The common cold? Check. Tapeworms? Check. Arthritis? Check.
In the 19th and early 20th century, like now, people got sick. Like now, sometimes they died. But this was before antibiotics, before most vaccines, and those deaths were often from conditions that would now be preventable, curable, or at least treatable.
If you got sick, first you turned to home remedies. Some of those came down the generations (cures for the common cold), and others had to be looked up (dropsy, or tissues swollen with excess fluid). Some are just confusing to some modern readers (“how to destroy bots in horses.”)
Assumptions are easy to make. Obviously home remedies were used because people didn’t have access to doctors, or because they couldn’t afford care. Right?
“I think the mindset of most people in the 19th century was quite different from that of today,” said Sullivan County Historian John Conway. “Anything they felt they could treat at home—whether it be an infected tooth, a fever, or a cut or animal bite—was treated at home. Doctors’ visits were the exception rather than the rule. There were no hospitals or emergency rooms.”
Even so, Sullivan County had more than 40 physicians and surgeons in 1872, including a female doctor, Conway said.
This is borne out in Wayne County, too. The Wayne County Historical Society's 1913 Honesdale directory shows plenty of physicians (7), nurses (14), opticians (2) and even an osteopath (a female osteopath!) available. A 1995 history of Wayne Memorial Hospital by Helen and John Villaume offers additional perspective.
Healthcare largely came down to your social class. If you were wealthy, the Villaumes wrote, you had private care and a well-ventilated house where “careful attention was paid to sanitation.” The middle class generally could pay for most services and in rural areas, the country doctor paid house calls (since road conditions could be so bad that it wasn’t a good idea to take the patient to the doctor). The poor “lived in cramped surroundings with poor sanitation and often were destitute and lived in almshouses with little or no medical treatment.”
Hospitals were regarded with suspicion, the Villaumes wrote, because they carried shades of the almshouse. Plus there was the threat “that, as charity patients, they might be subjected to medical experimentation.”
Even for the wealthy, as Conway said, the doctor wasn’t called for every little thing. Housekeeping books included extensive advice on nursing, because that was considered a woman’s job, and healthcare.
“The Long-Lost Friend,” 1819, John George Hohman
A good remedy for Worms, to be used for Men as well as for Cattle: Say, “Mary, God’s Mother, traversed the land, holding three worms close in her hand; one was white, the other was black, the third was red.” Repeat three times, while stroking the patient with your hand, and at the end of each application, strike the back of the person or animal. Strike once the first time, twice the second time, and three the third time. Then set the worms a certain time, but not less than three minutes.
Remedy for burns: “Burn, I blow on thee!” Blow on the burn three times in the same breath.
To make horses that refuse their feed eat again: Open the jaws of the horse and knock three times on his palate.
For friendship: If you find the stone which a vulture has in his knees, and which you may find by looking sharp, and put it in the victuals of two persons who hate each other, it causes them to make up and be good friends.
To destroy warts: Roast chicken feet and rub the warts with them, then bury the feet under the eaves.
“Popular Home Remedies and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans," A. Monroe Aurand, c. 1941
Sprain: Wind an eelskin around a sprain for a cure.
Hysteria: “This is old-fashioned, but good,” says Aurand. Pass your finger between your toes and smell it.
Moustache: If you would like your moustache to grow, put sweet milk or cream on your lip and let the cat lick it off.
Rheumatism: Wear the eye-tooth of a pig, or carry three potatoes, or the triangular bone of a ham, or put a copper cent into your shoe, or wear a ring from a horseshoe nail, or tie a dried eelskin around your joints. Or carry a coffin nail.
Sore throat: Wear one of your long stockings around your neck, with the foot under the chin. This is good for head colds too. Or drag your finger between your toes and inhale deeply.
“The Foxfire Book,” edited by Eliot Wigginton, c. 1972
For arthritis: Drink a mixture of honey, vinegar, and moonshine. Make a tea of either the seeds or leaves of alfalfa.. A magnet draws it out of the body.
A blood builder: Make tea from sassafras roots
Colds: Make a tea from powdered ginger, or ground-up ginger roots. Do not boil the tea, but add the powdered root to a cup of hot water and drink. Honey or whiskey can be added.
Drink some of the brine from kraut put up in churn jars. It makes you thirsty and you drink lots of water.
Protect your home by displaying a Himmelsbrief, or “heaven’s letter.”
From Young’s Demonstrative Translation of Scientific Secrets, c. 1861; reprint 2017
A fascinating book that offers home remedies for humans and animals, receipts for paint, burning fluid and French chemical soap, instructions on how to manage your strawberry plants, and how to make varnish for balloons. Here’s a sample of the ingredients used:
An anti-rheumatic liniment: Take tincture of opium, 2oz; tincture of belladonna, 2oz; powdered camphor, 2oz; water of ammonia, 2oz; oil of turpentine, 2oz; oil of sassafras, 2oz; oil of origanum, 2oz; and tincture of capsicum, 1 pint; mix all together. No dosage is given.
How to cure a burn:
Three men went out walking
They did bless the heat and the burning
They blessed that it might not increase
They blessed that it might quickly cease.
Then make three Signs of the Cross.