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.


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