CURING COMMON COLDS IN THE 19th CENTURY (June 3/05)

“An acute cold is very disagreeable and if neglected may prove very serious,” reads a blurb from an 1897 book on family health remedies.

If you’ve been discombobulated by the plague of colds and flu-like ailments rampant during the persistent wet weather this spring, you’ll have to agree with this observation. The old family guide, which I wrote about previously in this column, has numerous observations of this sort, all of which were introductions to sure-fire recipes for cold treatments.

Anyway, from the number of recipes given in the book it appears that a century ago, maladies such as cold and the flu (which they called “the grippe”) were common. The old book has page after page of cold and flu treatments including a few that claimed to cure the common cold.

While we know better today, generations ago they believed that the cold not only could be cured but also easily prevented. Great-grandpappy had all sorts of weird, strange sounding concoctions to treat and prevent colds. At least that’s the impression given in this old family health book. However, our great grandparents must have been naive. For example, if every cold and flu home treatment by itself worked miracles, why were so many available?

Looking at the old recipes I see that a common ingredient in many of the treatments was camphor- as a rub, in poultices and taken internally. Naive or not, great grandpappy may have been on to something here. I looked up camphor in Black’s Medical Dictionary and found that it was an oily substance distilled from a type of laurel wood that grows in Japan and other Asian countries. Camphor, Black’s Dictionary said, has many uses. Externally on bed clothes to keep off fleas and lice, as a rub in liniment to treat bronchitis and skin conditions, mixed with water and taken by the spoonful to ward off colds.

Some ingredients common in cold treatments in the old days are still found today in over-the-counter medications. Cherries and lemons, for example. The old book suggests that “a simple remedy for colds in the head is the juice of a ripe lemon.” The juice of the lemon is “squeezed into the hand and sniffed well up into the nose.”

Flax flour and seeds – and flax seed oil – is highly touted as a health food today and many people swear by its benefits. According to the old family book, our great grandparents were well aware of flax as a health food. Flax is mentioned as an ingredient in various treatments for illness. For coughs and sore throats, for example, the old book recommends hot flaxseed tea with lemon juice, sweetened with rock candy.

Not all remedies offered in the book were as palatable as the flaxseed tea and lemon juice drink. According to the old book, if colds were severe and lingering, some drastic measures were called for. Here’s one: “Doses of oil, cod liver oil, skunk’s oil, goose grease and many other sorts have been found to help certain persons when suffering from colds.”

Our great grandparents not only were naive. They had no gag reflexes.

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