“Doctor, doctor come with speed and help me in my time of need”: Medicine in the DNE

Old medicine bottles at Apothecary Hall. Photos courtesy of Mike Edmonds. Visit his blog here.

Christmas is just around the corner and another year is almost done. The impending winter blizzards seem to be holding off for now, yet every second person seems to be down with some kind of sickness. Winter is here with a multitude of nasty cold and flu bugs in tow. While it’s not all bad nestled under a mountain of blankets with hot water or salt water rocks, a good book or movie and enough cough syrup to knock out a horse, you may find yourself combing through books or searching the internet looking for alternative remedies hoping for that cure-all to bring you back to the land of the living.  The title of this post comes from The Change Islands Play c. 1900 (Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland, Halpert & Story, 1990) but this post is not about Christmas, about which you may well have heard enough already. Instead, it centers on medicine and folk-remedies in the DNE and there are quite a few relevant quotations. So, if you think you’re looking angish, feeling logy, pretty rough (sense 2) or if you’ve got a rattle on the stomach, read on and you might be surprised by how various maladies were treated and perhaps still are in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Word-file for ‘rattle’. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

In the November post about tea, the focus was on the importance of tea in Newfoundland culture but its medicinal value was for the most part left untouched. You can make a ‘tea’ out of pretty much anything. Perhaps the ease with which one can boil water mixed with some medicinal ingredients is one of the reasons for the popularity of tea as a home remedy.

Labrador tea, otherwise known as Indian tea or country tea, has been long used as a tea substitute but can also be used to make a poultice for chills. This plant is said to possess narcotic properties and can cause cramps but has still been used medicinally for generations.

Word-file for ‘Indian tea’. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Touted as pure medicine for bad colds that might have gone straight to your chest and other illness, juniper tea was made by steeping juniper bark and was then drunk. Juniper salve might be used for frostbite and sores.

Word-file for ‘juniper’. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

For relief of sore throats or chest congestion when you’re feeling all snowchy or stogged up, some folks may add a little (or a lot) of sagwa to a cup of tea. At sea, the same substance might be referred to as sea stock. If you’re looking for something without alcohol, try berryocky (to which rum could be added!).

‘Sagwa’ word-file. This card is a good example of the research process and how the editor’s would make notes, in this case on where to next look for more evidence. The initals here are those of Dr. William Kirwin. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
Word-file for ‘berryocky’. This citation does not appear in the DNE under ‘berry’. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

For a stubborn cough you might also steep some snakeroot, or tansy leaves. Such remedies may help with glander. While you’ve very likely seen yellow pond lilies in the province, you may not know that they are also referred to as poppies and that the steam from boiling water with poppy added to it can be inhaled for headaches and sinus problems.

‘Glander’ word-file. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

It should be noted that tansy has numerous applications; it was used as a deterrent for fleas and other insects as well as a cure for snow-blindness, swelling, bad kidneys, boils, sore throat, bathing wounds, headaches and perhaps more than are documented in the DNE research materials.

Other remedies for a chest cold or cough formerly included kerosene as an ingredient. One such recipe was “Minard’s linament, [with] a mixture of kerosene oil and olive oil, applied to the chest.  The chest was then covered with red flannel.” Many of you are familiar with Purity Molasses Kisses but the recipe for lassie candy below might not be the best treat.

‘Gypsy remedies’ word-file. Although these particular cures do not appear in the DNE, the evidence this source provided for fatback pork as a cure for warts has been cited. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
Word-file for ‘lassie candy’. While the compound ‘molasses candy’ does appear in the DNE, this particular citation was not used. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

One of the least pleasant remedies noted by the DNE is beaver’s pride, used for backache, relief of stopped water and for male potency. The pride would be steeped and then the liquid was drunk. Another remedy that you wouldn’t want to try unless you were at your absolute wit’s end is saffron.

Word-file for ‘pride’. In this text, the f-like characters are 18th century ligature characters. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
Word-file for ‘saffron’, which no amount of syrup could help! Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Although it’s not clear how popular some of the more distasteful teas and remedies might have been, Crellin (Home Remedies, 1994) suggests that many were used in Newfoundland even up until the 1930s.  Some of these teas really do not seem pleasant but people did drink them.

Given the rural nature of the geography of Newfoundland, it is a small wonder that home remedies were heavily relied upon. It would be costly and difficult to go to the doctor for every little ache and pain. If you did have to go to the doctor or hospital, and lived in the outports, you might have been transported in a woman box or a coach box. While there were midwives and sometimes doctors travelling through the area, the health care situation in Newfoundland, for the early part of the 20th century at least, was very trying. Nowadays, many people will go to the doctor if they’re mops and brooms. Interestingly, one Newfoundland English sense of the word ‘doctor’ is synonymous with wizard.

‘Woman box’ word-file. Again, here is a fine example of the editor’s notes that appear on a great number of cards in the DNE lexical file. As you might imagine, deciphering the handwriting of the editors can be a challenge for research assistants! Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Cod-liver oil is well-known throughout the province and has been the subject of various songs. But, did you know that cod livers could be baked and eaten by fishermen as a cure for night blindness?  This ‘cure’ is found at scotch dumpling in the DNE. Seal livers could also be eaten or a rosemary-infused drink could be consumed if you were ill.

‘Mission Eskimo’ word-file. Albeit interesting, this card has been filed as withdrawn. This is because the compound ‘Mission Eskimo’ is transparent and not particular to Newfoundland usage. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

For easing asthma or curing a fever, the DNE cites several sources claiming that polly pitchum, or lichen from a rock, was helpful. Additionally, juniper tea was said to be medicinal for either water trouble or for new mothers.

Word-file for ‘polly pitchum’. This citation was not included in the DNE. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Sometimes, illness will rob you of your appetite and you might find yourself becoming a skiver (sense 4) or as thin as the rames. One traditional remedy for a lost appetite was a tonic made from elder berries, juniper bush, beaver roots (water lily), bog beans, sweet mores, sarsaparilla roots and Indian tea, all steeped together. The person would take two spoonfuls before each meal. Bog beans were also used to cure colds.

Word-file for ‘rames’. This citation was not used in the DNE, likely because there are so many citations for ‘rames’. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
Word-file for ‘bog bean’. This word was not included in the DNE most likely due to widespread use elsewhere. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

There are other folk remedies in the DNE that are not related to coughs, colds and general winter illnesses. Molasses, for example, is an important ingredient to several folk remedies found in the DNE. As a topical treatment, a small amount or sign (sense 3) of soft soap and black molasses may be applied to boils. What you may know as ‘thrush’ used to be called white mouth and a simple cure was to put molasses on the tongue. Myrrh, or turpentine, is said to have healing properties and there are numerous attestations in the DNE for its use in healing wounds when mixed with molasses.

‘White mouth’ word-file. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
‘Turpentine’ word-file. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

Here are several other folk remedies included in the DNE:

For warts, you could try fasting spittle or fatback pork.
For a toothache, you might try a charm in the form of a pratie rock.
For piles, you could avail of dead-man’s daisy, otherwise known as yarrow.
For boils or sores, you could try dock roots or boiling elder-blossom.
Closely related to the elder-blossom is eltrot, from which a poultice can be made for a headache.
For a fever or an ear ache, you could put a warm fig in the ear.

Word-file for ‘fig’. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

So, the next time you find yourself at the pharmacy, mesmerized by the many options to cure what ails you, take a minute to reflect on this relatively modern state of affairs. You could be out in the winter winds draining fir tree bladders, or perhaps you might prefer this to a doctor’s prescription. If you know of a remedy or cure that has been passed down in your family, please feel free to share it in the comments section.

Have a healthy and wonderful holiday season!

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6 Responses to “Doctor, doctor come with speed and help me in my time of need”: Medicine in the DNE

  1. Thanks for that cool health tip. I will definitely use it for my son next time 🙂

  2. Edmund says:

    Another very interesting read. It must have been a real puzzeling trial and error process to find out which remedies and available combinations worked for whatever ailed people back then. It is my understanding that we are still influenced today by some of the findings of our predecessors. Pine needles are still used in Buckley’s Mixture and Friar’s Balsom is still used to clean wounds prior to sutures (but it stings!!). Now if they could only come up with a proven cure for the common cold, that would be great. Look fwd to the next twig.

    • suzannepower says:

      Glad you enjoyed this month’s blog Edmund. One look at the herbal remedies shelves in the pharmacies today lets us know that we still turn to nature when we are ill. You’re right that it must have been difficult to figure out what to use and how much to use in the days before our seemingly unlimited access to health sources. I can’t imagine using Friar’s Balsom to clean wounds although I have heard that it has antiseptic qualitites. Stay healthy this winter!

  3. Pingback: A weed by any other name: Gardening in the DNE (Part 2) | Twig (v. to catch the meaning)

  4. JGParsons says:

    I’m not sure why my parents thought I required regular tonics – I don’t recall ever being sick except with mumps and an occasional earache (for which they soaked a piece of ‘toe’ in olive oil and stuffed it in my ear). Perhaps it was because I was very thin and couldn’t be bothered to eat anything I didn’t like. Anyhow, I do recall enduring regular force-feedings of Brick’s Tasteless. I much preferred Infantol which was thick and sweet and had a citrus flavour because, despite it’s name, Brick’s Tasteless was NOT tasteless. It wasn’t a complete misnomer, however, as it would sit in my stomach like a brick until I became distracted enough to forget about it. I lived in horror of the stuff and would be very careful how I opened the fridge so that I wouldn’t see the bottle sitting in bottom rack of the door. Makes me bivver now just to think of it.
    On the upside, I think it was the regular dosing of BT that made it relatively easy for me, when I was fourteen, to imbibe a half a bottle of what we called “Beef Iron Wine” in an attempt to find out what it felt like to be drunk. My friend graciously gave me her remaining portion, which was a third of the bottle, because, unlike myself, the trained professional, she was unable to choke it down. I spent the evening vacillating between wondering if we should get someone to buy us another bottle before the drugstore closed, or just pretending I was drunk.
    Could have been worse, I s’pose – when I was a kid visiting in Beaumont I saw an old fellow, in lieu of any patent tonic, dip a tin cup into a sun-baked oil-drum of cod liver oil or fermenting cod’s livers (we called it “perfume” and swill it back without even blinking.

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