Fantastic Cures for What Ails You

Isabella Alden was no stranger to illness. In her personal life she suffered from chronic health issues. In her novels, her characters fought a variety of ailments, from head colds and sore throats, to broken bones and crippling back injuries.

In her novel Jessie Wells Isabella wrote about a “molasses and ginger cure” to ward off cough and fever. It was suggested to Jessie by her father, a physician. (You can read more about it here.)

Vintage cartoon of a woman about 1910 carrying a baby in one arm and a large suitcase in her other hand. The suitcase is labeled "Medicine Chest. Soothing Syrup. Peppermint. Jamaica Ginger. Paregoric."

Although the molasses cure was based on an old folk medicine recipe, it was actually beneficial; the ginger helped suppress a cough and the molasses soothed the throat.

Like Dr. Wells, many physicians in those days treated patients with folk medicine cures for ailments ranging from the common cold to the universal finger wart.

Vintage illustration of a doctor visiting a little girl sick in bed. He holds her hand and speaks kindly to her.

Isabella availed herself of some of those folk remedies in her personal life. To cure her chronic headaches she underwent a “water cure.” Physicians wrapped her body in wet blankets and allowed them to dry in place. They believed the process would draw harmful toxins from her body, thereby curing her headaches. (You can read more about it here.)

Vintage illustration of man in bed. a woman in nursing cap and apron stands beside him, combing his hair from his forehead while holding a mirror out for him to see.

There were folk remedies for every possible ailment, including dry lips, rattlesnake bites, poison ivy, measles, diphtheria and sties.  Here are a few:

The lining of a chicken gizzard is good for stomach trouble.

A drop of skunk’s oil will cure a cold.

To treat a wart, squeeze the red juice from a freshly picked beet leaf on it every day.

A drop of turpentine on the tongue every day will keep all disease away.

Vintage illustration of a doctor wrapping a bandage around a woman's arm as she rests in a chair with a pillow behind her.

The remedies were handed down from mother to daughter, from doctor to patient. Some old-time cures persisted until the Twentieth Century; generations of American children wore a piece of flannel (usually red) around their throats after drinking home-made cough syrups. In some areas of the U.S. it was a common practice well into the 1950s.  

Some folk remedies had no legitimacy, yet they worked because the patients believed they would work.

Victorian era illustration of a sick man in bed. A woman wearing nursing cap and apron stands at the foot of the bed hear a table on which is a bowl and a medicine bottle.

Other cures sounded strange, but had a scientific basis, like this one:

To cure an abscess or infected cut, apply a poultice of moldy bread and water twice each day.

In this instance, the poultice probably worked because the moldy bread essentially served as a home-grown form of penicillin.

Victorian era illustration of a seated woman holding a little girl in her lap. Before them kneels a doctor who holds a cup to the child's lips. In the background stand worried family members.

In our twenty-first century America, many of the old home-grown medicines have gone by the wayside. Luckily, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. has a large collection of stories, letters, research essays, photos, and voice recordings about American folk medicine that helps us understand how Isabella, her family, neighbors and friends dealt with illness and injuries. You can visit the LOC’s website by clicking here.

Does your family have a story about folk medicine cures that did (or didn’t) work?

Do you have a favorite home remedy that has been handed down from generation to generation in your family?

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