessories. How many millennia did it take for the caveman to learn to cut strips of hides, punch a series of holes and create lacings?

Needles have been found in France dating back 40,000 years. At last there was an easy way to fasten those mismatched furs together! Traces of weaving and dyes were discovered in Czechoslovakia, going back 36,000 years. Weavings were identified by images pressed into clay, left to harden down  through the millennia. There were probably traces of the ever present lice embedded right along with the weavings.

Some of the tiny carved stone  “Venus”  fertility figures discovered around southern Europe, going back about 26,000 years, showed traces of carved basket-like hats and cloth-like bands worn across the upper torsos and the distended abdomens. No indication of carved images of lice, though. The first shreds of actual woven fabric were found in what used to be Anatolia, dating from 6500 BC.

So what finally replaced those stinky, itchy, lice-ridden furs, once fabrics were created? Robes!  All kinds of robes.  Everybody wore robes, floor length, knee length, wrap-around, pull-on, belted, loose; Moses, Ghengis Khan and his warriors, the Druids, Charlton Heston, royalty, peasants, men and women alike, all flapping around in robes through the centuries; usually 2 or 3 being worn at once. We call it “layering” today. Jewelry, belts and other ornaments were added as time went on, and robes slowly evolved into shaped clothing as needs and fashions changed. And, Oh yes, fabrics were just as good as furs as far as the lice were concerned. They loved them all.

When the ancient Persian warriors began riding horses at about 6000 BC, they finally caught on to splitting the skirts of their long flowing robes loosely into two sections. Soon other central Asians copied them, women too, but the Greeks called these new fashions “ridiculous” and the Romans saw them as “barbaric.” Eventually the need for convenience and warmth won out and pants slowly became more common. When Peter the Great decreed in the early 1700s that his armies would wear pants, they were finally accepted for men. As we know, women didn’t adapt to the custom until as recently as our own girlhood and it took a few movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, plus a new American icon called  “Rosie the Riveter”  to popularize them. Shoulder pads were devised to complete the masculinized look.

Back to the 9th century AD, those innovative Persian warriors invented another custom that caught on much more quickly than pants had. High heels proved to be just what those fierce fighters needed to steady themselves in the saddle as they rode around shooting arrows at all and sundry. (They were good for stomping on lice, too.)

We all know where the high heel fad led us. Men still wear a rider’s heel, now known as a cowboy boot, and where would a hot flamenco dancer or a tango artist be without the tight pants and the Cuban heel? As far as ladies’ heels are concerned, it seems the sky is the limit, 6 or 7 inches and climbing. We never learn.

Along about 1400, corset stays became popular with women and that fashion fiasco lasted almost 600 years, destroying the dispositions of generations of women, not to mention a few marriages. Why were we so foolish? Stiff skirts were worn also, although the clergy of the  time complained that it was difficult to see a woman’s hips so a man could tell whether she was suited for childbirth or not!!  I don’t make this stuff up! My imagination could never come up with a statement like that!

By about 1500, one of fashion’s most ridiculous fads came into being, worn by men and women alike, hanging around their necks for a good hundred years. This would be the RUFF, that huge starched white collar featured so prominently in portraits of Henry VIII, his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I,  Sir Walter Raleigh and countless other figures of the time.

Some ruffs were reportedly the size of a carriage wheel. How could you possibly feed yourself? You’d need a spoon a foot long. The thing would rival my grandfather’s off-white mustache for a record of what had been eaten that day.

“Well, I see you’ve been at the wine already. Poached eggs for breakfast? And who’s this peeking out from behind the breadcrumbs? Why, it’s our little friends, the head lice, or is it the body lice? No matter, from the sly looks on their faces, the species isn’t going to die out right away.”  What really gets me, though, is who ironed those huge, starchy things?

Hoops and crinolines, wasp waists, panniers and farthingales, veils, anything to emphasize certain areas of the body and give the impression that a lady so attired didn’t have to work. As if! Who could do a day’s work decked out like that? That’s what all those drab little women in the basement were for. No frills or furbelows for them, fashion was for the prosperous.

Bustles, hobble skirts and oversized hats came and went, then along came the 1920s with the Flapper look, designed to camouflage any curves a healthy woman might have. In that same theme, The Japanese OBI, or sash, big and bulky, was tied in a huge bow so the waist line disappeared completely; the list of fads and flops goes on and on.

And men weren’t exempt from fashion follies either, from gaudy satins and colors, and tight, well, tight tights and over-sized codpieces, through celluloid collars, boaters and spats right up to today’s downright barbaric neckties, they’ve had their day as peacocks too. And they still wear kilts.

Other oddities went along with changes in clothing. Various cultures felt obliged to make changes to the human body in order to conform with their ideas of beauty. Think of the tattooing from the South Seas, unfortunately back with us today as a fashion fad.

The Mayans bound the heads of their infants to give them the flat forehead considered desirable, the Burmese piled on neck rings to press the collarbones down for an elongated neck, and the Ethiopians and other African cultures inserted discs into ears and lips.

Think of the poor little high-born Chinese ladies with their bound feet. There have been several reasons presented for that cruel custom, the most outrageous being that they were being tested to see if they could tolerate childbirth. I must say, if your feet are constantly killing you, delivering a baby now and then might be a pleasant diversion.

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. We don’t have to tell that to a pair of lice, head or body, they already know it; they see one another as beautiful and that’s why they’re still around today, biting, gnawing, and driving us crazy.