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Ancestral Patent Medicines & Home Remedies

For our grandparents and great grandparents, most did not go to doctors on a regular basis. Instead people around 1900 (in many countries) used various home remedies, homeopathic methods or an array of ‘patent medicines’ such as Omega Oil which claimed to be “natures own remedy for pain, with a sparkling green color, and there’s nothing else like it in America”. In 1900 our ancestors believed if something was written in the newspaper, such as in an advertisement, then it had to be true.  It might be said, our ancestors back then were ‘gullible’.

What was happening was that snake oil salesman and companies were mostly unregulated in the newspapers and magazines from the 1880 through the 1930’s. People read the claims in the ads and because the products were generally cheap they could be easily sent for them by rail or mail.  However, up to fifty percent morphine or opium or cocaine by volume was in most of those patent medicines.  Those that didn’t have these strong drugs did have a high percentage of alcohol, which was referred to as a ‘tonic’. With so much morphine and other drugs, their pain did seem to disappear, but they also became addicted by accident, not knowing this could happen to them.  It is estimated that two and five percent of the entire adult population of the United States was addicted to drugs as late as 1900.

With medical science in its infancy, even going to a physician in 1900 would not help with most illnesses, so people tried other treatments when they did not use the patent medicines, known as home remedies. Our ancestors such diseases as measles, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough and pink eye especially with children, not to mention colds and influenza. Every family had a unique collection of home remedies. Even the trusted Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog book of 1900, had countless items listed as “Family Remedies” sold on the same pages as laundry or home cleaners.

Some of the home treatments our ancestors used involved castor oil, a popular cure for many things including skin disease, to help with women giving birth or to solve intestinal problems.  Even for some serious conditions such as cancer, many people believed that there was a cure.  By sticking mustard plaster over the cancer would cause skin cancer to disappear.

Some other home remedies include:

Crushed ragweed used on the skin for poison ivy or oak

Eating a plateful of fried onions ward off the flu

Use of coal oil to cure for head lice and rid bed bugs

Coal oil and sugar were mixed together treated sore

Chewing tobacco was a treatment for bee stings

Warm urine was poured into the ear to cure an earache

If you got the measles you were cured by eating a well-roasted mouse

Blood poisoning was solved using potash of mercury dissolved in water

Pneumonia was cured by applying a mustard plaster

Deep cuts had flour packed into the cut to stop the bleeding

Wearing a necklace of lead cured a chronic nosebleed

Gallstones were treated by not eating for 24 hours; then you eat a quart of tomatoes; four hours later, you ate a lemon; wait one hour and finish with a big dose of Epson’s Salts

Rheumatism would be relieved if you carried a buckeye in your pocket

Blowing pipe smoke into an ear also helped with an earache

Mixing and drinking of equal parts of honey, lemon juice and whiskey would help influenza

A couple of the products used by our ancestors are still on the store shelves.  They include Vicks Vapor-Rub; used in 1900 treatment of sore throats and colds. A thick application would be rubbed on the throat and then covered with a flannel strip. For colds, the Vicks was applied to the chest and covered with a piece of flannel.   Also there was Alka Seltzer, an example of a patent medicine from 1931 developed by Dr. Miles Medical Company which started with Dr. Miles’ Nervine tonic in 1890s.

This bit of insight into our ancestors’ medical practices and treatments can be quite enlightening.

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