NATURAL INGREDIENTS USED IN MANY FOLK MEDICINES (May 13/05)

In 1897 the Guide Publishing Co. of Toronto published a book that was offered as a “practical family physician.” This so-called “domestic cyclopedia” proclaimed to be a book of home remedies and home treatment of all diseases, and an “instructor on nursing, housekeeping and home adornments.”

In the days when the nearest doctor could be a day away, country folks had to rely on themselves to treat many common ailments; so I suppose such books as this were necessary. However, I cringed when I glanced at some of the chemicals and other weird concoctions people were advised to use for maladies in the late 19th century. The external use of turpentine, carbolic acid, and the poisonous nitric acid, for example, are suggested as helpful in treating various ailments.

While many of the treatments suggested in the old book sound dangerous – and were – some of the old-time concoctions are amusing and appear harmless. Take the treatment of headaches, for example. The mild and migraine type of headaches appear to have been common in the 19th century since the book contains several pages on coping with them.

On the amusing side is the suggestion that one can get rid of a headache simply by walking backwards for 10 minutes. I may try this the next time I have a headache, but I doubt that walking slowly backwards “placing first the ball of the foot on the floor and then the heel” will actually work, but who knows? Anything’s worth a try when a migraine slam dunks you.

On migraines, called “sick headaches,” the old book recommends a poultice of cayenne pepper and vinegar. The directions read, “mix a tablespoon of cayenne pepper to a thick paste with vinegar, spread it on a strip of thin cloth, which may be folded together, and bind on the forehead from temple to temple.” When the poultice is in place, swallow a pinch of the pepper in a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice. This will work wonders, it says, the headache disappearing in 10 minutes.

Another treatment for sick headache recommends drinking a cup of strong catnip tea, or one can take two teaspoonfuls of finely powdered charcoal mixed with a half glass of milk. Seidlitz powder, apparently a patent medicine available at the general store is mentioned in the book as a cure for headaches. Black’s medical dictionary says Seidlitz powder or compound is a mild purgative that has a cooling effect on the body and corrects acidity.

One of the most interesting aspects of the old book is how often natural ingredients are suggested to combat illness. For neuralgia, horse radish or oil of peppermint; for diarrhoea, a syrup made from rhubarb or blackberries; for asthma, a strong tea of yarrow and “smoking Jimson weed;” for pneumonia, a flaxseed poultice. Flaxseed tea is offered as a cold treatment and for coughs a syrup made from wild cherries, and a tea made from steeped peach tree bark and honey. Dandelion root made into a tea and dandelion greens are suggested as a treatment for various common ailments.

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