#9 in the Harry Forbes Remembers Series. This time, Harry’s sister, Helen shares her memories of how they doctored themselves. Jen Zollner’s experiences are added in brackets. Compiled by Jen Zollner
In describing some of the home treatments of the olden days, I will begin with childbirth. There was usually a woman in the district who acted as midwife. She would not likely have had any training in this, just her own common sense and maybe some pointers from a doctor somewhere along the way. On the birth certificates of six of the family members, the place of birth is given as the land description of Dad’s homestead quarter. A neighbour lady attended to those births.
Next is the most delicate member of the family, the baby. A colicky baby was given a drink of a few drops of peppermint extract in warm water, then placed on his or her stomach over someone’s lap and patted on the back. It was my job many times to hold my younger brother, Ralph, in this way as I rocked him in the rocking chair. I mentioned this to Ralph a few years ago. With a grin he replied, “But oh, wasn’t I worth it?”
Sometimes if the navel of a new baby became infected, it was carefully and delicately touched with blue stone. There were no canned baby foods. (Mother’s breast fed their babies whenever possible. Not only was it handier, it was healthier.) When the little ones needed more than just milk he/she was given the regular vegetables finely mashed with a bit of milk added or a soft-boiled egg. Cereal, which we called grits, and now dubbed cream of wheat, was also used. This varied from mother to mother.
Vaseline or cornstarch spread or dusted on the baby’s backside took care of diaper rash. For any member of the family, a rash or itching from chicken pox, eczema etc. was treated by boiling oatmeal, then adding some of the liquid to the bath water.
While the naval was healing, preventative measures were taken. I so clearly remember Mom sitting in front of the open oven door with the naked, freshly bathed baby on a towel on her knees. First a small pad was placed over the navel. (Nearly all the baby clothes were of white flannelette.) Then a length of cloth about four inches wide by eighteen inches long was wrapped over the pad and around the little body as far as it would go, then fastened with safety pins. (For any open sore at any age, only white cloth was ever used to cover it.)
I may as well mention how differently babies were dressed then, boys no different from girls. There were none of those handy one-piece sleepers. A long-sleeved undershirt covered the upper body and was buttoned down the front. The diaper was white flannelette of course. It was made by folding a two-foot square cloth into a triangle, part of which came from under the body. One point was drawn from each side to cross over in front; the third point came between the legs and all three were fastened with a safety pin. Long stockings drawn up over the legs were fastened to the diaper where the edges met at the leg front. Next came a long petticoat-type gown that reached to the baby’s feet. To complete the attire, a knitted sweater, bonnet and booties, blue for a boy and pink for a girl. Then he/she was wrapped in a small blanket (called a receiving blanket) and was ready for a feeding or a nap.
(Also wee babies were never exposed to outside air as it caused gas and hours of crying and walking the floor trying to comfort them. I see wee babies outdoors nowadays even when there’s some wind and they don’t even have their ears covered. Doesn’t it give them discomfort hours later? Also, diapers were hung outdoors on the wash line to dry for the sun to bleach out the stains, especially in winter. The sun’s disinfectant action would also prevent diaper rash.)
Castor oil, Epsom salts, Milk of Magnesia or Castoria combated constipation. When Harry and Agnes were very young, they loved the licorice taste of Castoria. Mother was working outside one day, so the two decided to have a treat. Brother climbed up on the high chair to reach the bottle from the cupboard where it was kept. Unfortunately he dropped the bottle spilling some of the contents on Mom’s clean floor. He promptly got down on hands and knees and licked it up. Browned flour in milk or hot milk with a bit of black pepper in it were also remedies for diarrhea.
Wild Strawberry, which we called “Mom’s Cure-All” came into use for stomach flu or upset stomach. This was very effective and I used it for my own family until it was taken off the market. If the stomach ached, a drink of hot lemonade or ginger tea along with a hot water bottle on the tummy and the feet soaking in a tub of hot water would help. A bit of baking soda in warm water was drunk to relieve heartburn or indigestion.
Mothers sometimes gave their children a spoonful of molasses and sulphur as a spring tonic and blood purifier. My dad told of his mother gathering her children and administering this treatment to them. (The winter tonic when I was growing up was a teaspoon of cod liver oil. As surely as it came right after breakfast, is as surely as I hated it being administered every winter day, even on Sundays, heaven forbid!)
A tub of hot water with Epsom salts in it was used to soak an arm or leg affected with blood poisoning. Usually a doctor’s ministration was needed to treat this condition.
Should a speck of dust or such gain entrance to an eye, a flax seed dropped under the upper outside eyelid would cross the eye, taking any foreign object with it and eventually emerge at the inner corner of the eyelid. The flax seed is oily and therefore causes no pain in the eye.
The ouch of an aching tooth was treated by putting cloves on a bit of cotton, placing it on the tooth and holding it there by closing the teeth on it. A hot water bottle or a heated grain bag or bag with salt were used.
For disinfecting any cut, puncture or abrasion, some Lysol, Creoline or peroxide was added to a basin of warm water in which the injured member was soaked. (I invariably ended up stepping on a nail when I cut firewood from the woodpile. I would have to stick my foot in hot water. Mom would check the temperature with her elbow so she knew it wouldn’t burn my foot but it surely felt like it was too hot. As long as it was red and swollen around puncture hole in the bottom of my foot, I had to do the hot-water-soak. It should have been lesson enough not to step in another nail, but invariably, it happened again.)
To stop bleeding from a small wound, a piece of brown wrapping paper was applied with pressure, then left on the wound for a short time.
(A sliver was taken out by heating a needle on the stove, to sterilize it, I guess. You waited until puss formed, then it came out more easily.) If a sliver did cause infection, a poultice of boiled flax seed, Vaseline with Epson salts mixed into it, or broken up bread covered with hot water then squeezed to a mush was placed on the wound, covered with a cloth and held there with a wrapping. Often this was done at bedtime. You could feel the drawing power of the poultice and by morning the desired results had been achieved.
Watch for Home Remedies #2 next month.