Thursday, August 4, 2016

Folklore, wives tales, and/or magic - Doctoring, When There Was No Doctor!

 Doctoring in the "old days"
     Good morning all! A new story I am working on has a small child who is in need of some sort of pain reliever – in the mid 1800s!  I did some research and came up with the answer I was looking for.  But in the process came across some old folklore, wives tales, and maybe what some thought was a bit of magic.  I though I would share it.  It was pretty interesting.  I hope you enjoy it!
Let’s say, Mary, a ten year old girl, wakes up one morning with a stuffy nose and a fever.  She finds mom and tells her she feels achy all over and has a headache.  Mom feels her forehead, gives her a teaspoon of cold medicine, maybe some aspirin, plugs in a humidifier to help her breathe, and puts her back to bed.  Life goes on. 
     But what would have happened if Mary’s great, great, great grandmother woke up sick with a cold and fever    According to American folklore, settlers of long ago believed there were specific methods of preventing or curing certain illnesses.  As strange as some of these theories sound, these “fixes” have been passed down from generation to generation. 
For example, it was believed that lettuce would help a person sleep.  Chicken fat was thought to be a sure cure for earaches and reduced the possibility of deafness.  Many different roots, leaves, and certain kinds of bark from the forest were boiled into teas for different ailments.  Sassafras, catnip, horehound and pennyroyal were all brewed into teas and used to treat coughs and colds. Today, we are told pennyroyal is traditionally used as a poison.  Even the smallest amounts can be toxic.  White and black willow leaves and bark were brewed into a tea to break up a fever.  This makes sense as willow is abundant with salicylic acid – aspirin.  The pitch from the white pine healed wounds and sores.  Cooked pine needles were used for toothaches.
     Other theories passed down become more and more bizarre.  If you had a wart, you would take a kernel of corn and rub it on the wart.  You would then take the kernel and wrap it up in a pretty package and place it in the fork of two roads.  This has to be done at night and there must be a full moon.  The wart will be gone within two weeks.  Unfortunately, the one who finds the package, opens it and touches the kernel will get the wart.
     What happens if you wake with a cold or sore throat?  Long ago, a big red onion would be tied to the bedpost, keeping the person in that bed safe from colds.  Some thought a dirty sock worn around the neck would cure the sore throat.  On the off chance you do get that cold, even with the protection of the red onion, here is what you could look forward to for the congestion.  Dry mustard would be mixed with water and some flour to make a paste. A cloth would be put on your chest or back and this mustard plaster would be put on the cloth.  The smell was
very unpleasant and if it stayed on too long your skin might blister.
     Some pioneers thought if moonlight shines on your face while you are sleeping, you could go crazy. If a person got a nosebleed all they needed to do was press an iron key to the back of the neck.  And last, but not least, if you got a toothache on the left side of your jaw, you would simply tie a string around the little toe of your right foot and the toothache was gone.
     In today’s world we drive to the store and buy liquid medicines or pills to cure whatever our problem might be.  What a different world we live in now.  As I sit here I realize how hard it must have been back then and all the things early settlers needed to know to stay healthy.  I notice the small wart on my knee and smile.  The things some people believe!

Footnote:  If, within the next few weeks, you see a small package at the fork of the road and there is a full moon.  Leave it alone!
I hope you enjoyed this post, as I truly liked doing this research!

I write for all ages, from the early reader to adults.  My books range from pictures books for the little ones, to fantasy, time-travel adventures for ages 9 to 13. I also write adult stories, including a family drama and contemporary, paranormal and historical westerns romances, under P. A. Estelle.

I was a school secretary for 21 years.  My husband and I moved to our retirement home in Kingman, AZ, on very rural 54 acres, living on solar and wind only. 
More about my books can be found in the following links:


  1. Ah Penny, the ways folks took care of their ills is so fascinating. Like you , I've study the old folk medicine books and some of the later ones. We must have been a hardy lot to have survived.
    And I won't pick up that package. Angela

  2. Very interesting & some unusual methods they used back then. Thankful we have better ways to help us when were sick nowadays. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This post was extremely interesting. Thanks for the info.

  4. Outstanding! I find the mindset of various generations to be so interesting. People believed what they believed for so many different reasons, and the history of medicine (with and without doctors) has certainly changed over the years. I can imagine how the medicine of the 23rd (or even 22nd) century will look back at our understanding of some things with a bit of a chuckle. Thank you for sharing this informative and helpful post, Penny.

    1. So True....but what's more amazing is how much we pay for dentists when all we needed was string!!!!