We may look back on life a hundred or more years ago as idyllic, stress free and romantic, but for many of our ancestors it was a dreary round of poverty, grinding toil, and frequent illness. For our rural ancestors, the doctor was many long miles away by horseback. Those available were often lacking in medical education and probably did as much harm as good. They didn’t know or ignored basic hygiene and spread germs from one patient to the next. My father and his mother, Catherine Kaiser Trausch, often said “The further away you stay from doctors, the better off you’ll be.” Many times people made do by doctoring themselves with what they had on hand. If a doctor was called it was usually after all home remedies had failed and by then it was often too late. However, without modern drugs and surgical techniques, doctors could do little more than Grandma with her home remedies.
Most women used remedies that had been passed down from their mothers and grandmothers. Goose grease was an ingredient in many home remedies. It was smeared on hands and faces to prevent chapping, combined with turpentine or kerosene to be rubbed on chests and throats for colds and applied to burns and blisters.
Lavina Clark, wife of Silas “Doc” Clark of Juniata, (brother of Grandma Clarice Clark Renschler Bugg) told me that her mother used goose grease because it was “greasier’ than lard. Her mother combined goose grease and turpentine for a chest rub to loosen congestion. She also remembered her mother making a cold medicine by combining raw onions, lots of sugar and a few drops of turpentine, placing it on the back of the cook stove and letting it set until it turned into a syrup. This syrup was good for colds and coughs.
Then, like now, there seemed to be more remedies for the miseries of colds and chest congestion than any other ailments. If my Dad felt a cold coming on he rubbed his neck, chest and back with Mentholatum, took a good shot of whiskey and went to bed to “sweat it out.” There was a firm belief that the stronger or more unpleasant the remedy, the better.
Mustard plasters, strong enough to take off the skin, and substitute a new pain for the original, were often used. To make a mustard plaster, take a small amount of ground mustard, combine with a little flour and water to make a paste. Spread the paste on a cloth, cover with another cloth and put on the chest until the skin turns red. If left on too long it will blister the skin. My Grandmother, Leona Bassett Kline, told me that when Grandpa Dan Kline broke a rib he thought a mustard plaster would help relieve the pain. The heat felt so good he left the plaster on too long. When it was removed the skin came with it, leaving a big sore. Grandma Leona Kline also remembered onion poultices. Fry onions in a small account of lard, spread between cloths and lay on the chest why hot. Cover up, leave on until cold, and repeat. She remarked that the onions stunk. “We put up with a lot.” She also remembered her father, Jule Bassett, making a cough syrup. In the fall he would take a bottle of whiskey, add to it rock candy and “some kind of oil” and shake. “We took a couple spoonsful whenever we had a cough.”
On can imagine a desperate mother, whose baby is ill using what she had on hand trying to cure her sick child. Home made cough medicine, onion or mustard plasters, goose grease; whether it was the remedies, the mother’s tender loving care and prayers, or just luck, if the baby survived, from that time on, the mother swore by her remedy. If someone wasn’t feeling well, many mothers would remark, “All he needs is a good physic.” A physic is any medicine or medicinal herb and the word was often synonymous with laxative.
In addition to being an ingredient in cold medicines, whiskey was also used as a pain reliever. In a December 1984 interview of my Mother, Edna Kline Trausch, she told this story. “Just before prohibition began my Dad bought a quart [of whiskey] and he sealed it with wax and put it in the attic in case somebody got sick. And somebody did, the neighbor’s boy got real bad and the doctor said if they could find some whiskey it might help. The neighbor came over and asked Dad and he went up in the attic and dragged the bottle down, melted off the wax, broke the seal and gave them some. The boy died the next day. He had real bad sinus infection. They gave the whiskey to him to kill the pain.
In a 1982 interview my great-aunt, Elizabeth Kaiser Pittz told me about the remedies used by her parents, Nicholas and Susanna Theisen Kaiser. “For colds she used goose grease; Mother raised geese. She rendered the fat from the geese, and put that on our chest; put a cloth over it. I think she put a little turpentine in the grease. We didn’t like it, that goose grease had an awful smell to it. It warmed a little; I think the turpentine did that. Mother made onion plasters. Fried onions put them between cloths and put them on. My Dad took half whiskey and half sugar, shake that up so the sugar dissolved, we got a tablespoon of that for a cough. If you had an upset stomach, they had spirit of peppermint, fix that with sugar and water. That was good for diarrhea. Mother used to raise a plant that she dried and made a tea out of for a physic. It was a little bush that got little white flowers on. In German she called it Cinna Blatter. (Cinna leaves) If you didn’t feel good, that was the first thing she would think of, a good physic. My Mother’s sister and brother died from diphtheria or scarlet fever when they [the Peter Theisen family] were in Minnesota, but she never talked much about it. Some said they used kerosene on a feather and put it down the throat for diphtheria. My Mother never did that. Mrs. Peter Eltz would do that. She used to get the kerosene and take a chicken feather and swab the throat with that. My folks knew the Eltz family from St. Donatus. Grandma and Grandpa Theisen used to visit Eltz when they came out from Iowa.”
Most families had a recipe for a medicinal salve. The Ron Wright family still uses a salve they call “Grandmother’s Salve” which has been handed down in his family for four generations. According to family tradition, Great Grandmother, Adeline Schnase, had a goiter. She consulted an Indian Doctor who gave her the following recipe. Mix equal parts bees wax, sheep’s’ tallow and castor oil. To this add 1/3 part resin. Place the mixture in the top of double boiler with water in the bottom part. Melt together over low heat. Bottle. Whether this helped the goiter is unknown. The salve is still used to this day for slivers and stickers as it has a good drawing quality. Another drawing remedy is the skin of an egg. Break an egg, remove the skin, place on splinters, boils, etc. Leave on until dry, repeat. Bread and milk were also used to draw.
Clarice Clark Bugg recalled a remedy used by her mother for burns. “When I was very small I was badly burned. My parents feared I might die. We were in a wagon train going to Arkansas and no doctor was available. My mother found some cattails, pulled off the fuzz, mixed it with castor oil and bound it to the burn. It healed, but I had a scar for many years.”
Some mothers also attempted not only to cure disease but also to prevent it. Many children wore asafetida bags. These were a cloth bag on a string worn about the neck. The bag contained one or more foul smelling substances. These were thought to ward off disease. They may have worked to a small degree as they stunk so terribly no one could get close. Leona Bassett Kline recalls “They were put on in the fall when we put on our winter underwear. Oh how we hated that sack! We covered it up as deep with our clothes was we could – it stunk so!” She recalls that most of the children in her school wore one. One can’t help but feel sorry for that teacher.
My Dad, Bert Trausch, reminisced about a remedy for poison ivy. He had gone to his Dad’s farm two miles north of Holstein to get prairie hay. He was up on top of the rack tramping the hay down and he got poison ivy on his legs from the dry hay. Bert went to Dr. Mace at Roseland and his remedy only made the poison ivy worse. Mrs. Ben Theisen told him to use permanganate of potash liquid on his legs and it dried the poison ivy right up. During the 1920s permanganate of potash was used as a remedy for chicken cholera. It is a water soluble salt which when dissolved turns water purple. It is a strong oxidizing agent that was used as a disinfectant and a water treatment.
Some of these remedies undoubtedly worked, some were useless and some many have been harmful. The sight or smell of some home remedies must have been enough to work a miraculous recovery even in a really sick child. The primary ingredient in many remedies was tender loving care. In the days when doctors knew little more than the general population, remedies were an important factor in the family’s health. The remedies themselves stand as a testament to the ingenuity of our ancestors.