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19 Wildly Dangerous Home Remedies From 100 Years Ago

It's hard to understand just how far medical science has progressed over the last hundred years ... until you look at what passed for standard, advisable treatment back then. Here are 19 doctor-approved ideas from Mother's Remedies: Over One Thousand Tried and Tested Remedies from Mothers of the United States and Canada by Dr. Thomas Jefferson Ritter, originally published in 1910.

1. Without the luxury of over-the-counter decongestant to soothe a stopped-up nose and scratchy throat, early-20th-century doctors advised an at-home method that would surely result in a malpractice suit. The three step process advised patients to smoke mullein leaves (making sure to exhale through the nose, of course), syringe a mixture of boric acid and water into the nostrils several times a day, and "frequently inhale" a mixture of ammonia, iodine and carbolic acid.

2. If the previous method failed to work, a "spray of a four-percent solution of cocaine" or direct application of a cotton ball soaked in an even stronger solution in the nostril was recommended for "immediate relief."

3. For a nosebleed, find "an old brown puff-ball from the ground," remove the insides and put it in the nose. Let it "remain for some time." In case you're curious what a puffball is, it's a kind of fungus.

4. No puffballs available? That's okay! A "similarly effective" method for curing that nosebleed suggests raising the arms above the head, applying ice or cold cloths to the neck or spine, and in extreme cases, "ice may be applied to the scrotum or breasts" while simultaneously syringing warm saltwater into the nostrils.

5. Here's a "splendid" liniment for sore throat:

Olive oil (half-pint), ammonia (half-pint), turpentine (half-pint), one egg. Shake until the mixture forms an emulsion. Apply to the neck and throat until a blister forms. Wipe clean and apply cold cream.

6. Suppose blistering your neck doesn't relieve your sore throat. What then? Cocaine, of course. Mix it with warm water and some olive oil and "paint it into the throat." Alternately, sucking on a cocaine lozenge before eating "will be found very useful."

7. Croup can be scary,especially for first-time parents. Should you travel back to 1900 and find your baby coughing spasmodically in the night, a "tested and true" treatment your neighbor might recommend is a spoonful of sugar. Not scary at all, actually. But before you give it to the kiddo, just put a few drops of kerosene on it. The idea, apparently, is to induce vomiting, which it probably does.

8. For asthma: "inhale chloroform." Assuming chloroform isn't readily available, other options include smoking saltpeter, the smoke of burning coffee, or cigarettes containing thornapple.

9. Tapeworms giving you grief? Two doses of the following mixture was considered an "excellent remedy": Castor oil (half an ounce) and turpentine (15 drops). Alternately, you can mix the previous two items with a cup of milk, but there's no indication that this makes it better.

10. If you find you're losing some hair, here's a quick and easy fix: Make some sage tea. Now mix it with an equal part whisky. Now take a sip, then add "a dash of quinine" to the cup and spray, paint or rinse over the scalp as often as needed, at least twice a day.

11. A slightly stronger anti-hairloss method (and one that's "guaranteed" to produce results) is to rub a blend of almond oil, rosemary extract, wine, distilled water, and mercury bichloride into the scalp every morning until your hair grows back or unexplained death, whichever comes first.

12. For dry, chapped skin: Spoon a few ounces of sour cream into a flannel cloth. Tie up the ends. Bury the cloth in some dark, soft soil and leave overnight. Dig the cloth back up "mid-morning" and apply the "enriched" sour cream to hands, knees, heels and elbows as needed.

13. Eczema is a challenging condition and there doesn't seem to be a universally effective treatment. Still, we do not recommend trying out the following DIY wash formula:

Mix half an ounce of laudanum with seven and one-half ounces of "sugar of lead," [that's lead(II) acetate]. Soak into gauze strips and apply to afflicted parts.

14. Lice are persistent and it may take several different treatments to get rid of them. One such treatment? Pure kerosene. Again, watch for the blistering, and make sure you follow up with some cold cream—24 hours later, when you're supposed to shampoo it out.

15. Got a problem with body lice? Just get some blue ointment. It's only 20% mercury, so you may need to apply it several times per day.

16. Ringworm is highly contagious and nothing to mess around with. If you find yourself stranded in 1905 with a case of the unsightly infection, mix some gunpowder with vinegar to form a thickish paste. If one application doesn't do it, two or three should knock it right out.

17. Anyone with acne can tell you it's difficult to treat. That's why there are so many products available now. But it seems our great-grandparents had no idea what to do, because a mixture of lard and ground cannabis indica seems counter-effective and is illegal in most states.

18. Got a sunburn? Mix together equal parts cornstarch and oat flour, then drop in a dram of lead carbonate. Just dust it wherever, no worries.

19. For canker sores, there are many, many recommended treatments that have been "proven effective" by brave and no-longer-alive people, including tomato juice, half a lemon held against the area, rinses of baking soda and boric acid and vinegar. Or if you're feeling especially bold, a piece of raw chicken skin can be applied to the sore and left "until no longer painful."

Just to reiterate: None of these are healthy or advisable. Please don't put puffballs in your nose or lead on your scalp.

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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History
How an Early Female Travel Writer Became an Immunization Pioneer
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a British aristocrat, feminist, and writer who was famed for her letters. If that were all she did, she would be a slightly obscure example of a travel writer and early feminist. But she was also an important public health advocate who is largely responsible for the adoption of inoculation against smallpox—one of the earliest forms of immunization—in England.

Smallpox was a scourge right up until the mid-20th century. Caused by two strains of Variola virus, the disease had a mortality rate of up to 35 percent. If you lived, you were left with unsightly scars, and possible complications such as severe arthritis and blindness.

Lady Montagu knew smallpox well: Her brother died of it at the age of 20, and in late 1715, she contracted the disease herself. She survived, but her looks did not; she lost her eyelashes and was left with deeply pitted skin on her face.

When Lady Montagu’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed ambassador to Turkey the year after her illness, she accompanied him and took up residence in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The lively letters she wrote home described the world of the Middle East to her English friends and served for many as an introduction to Muslim society.

One of the many things Lady Montagu wrote home about was the practice of variolation, a type of inoculation practiced in Asia and Africa likely starting around the 15th or 16th century. In variolation, a small bit of a pustule from someone with a mild case of smallpox is placed into one or more cuts on someone who has not had the disease. A week or so later, the person comes down with a mild case of smallpox and is immune to the disease ever after.

Lady Montagu described the process in a 1717 letter:

"There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nuts-hell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins. . . . The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days' time they are as well as before their illness."

So impressed was Lady Montagu by the effectiveness of variolation that she had a Scottish doctor who worked at the embassy, Charles Maitland, variolate her 5-year-old son in 1718 with the help of a local woman. She returned to England later that same year. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic hit London, and Montagu had Maitland (who by then had also returned to England) variolate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of several prominent doctors. Maitland later ran an early version of a clinical trial of the procedure on six condemned inmates in Newgate Prison, who were promised their freedom if they took part in the experiment. All six lived, and those later exposed to smallpox were immune. Maitland then repeated the experiment on a group of orphaned children with the same results.

A painting of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Art UK // CC BY-NC-ND

But the idea of purposely giving someone a disease was not an easy sell, especially since about 2 or 3 percent of people who were variolated still died of smallpox (either because the procedure didn’t work, or because they caught a different strain than the one they had been variolated with). In addition, variolated people could also spread the disease while they were infectious. Lady Montagu also faced criticism because the procedure was seen as “Oriental,” and because of her gender.

But from the start, Lady Montagu knew that getting variolation accepted would be an uphill battle. In the same letter as her first description of the practice, she wrote:

"I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England; and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps, if I live to return, I may, however, have courage to war with them."

As promised, Lady Montagu promoted variolation enthusiastically, encouraging the parents in her circle, visiting convalescing patients, and publishing an account of the practice in a London newspaper. Through her influence, many people, including members of the royal family, were inoculated against smallpox, starting with two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722. Without her advocacy, scholars say, variolation might never have caught on and smallpox would have been an even greater menace than it was. The famed poet Alexander Pope said that for her, immortality would be "a due reward" for "an action which all posterity may feel the advantage of," namely the "world’s being freed from the future terrors of the small-pox."

Variolation was performed in England for another 70 years, until Edward Jenner introduced vaccination using cowpox in 1796. Vaccination was instrumental in finally stopping smallpox: In 1980, it became the first (and so far, only) human disease to be completely eradicated worldwide.

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