A look back at the old timey remedies of our childhood

Jul 11, 2024
What have you still got lurking in your medicine cupboard? Source: Getty Images.

It’s all very well to look back and long for the good old days but when you‘ve got a migraine and you can hit up the NSAIDs it puts things into a bit more perspective. When I was a child and had a headache or fever, Mum would crush a Disprin (‘…it’s soluble aspirin’) in a teaspoon and mix it with honey for us to take little nibbles of.  There wasn’t anything else available especially for children.  

Our medicine cabinet was pretty basic but blended with old faithful tried and true remedies that were handed down through the generations.  

For coughs and colds, we had our chests rubbed with Vicks Vaporub or had wee capsules of Karvol squeezed onto our pyjamas. You could always tell the kids at school who had colds as they had an aura of Vicksy aroma, often with hankies smothered in the stuff to breathe in deeply whilst snuffling at the desk.

Another wildly medicinal smell that tended to linger was Eucresol, a bituminous medicine in block form that was melted over a small kerosene lamp with the ‘antiseptic’ vapours emanating throughout the house. 

Meant to help relieve lung and chest complaints like croup, coughs, whooping cough and catarrh in children, it contributed to a number of serious burns when tipped accidentally. Before antibiotics, this was the go-to in the search for relief.   

Acriflavine or Mercurochrome were both used for cuts and abrasions while Savlon antiseptic cream was there for other injuries and Xylocaine helped with stings.  We had an ancient bottle of Condy’s crystals (potassium permanganate), which was great for bacterial and fungal skin infections.  Ingrown toenails got suspended in a bowl of warm purple water that had crystals dissolved in it.  

Hydrogen Peroxide was another antiseptic that lurked in the cupboard, as was Fornax. I can’t remember ever having the Peroxide used on me other than my attempt in my teens to bleach the front fringey bits of my hair. My dad, on the other hand, wrote in his book. .. ‘Hydrogen Peroxide fizzed up and was great on festering sores – the more pus the bigger the fizz.  Used in ears, it gave a great performance.’

Way before we were educated by enlightened chefs unless you were Italian, olive oil was something you bought at a chemist and warmed it to dribble into ears that were aching.  Mum had a beautifully shaped bottle of Fauldings Olive Oil which once again I used in my teens to mix with vinegar to smother on myself before sun baking – I must have smelt like a rather large salad.    

Splinters were removed with a flame-sterilised needle and tweezers or, if it was really stuck (and especially if it was delightfully festering), smothered with black, noxious-looking drawing ointment.

I think Mum had many unpleasant memories of being dosed with Castor oil as a child so it never darkened our doorway.  However, once again, Dad wrote of this all too common ‘medicine’.  

‘In some families, children received a Friday night dose of Castor Oil to clean out the system.  It certainly cleaned it out and probably all the good food consumed in the last three days. ’

I can’t leave without mentioning a couple of others that were probably in many innocent looking bathroom cabinets.

As the weight loss fanaticism kicked in, quick fixes were promoted unashamedly.  Beecham’s Pills were recommended for regularity while Ford Pills were the safe dependable family laxative, marketed heavily as a weight loss pill that could also ‘help make you as attractive as the girls your husband stares at in the street.’  Yes, that is really what the ad said.

And finally, the biggy that ultimately caused so much distress and heartache – Bex and Vincents.  The adult oriented (specifically women) advertisements on the trams would suggest ‘… a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down’ or ‘Take Vincent’s with confidence for quick three-way relief’. Containing aspirin, caffeine and phenacetin, it was this last ingredient that tragically resulted in a huge incidence of related renal disease. These little packs of powder became so addictive that countless men and women wouldn’t start their day without one.  

So, as I lay down my rose coloured glasses on my bedside table, I don’t know about you but I’m quite happy not to have some bituminous vapours wafting over me as I sleep.



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