Everybody Has a Story: Home remedies nearly as miserable as ailments they ‘cured’



Hearing discussions on today’s health care carries me back to the health care of my childhood in the 1930s.

Kids got the flu, colds, mumps, measles, chickenpox, whooping cough and the more feared scarlet fever and polio. Smallpox was the one vaccine, which left a dime-sized scar on the upper arm.

Scarlet fever meant quarantine. A warning notice was tacked on the front door and no one was allowed to enter or leave but the doctor. Doctors made house calls in those years. Neighbors would buy the necessary groceries and leave them on the porch in a box by the front door.

I was prone to pneumonia. There were no antibiotics. My oxygen tent consisted of a sheet tossed over my headboard and, beneath, an electric burner heating a coffee can containing camphor. The fumes promoted coughing to clear the lungs.

Mother also had great faith in mustard plasters. Plaster was an apt description. She would prepare the vile concoction in the kitchen, smear it on a cloth, then slap the too, too warm plaster on my bare chest. If you weren’t miserable enough already, the plaster was guaranteed to tip you over the edge.

Most homes had medicine cabinets holding the familiar blue jar of Vicks VapoRub for colds, and iodine and Mercurochrome for cuts and scrapes. There was liniment for lumbago and rheumatism, tonic for female maladies, and other tonics for anything and everything else you could think of. The higher the alcohol content, the more popular the tonic. At that time, home remedies ruled supreme, with each neighborhood having its own guru.

When exploring the foothills with friends, my sister fell and contracted poison oak. Mom was instructed to bathe the itch with water containing the oil from chicken feathers. She headed straight for the henhouse and quickly dispatched a reluctant volunteer for dinner. Back in the kitchen, a kettle of boiling water was poured over the bird to loosen the feathers for plucking. The water was saved. I don’t know how effective the water was in soothing the itch, I only remember my sister going around the house for two weeks smelling like a wet chicken.

It is amazing how many of us made it to adulthood.

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