american frugal housewife, health, history lesson, homesteading, medicine, oregon trail

Old-fashioned remedies for everyday illnesses


For the past week I’ve been battling a stubborn cold, drinking gallons of tea and piling up the tissues like Typhoid Mary.* Apparently it’s impossible to avoid being sick when you work with middle school children, and all the more impossible when those students like to hang out with the toddlers on their snack break. Yes, the toddlers are cute, but they don’t know how to wash their hands! Then again, neither do middle schoolers.

Anyway, last week my mind turned to medical treatments more…traditional than taking a dose of Tylenol Cold every 4 to 6 hours. What would those early settlers do when downed by illness? (You knew this was coming.) So I flipped through the handy American Frugal Housewife (1833) to find out the answers. Curl up in a blanket with your hot water bottle and honeyed tea and read on.

For the common cold:

  • “A syrup made of horseradish-root and sugar is excellent.”
  • “Water-gruel” with onions, butter, pepper and salt, consumed just before bedtime.
  • A tea to cure “inveterate coughs” can be made with colt’s-foot and flax seed (if you can get past the texture).
  • Drink a mixture of sugar and brandy to cure a sore throat.

For headaches:

  • Mix half a spoonful of citric acid, “which may always be bought of the apothecaries,” with half a glass of water.

For digestive complaints:

  • A complicated concoction of saffron, myrrh, aloes, and rum. It sounds like it would take longer to make the cure than to wait out the digestive troubles.
  • A variety of teas made from “succory” (chicory) or “elder-blow” (the elder plant).

For dysentery:

  • Wine whey, a mixture of milk curdled with wine. Please note that you can make it “palatable with loaf sugar and nutmeg, if the patient can bear it.” Perhaps the cure is worse than the disease?
  • Milk porridge, made with boiled milk and flour. Again, nutmeg can help the medicine go down.
  • A combination of table-salt and vinegar, dissolved in boiling water.
  • Burnt cork, crushed and mixed with brandy, sugar, and nutmeg.

While these are just a few of the many, many complaints and treatments addressed in The American Frugal Housewife, I was struck by the fact that most of the remedies tried to cure dysentery. And that’s not a common illness in 21st-century America. It takes me back to the days of playing “Oregon Trail” more than anything else: the dreaded screen reading “You have died of dysentery.” But there’s a reason so many players died of dysentery in “Oregon Trail:” it could be a life-threatening illness in the days of early settlers, as the Frugal Housewife suggests.

So I’m going to count my blessings that I have nothing more than a common cold. And that I don’t have to drink burnt cork.

*Credit: Lissa.



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