The housewives guide to curing everything (in 1902)

I’m reading a book, printed in 1902 called “Enquire Within Upon Everything” and it really does cover a very wide range of subjects, of use to the housewife of the period. Of particular amusement, if that is the right word, I enjoyed reading about the various cures recommended by the creators of the book!

For instance, if you or someone in your family is suffering from a cold in the head or catarrh, here are some of the potions to help you: for feverish symptoms, take Aconitum Napellus (whatever that is!) or for a sore throat or headache with inclination to cough Belladonna is the suggested cure. Is a runny nose and sneezing your particular symptom? Then you should rush out (or send someone), and purchase some Mercurius, but if your problem is at the other end of the nasal mucus rainbow, that is to say it’s bunged up, you needn’t look further than Nux Vomica. All good stuff and guaranteed to result in a cure, though of course the actual patient may die of it!

This is just the time of the year when chilblains make an appearance, though less frequently now, thankfully. I suffered from them myself this year, for the first time since I was a kid, so it was a relief to find in my book that there is a cure for them too. All I have to do is get some Arnica Montana and either swallow it (it fails to mention how much per dose) or rub it onto the chilblains themselves, unless the skin is broken that is, in which case I should use Arsenicum. If none of that works, I have to apply Belladonna and Rhus Toxicodendron. I’m inclined to think I might be safer having my toes amputated!

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If some unfortunate discomfort is caused by constipation, there is a veritable wealth of preparations to help you, but first we have establish whether your condition is needing a laxative or a purgative – something you will have to decide for yourself as I and my book offer nothing in the form of a diagnosis. If a laxative is what you decide is required, then you can choose between any one (or perhaps all) of the following: Manna, Tamarinds, Castor oil, Sulphur, or Magnesia. If, on the other hand it is decided that a purgative is the order of the day then you should take Senna, Rhubarb, Jalap, Colocynth, Buckthorn, Aloes, Cream of Tartar, Seammony, Calomel, Epsom Salts, Glauber’s Salts or Sulphate of Potash, all of which sounds a little desperate to me – if you really knew a good purgative you would surely only suggest that one, rather than flailing about trying any one or more, of this lot.

We would like to think we have come a long way since the days when this sort of “snake oil” was what they had to rely on a 120 years ago to cure their ills. At least now there is usually some sort of scientific reason for using the specially designed chemicals available to us, with drugs being made to exactly ‘fit’ the illnesses for which they are given. But ‘snake oil’ isn’t quite dead yet – it has simply taken a different form, more in line with today’s high-tech world, so that we are now offered all sorts of electronic devices that squeeze and release our muscles, gadgets supposed to reduce our waistlines while giving us magnificent ‘six-packs’ on our abdomens, and others, to make hair grow with lasers, whiten teeth and remove body hair. Meanwhile, many of the old ‘herbal’ medicines are still available, and popular, despite the fact that many of them have no scientific testing behind them, to ascertain their efficacy.

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At the end of the day, I suppose it is, to a large extent, still a case of “You pays ‘yer money and you takes ‘yer choice”, get a cold and take some expensive patent medicine for it and within three days you’ll be cured; on the other hand, you can just go to bed, drink plenty of fluids and after three days you’ll be cured. I guess it all works, in its own way!


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