Old Wives' Remedies

As a kid growing up in the 40s through to the 60s in Philadelphia's Kensington section, visiting a doctor was a rare occasion. For most of us, mom and grandma were the health providers, and they had a proliferation of old homegrown remedies.

Today, as I rested my sore back, I started to think about Dr. Moms' cures I experienced or heard of when I was a kid. There's no doubt that many of these supposed cured came from the "old countries," Ireland, Germany, Scotland, Britain, and Poland, to name a few. Here's what I remember.

  • Starve a fever, feed a cold: I think this one was pretty universal. Thankfully my family didn't believe in this, but many did and still do. Doctors now suggest you feed the fever and the cold.
  • Ginger Ale fights a cold: We always got ginger ale when we were sick. Of course, it didn't make a damn bit of difference, but it did taste good. I still like ginger ale.
  • Coca-Cola syrup soothes the stomach: I am not sure where this one came from, but I remember being sent to the drug store at Front Street and Allegheny Avenue to buy that syrup. Maybe that was a holdover from the early 1900s when people thought Coke had cocaine as an ingredient.
  • Leeches to reduce swelling and heal bruises: Drug stores used to sell leeches, and I believe they had them up to the 1950s. Interestingly it appears this is one old wives tale that might be true.
  • Mercurochrome for cuts: Every house with kids had a bottle of this red lifesaver. I must have gone through many bottles myself. It turns out that mercurochrome is banned in the USA because it has mercury in it. Now they make it without mercury so you can buy some. All I can say about mercurochrome is OUCH!
  • Mump wraps: We have all seen kids in movies (Think Little Rascals) that have the mumps, and they have a wrap around their face tied in a knot at the top of their head. I never knew what that was until I looked it up. The wrap was either a hot or cold pack. I had the mumps when I was a kid, and the cure was, of course, Ginger Ale. I had eaten a can of Chef Boyardee's spaghetti just before I got ill. I never touched the stuff again because I thought it made me sick.
  • Whisky for a tooth ache: This has got to be an Irish remedy 😊. When I was around 10, I got a raging toothache. We were in Wildwood at the time, and it was a Weekend. There were no dentists open. My mom had me take a swig of whiskey and swirl it around the tooth. You know what. It really did work for a while.
  • Salt water for a sore throat: I think we all have done this, and there's a good reason. It works.
  • Prunes for constipation: It definitely helps, and they taste good.
  • Oat Meal for sunburn or poison Ivy: I never had Poison Ivy, but I have had plenty of sunburn with my fair skin. I never tried this, but maybe I should have. It turns out it might just work.
  • Cranberry juice for a urinary infection: I never used it, but many people say it works.
  • Tea bags for dark circles under your eyes: Does this work, or are cucumbers better?
  • Chicken soup: I don't know if it's a cure or not, but I loved some good chicken soup when I ate meat. It is the favorite soup for any ailment.
  • Sugar for Hiccups: I think this might work. If not, you can try standing on one leg and bouncing up and down.
  • Vicks VapoRub for colds and any breathing Problem: If I had a dollar for every time my mom used Vicks, I would be broke because I would have spent the money trying to get the stink off me. It's worse than Bengay.
  • Epsom salts baths: This is another one of the home super remedies. It has been used for hundreds of years for ailments such as constipation, insomnia, fibromyalgia, sore muscles, and to chill out in a bath. When I was in the Air Force, some said the commanders would put Epsom salts in the troops' food to dampen any sexual desires they might have. I can tell you that most of the 18 to 25-year-old soldiers from my era desires were, first to survive the war and second- well, you know. So if there were Epsom salts in the food, it did not work.
  • Carrots for better eyesight: This is in the category of "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." We all probably heard both remedies often. It was a way for moms and grandmoms to get us to eat healthy instead of eating Tastykakes all day. Does the apple pie count as an apple a day?

I have exhausted my memory of old-time remedies, but you may have others. If you do, please share. Now I'll take a walk and see if I can find a penny laying on the pavement heads up. After all, it's never too late to get rich. 😊

Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.

1 comment

  • I don’t think you would categorize this as any cure but up until I was about 7 years old, my grandmother who lived around the corner from us on Jasper Street told my sister and me that if we wore those red boots in the house that we would go blind. We always had red boots back in the late 40s to early 50s. We believed her and if we dared to walk to her house and forgot to take the boots off in the vestibule, we quickly squeezed our eyes shut and prayed. We were the first real dorks.
    When we had hiccups she always said to us “when was the last time you saw a pink elephant?” We stopped to think and 9 times out of 10 the hiccups stopped.

    Patricia Brough

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