As a kid growing up with full access to the outdoors, it was not at all unusual to get bumps, bruises, and scratches. As a result of this rough and tumble lifestyle, we had a lot of home remedies to soothe whatever ailment seemed to present itself and they were not always pleasant or safe.
For scratches, cuts, and scrapes, we usually had the choices of Merthiolate (OUCH) or Mercurochrome (LESS OUCH BUT STILL OUCH). These products stained you for weeks due to their bright orange color. We often begged for bubbles (hydrogen peroxide) but I think my family believed if the remedy did not hurt, then the medicine wasn’t any good. These products were questioned because they contain mercury and unbelievably were available to purchase until 1998.
For earaches, which I seemed to have more frequently than my siblings, one of my parents (who were both smokers) would blow cigarette smoke in my ear. Boy, that sounds strange now saying it out loud. I guess the thinking was it was warm air? I don’t know, but country remedies could be unusual. The other option was held in a little cobalt blue or amber bottle with a glass dropper — Sweet Oil. Now when researching this magical potion, I discover it is possibly a modified olive oil or possibly an essential oil. Hmmm.
My parents and grandparents were fixated on our internal workings. We learned early on not to complain about a belly ache. That could leave you butt-skyward on the bed getting a good old fashioned enema. yes, you heard it right. I had a good friend from Wisconsin whose husband I discovered also grew up with enema happy grandmothers. We got a lot of laughs talking about it as adults but both agreed it was no laughing matter as a kid. The other bellyache fix was a dose of castor oil. Yuck. It was always followed with a hard sliver off a year-old disc of maple sugar saved just for that purpose. It was actually hammered off it was so hard.
Occasionally, we had boils. If you do not know what they are, count your blessings, and do yourself a favor and do not google it. They are infections of the hair follicle or oil glands and often caused by staphylococcal bacteria that enters the body through cuts in the skin (see paragraph two above). We used a black tarry substance known as Ichthammol (ammonium bituminosulphonate) made from shale oîl to ‘draw’ the boil to a head. It did not smell any better than it looks.
I seemed to have a lot of nosebleeds as a kid, too. I even had them into adulthood. For that, the home remedy was to take a piece of brown paper from a grocery bag, fold it into a small rectangle, wet it, and put it under my top lip. I remember the taste and the texture of the paper to this day. I’m not sure it worked, either because eventually, my nose was cauterized.
A toothache was treated with either cloves or a dose of paregoric (made from powdered opium). I recall the smell of paregoric and the taste of it rubbed on my gums. It is a wonder we were not all addicts. It was still available in the U.S. without prescription until 1970 and is still available today with a prescription.
Colds and congestion were a whole lot easier to deal with. We were usually coated on our chest and back with a thick application of Vicks Vapor Rub. There was even a dab rubbed under your nose so you could breathe a little easier. (Some of my friends said they were given a small blob to eat – gross!) If you had a cough, it was usually Smith Brothers Cough Drops (black licorice-flavored). Of course, we wanted the cherry-flavored cough drops but that rarely happened. If we did not have cough drops, we were given a saucer with cinnamon and sugar to sit by our bed in case we coughed in the night. We would stick our tongue out and coat it with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.
We also ran around barefoot all summer but tar on the bottom of our feet was easily cleaned off (and absorbed into our skin) with a rag wet with kerosene. I also think when I contracted head lice from my grade school classroom, my head was sprinkled with DDT powder. It is truly a wonder I have lived this long.