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Rise of Industrial America
Rural Life in the Late 19th Century
Home Remedies

In the late 1800s, farmers and small town residents were likely to treat illnesses with home remedies, passed down through generations. Sometimes they used these remedies because no doctor was available, but there were other reasons as well. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 contains many older people's memories about home remedies used in their childhoods in the late 1800s. As you read the excerpts below, look for reasons home remedies were used. Do you think any of these reasons still apply today? Have you heard of any of these remedies before? Which remedy sounds most interesting to you?


Mrs. Albert Waybright, Ashland, Nebraska

Dog Fennel boiled with lard was used a great deal for sore throat. Elderberry blossom tea was thought to be the best treatment for fever and peppermint, which grew along the [?] was dried and given when anyone got a stomach-ache. People had a dread of being buried alive and a good many times bodies were kept for a week or more just to be sure. People didn't altogether trust doctors to know and some of them didn't have a doctor.

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Mr. C.A. Kirshtien, New York City (Grew up in Tennessee)

I was born in New York, but spent a good part of my childhood in the South; mother was the grand-daughter of a big plantation owner. All her folks lived in Tennessee, and we spent our summers there. . . .

There were several primitive but apparently effective remedies for illness practiced in my mother's family. When we children had a cough, mother would give us boiled water that had been sweetened, with a piece of clean cherry bark floating in it.

It was believed that to prevent fever for a whole year, a child should pick the first three violets he found in the spring, and eat them. Some of us used to eat violets all summer long, because we got to like the taste of them!

A recipe for Insomnia: Bruise a handful of anise seeds and steep them in waters then place in small bags, and bind one bag over each nostril before going to bed. . . .

A popular cure for warts, practiced by both blacks and whites, was to gather as many pebbles as you had warts, rub one pebble on each wart, take them to a crossroads and throw the pebbles over your left shoulder. The warts were supposed to go with them.

Of course, there was one always effective way to stop hiccoughs. Just swallow nine gulps of water while standing on one foot. . . .

STIFF NECK: Wrap a pair of underdrawers which have been worn more than two days around the neck.

STOMACH ACHE: Swallow a tablespoonful of clean white sand. . . .

DEATH TEST: To determine whether or not a sick person will die, rub his hand with yeast and let a dog sniff of it. If the dog licks the hand, the person will recover; if the dog refuses to lick his hand, he will die.

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Mr. J.W. Wilson, Lincoln, Nebraska

People seemed to be healthier and they used Home Remedies a great deal. They believed that God had planted in the earth things to cure all illness if they could be found. My wife's brother had a 'white swelling.' Hip joint disease. He tried the doctors for a long time but only got worse. His mother said she would cure him. So she went out and dug 'Yellow Dock' and picked sarsiparilla, made a tea and added brown sugar. His hip finally healed and his blood cleared and he was well again. Tansy tea was used a lot as a remedy and skunk oil.

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Mr. Charles E. Banister, Portland, Oregon

My mother had all kinds of home remedies she used to use on the children. I don't remember what particular ailment it was for, but we took catnip tea, and sassafras tea. Turpentine and sugar was given for worms, and sometimes people were dosed with straight turpentine, as in the case of my brother who died of diphtheria. It was the doctor who doped him, and he gave him too much.

Turpentine and lard rubbed on the chest was wonderful for colds, and if we had no turpentine we could use coal oil or kerosene. . . .

We also had several kinds of poultices, flax seed poultice, bread and milk poultice, and beefsteak poultice which my mother put on me whenever I came home with a black eye. But the very best poultice for sores was the angle worm poultice. It would draw all the smart out of even a bad felon. The worms were taken alive, placed upon the sore, and wrapped around with a bandage.

For earache sometimes mother used laudanum dropped into the ear with a dropper. There were pain killer pills to be got at the store, but the usual remedy for headaches was hot or cold packs applied to the head.

For burns, she made a paste of bicarbonate of soda and water and spread it over the burned area. Too, as soon as one was burned it was always best for him to hold the burn as close to the heat as possible and quickly as possible. This would hurt something dreadful but it would draw all the fire out almost at once.

Then for colds we had onion syrup. Onions were boiled to a concentrated solution and sugar was added to sweeten it.

Among the foremost of remedies "handed down" in the family is the tea made of dung. In the case of my grandmother the most efficaciously medicinal dung is that of the swine, the common sty-pig, which, when dried and baked in an oven and made into a tea is said to cure evils of all sorts, from the slightest indisposition to measles and smallpox. I recall several years ago when I was in Baker, Oregon that a child took sick with the measles. The grandmother procured the dung of a sheep, gave it the same treatment in the oven and made it into tea. This the child drank, being too young to know what the decoction was. . . .

Plain table salt was another good remedy for toothache, sore throat, etc. This was mixed with water, one teaspoonful to a glass of water. Vinegar or blue vitriol served to defeat the ravages of rashes, poison oak, etc. . . .

A so-called cure for warts was to place the head of one match upon the wart and touch it off with another, and so "burn it out." Another less painful but longer treatment consisted of rubbing the affected part with castor oil. This has been known to clean up warts slick as a whistle.

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