Home World Travel Not Everything That Goes “Quack” Is a Duck!: The Strange World of Traditional Folk Medicines

Not Everything That Goes “Quack” Is a Duck!: The Strange World of Traditional Folk Medicines

17 min read

quack doctor

We have all heard older folks tell what life was like back then, you know, the “good ole days.” I am at the age now that our grandchildren ask if I had ketchup when I was a kid. What we know about foods and medicines and treatments has certainly changed with each generation. I can think of two things today that I am especially thankful for. The first is that I now eat sautéed onions and garlic instead of wearing them around my neck. Some of you are saying, “What?” Yes, when I had a cold, my mother used to make poultices from all kinds of vegetables and I would wear them to bed at night. Most kids got to sleep with their teddy bears, I got onions and garlic. At least I can’t recall ever having a problem with werewolves or vampires attacking at night. I also never had a problem with girls wanting to talk to me in kindergarten.

It is possible that garlic alone has more superstitions connected with it than any other food. I have often entered homes in Asia where garlic is hung over doors and windows to keep evil spirits out.  Garlic bulbs were found around the tomb of King Tut when it was excavated.  Koreans used to eat pickled garlic before they passed through a mountain pass because they believed the Tigers hated it. In Mohammed’s writings, he describes the feet of the Devil as he was cast out of the Garden of Eden. Where his left foot touched the earth, garlic sprang up, while onions emerged from the footprint of his right foot.  I wonder if my mom would have put those things around my neck if she had known that? Ancient Greeks would put garlic on a pile of stones to cause evil spirits to lose their way. Roman armies were fed garlic because they believed it gave them courage. Ancient European folklore advised that garlic should be worn or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes. Why, yep, you guessed it, vampires! Did you know that dreaming about garlic is good luck and means you will discover hidden secrets?  And the list goes on.

quack doctors

Over the years I have found folklore about foods and treatments for whatever ails us to be a fascinating story.  So, let me share some of what I have come across or discovered. Each of these is an actual treatment or promised cure that was practiced.  After each folk practice or medicine, I will add my own thoughts.

Before I start, some of you remember that I said I was especially thankful for two things today.  The second one is latex paint.  When I was four and living in Honolulu with my parents I managed to get into a can of lead-based, bright green, enamel paint. My mother said I was totally covered from head to foot with the thick, sticky, stinky slop. It was in my eyes, nose, mouth, underwear, yes, everywhere.  Even before Kermit the frog I learned it ain’t easy being green.  Today, enamel paint is mostly water-based and no lead can be found in it.  But that was not the case in 1950.  My mother found all the paint thinner she could get and put it in our bathtub and I took a long painful bath in mineral spirits.  It was in my eyes, mouth, ears, and, gulp, my underwear.  It burned my skin and left me looking like a sobbing, red tomato.  I am glad I can’t remember it but my mother sure could.  Actually, since that day, I can’t remember a lot of things. Hurray for easy-clean-up latex paints.

ad for Clark Stanley's Snake Oil LinimentWhen you read the following folk cures, you can imagine that a lot of people have their own things they are thankful for today.

Now, it is time to find our local snake oil salesman.  Remember, these are actual folk remedies, mostly from the 1800’s, found in journals and local oral and written traditions. (Each cure will be followed by My thoughts).

ARTHRITIS

A cure for arthritis is to carry a potato around in your pocket.   (You can tell that this is not scientific because it doesn’t tell which pocket).

TO GROW A BEARD

The liquid obtained from boiling old boots has been used to promote the growth of hair on the face of young men. (This practice alone may do more to promote moral abstinence than all current forms of education).

NOSEBLEED

Stuff a spider’s web into your nose.  (If you include the spider you don’t have to keep making new applications).

BOILS AND INFECTIONS

Cow dung has been used as a poultice for boils. (Why am I glad my mother used onions and garlic?).

PREVENTING GRAY HAIR

While standing on your head, massage your scalp. (I don’t think an Olympic gymnast could do this.  Maybe this is why so many have gray hair).

ad for Hamlin's Wizard Oil in the 1800sDIPHTHERIA

A Nova Scotia remedy was to get a live trout, put it down the throat, pull it out and throw it back in the pond. (Someone, please help me with this one. How do you stuff a live trout down someone’s throat?  How would you even convince someone to let you try it? Excuse me, sir, but I can help your pain. Let me take this four-pound, spiny, wiggling, angry fish and cram it down your throat and you will be cured).

RHEUMATISM

One large thimble of gunpowder, mix in a spoonful of milk.  After taking that. Drink a good half-pint of milk separately. Then go to bed with a lot of warm blankets and sweat a lot. (Do you realize that when this remedy was used, most families had lanterns with open flames near their beds? After I drank gunpower, I think the last thing I would want to do was try to blow out the flame in the lamp).

EARACHE

Boil an onion, when it is hot remove the heart and place it in the ear.  (Now that we got the fish out of your throat we have this boiling onion we want to cram into your ear. It will get your mind off your bleeding throat).

A HEADACHE

Pick up a knife and make a cross in front of you with it. Then throw the knife on the floor! (Wait a minute, I thought that was how you cast demons out of your sofa!).

BRONCHITIS

Wear the sock you wore all day around your neck at night to bed, with the foot part near the throat. (What if you still have a cough in the morning?  Can you imagine showing up at work that day for a business meeting with an old stinky sock around your neck?).

a magneto electric machine
Machine for curing nervous diseases

HICCUPS

Put your head between your legs and look at the sun. (Sorry to keep interrupting and acting dumb. I am not a very flexible person but even if I got into that position with my head looking up and the sun in my eyes, I would be scared I might have acid reflux and burn off my trousers?  Are hiccups really that threatening?).

A SORE THROAT

Eat molasses candy made with a small amount of kerosene oil.  Some people just boiled molasses and kerosene oil (or Minard’s Liniment) and took a couple of spoonfuls every few hours.  (Why do folk remedies not mention life expectancy?  Now how long will a person live that drinks molasses and kerosene?).

ad for and a bottle of Bayer's heroin cough syrup in the early 1900s

A COUGH

In the early 1900’s the Bayer Corporation used to sell bottles of Heroin as a cough suppressant for children. (The label on the bottle said “Heroin.”) Scientists believed that it was a non-addictive alternative to morphine, from which it was synthesized, but of course, that was soon proven wrong. In 1913, as hospitals teemed with patients addicted to the ‘medicine,’ Bayer decided to stop making it. (No comment, nothing funny in this story).

ad for Lloyd Manufacturing's Cocaine Toothache Drops

WARTS (Three remedies)

Rub pork grease on your warts and then scrape it off and give it to a dog.  (Actually, my neighbor has a dog I would like to try this with).

Put butter on the wart and have a cat lick it. (Make sure the dog watches since he is still mad).

Apply snail slime to warts. (Sorry, I am unclear about this one. Do you do this before or after the dog licks it?).

Idea! Wouldn’t it be quicker just to combine some of these to save time? Make sure you have the old sock tied around your neck and Crush a snail and smear it all over your face while you throw your knife at the floor, and while the dogs and cats are sucking off your warts drink kerosene and light yourself on fire; then do the old stop, drop and roll while cramming a trout back and forth down your throat. Quickly smush cow dung in your ears and swing your flaming head between your legs and stare at the sun. That should just about cure everything. You will never worry about your warts or your breath again, or ever getting a date.

The next few stories will be about the strangest foods that people eat around the world.  I have actually eaten some things that made me want to stuff a live trout down my throat.

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3 Comments

  1. Patti Jenkins

    July 26, 2018 at 6:55 pm

    Funny stories, Ed. I’ve been a nurse for 50 yrs (I was smart and graduated at 12years old) but all these
    medical treatments are completely new to me. I do think using a leach on a wound to reduce swelling
    might be the closest story I’ve had to observe. Not a huge fan of animal medicine. I’m sticking with the less stinky stories.However,my mom was a firm believer in Vicks salve and rubbed it on our chest and nose every time we
    got sick. I still hate the smell of it and refused to use it on our kids.
    Glad your stories are coming along and can’t wait to read the next one.

    Reply

  2. Nancy Keim

    August 2, 2018 at 6:50 am

    Awesome stories Ed! I have a share of home remedies that I can remember and they really work. Placing toothpaste on a burn to take the burning pain away or meat tenderizer on a itchy mosquito bite or applying kerosine on a cut that doesn’t stop bleeding, etc etc. We should share more of these remedies, they sure come handy 🙂 Thank you for sharing some of these stories.

    Reply

  3. Jane DuPlessis

    August 4, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    I like your last idea the best!!! Comment from “Down Under”…NO WORRIES!!!! 🙂

    Reply

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