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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!