The early 1900s medicine cabinet… and how lucky we are to be alive today! 15



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Think yourself lucky you weren’t around, and sick, in 1902! There were no antibiotics in those days, little or anaesthetics and only liniment rubs for a cold or cough. It was also a period when the medicines that were used would scare us to death today!

How about trying this: take half an ounce of turpentine, the yolk of an egg and half a pint of gruel. Mix the turpentine and egg together and add to the gruel. This was to use as an anthelmintic, which is to say, it was supposed to rid you of intestinal worms. Sounds like fun doesn’t it, but you ‘aint heard nothin’ yet, as they say!

How about this for a sore throat: Mix six ounces of decoction of bark with two ounces of tincture of myrrh, and half a drachm of diluted sulphuric acid. It doesn’t tell us whether we should drink it, gargle it or rub it on the outside of the throat; I suppose if you were alive in 1902, you would know what to do!

Do you suffer from ulcers or bruises? We have just the thing for you: Mix two drachms of bruised opium with half a pint of boiling water. Use when cold (smoke any opium you have left over, I suppose). Then we come to ‘Yellow Lotion’, in which case we are supposed to dissolve one grain of corrosive sublimate (whatever that is) in an ounce of lime water, taking care to bruise the crystals of the salt in order to assist its solution and use it as a detergent, noting that the corrosive sublimate is a violent and deadly poison.

This next one sounds pretty efficient to me! Take 20 grains of acetate of lead and a drachm of powdered opium, mix, and add an ounce of vinegar and four ounces of warm water. Set aside for an hour and then filter – you then use it as an astringent. For a sedative I recommend that you boil one drachm of bruised galls in 12 ounces of water until only half a pint remains, then strain, and add one ounce of Laudanum.

We can cure almost anything here, for instance scrofulous ulcerations present no problem, merely mix one drachm of oxide of zinc with one ounce of lard and apply to the affected area twice a day. (Don’t go near any pigs, you might offend them, especially if the lard is from one of their brothers).

Apparently, if you suffer from chapped or sore lips, you should take an ounce of oil of almonds and half an ounce of alkanet, mix them together and let them stand in a warm place for an hour, and strain the mix. Then melt one and a half ounces of white wax and half an ounce of spermaceti with the oil and stir until it begins to thicken, and then add 12 drops of otto of roses. Apply generously to the lips (and challenge someone to kiss you – it’s likely you’ll have no takers!) In case you’ve never heard of it ‘otto’ is an essential perfumed oil, made from flowers.

And here’s a beauty if you think you’re withholding fluid in your body and you require a diuretic. Dissolve one drachm of powdered nitre in three ounces of camphor mixture; add five ounces of a decoction of broom, with six drachms of sweet spirits of nitre and three drachms of tincture of squills. Mix. Dose: One teaspoonful every two hours. Use: excellent in dropsies.

This is just a tiny percentage of the many potions and pills our ancestors used to take and it makes horrifying reading, doesn’t it! I think it amazing that the human race is still around to tell the tale, thank goodness new ideas are now here to help us, though I very much doubt that some of these are any better for us than the above list – we just call them by fancier names nowadays!

Information extracted from ‘Enquire Within upon Everything’ 1902 edition.


Tell us, are you glad you were around for modern medicine? Or were the original methods better?

Brian Lee

  1. Compared to our ancestors we are well pampered and looked after, many women died in child birth. Laudanum was liquid opium and cocaine was in Coca Cola. Having a glass of coke in those days sure must have given you a buzz 🙂

  2. The infections were around, you just usually died of them. Heroin/ Morphine etc was used like lollies for all manner of things, like teething! And period pain, and toothache. Once Apothecaries were flourishing by the 1880’s people had access to very dangerous things, even heavy metals like Mercury were added to many lotions and potions. Addiction raged even in the Medical fraternity. And still does today, it’s not a new thing.

  3. Remember being given Aconite and Belladona – both poisonous!

  4. I wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for modern medicines. I can remember penicillin being available over the counter in the 1950s, and my parents sprinkling penicillin powder over wounds and infections. Is this the main cause of bug resistance to antibiotics? I am now allergic to penicillin and wonder whether that is the result of easy access and overuse of it in those days.

  5. I wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for modern medicine. I’m a year older than my mum was when she died because our genetic condition hadn’t been discovered.

  6. I believe.

    1 REPLY
    • My rather eccentric grandmother was a great believer in the healing powers of some stuff called “Penetrene”. I have no idea what it was but it came as a very pale, watery blue liquid which stang wounds so goodness knows what it did to your mouth if you drank it, as she did, for ulcers or stomach pains. Needless to say we never complained of any ailments! Grandma lived, in good health until she was 94.

  7. About 100 yrs ago my mothers younger sister got meningitis after an earache & died. At round the same age my son went into febrile convulsions, caused by an ear infection. A couple of days in hospital & some antibiotics and he came home healthy & happy. He now has a daughter of his own. Wonder if little Gwyneth would have had children had she lived?

  8. We sure have come a long way with medical intervention,s and medication,wonder what the next 30 years they will come up with, exciting to think many illness will be a thing of the past.

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