Lett's Set A Spell

Country cures from the cupboard
Feb. 17, 2013 @ 12:27 PM

In the good old days, houses did not have a medicine cabinet in the bathroom — the outhouses couldn’t even offer fresh air — but the kitchen cupboards held plenty of home remedies. The pantry featured dried herbs, onions, garlic, apple cider vinegar  and baking soda for healing as well as cooking. 

Every household stocked kerosene, castor oil, cod liver oil, turpentine, sulphur, ammonia, bleach and rubbing alcohol. A bottle of whiskey was usually hidden somewhere — only for ailments, mind you!

Kerosene was the preferred remedy for afflictions ranging from croup to cuts, according to Grandpa (Puzie Lett). “If we were cutting logs in the woods and scraped our leg, we put kerosene on the wound,” he told me. Also called coal oil, kerosene was used as a first aid antiseptic for punctures and foot fungus. 

With young’uns running around barefoot half the year, stumping a toe and stepping on a nail were common complaints. Kerosene was applied to these wounds. A few drops of kerosene mixed with a teaspoon of sugar was taken for croup, and Aunt Gladys, who lived across the road with Grandpa, force fed me that one time, too. Once was enough! (Caution to readers: taking kerosene internally is dangerous.)

When young’uns had head lice, kerosene was used on the scalp — it chased the lice away and also family and friends because its strong, offensive odor lingered.  

CASTOR OIL was considered a cure-all — it was taken internally as a laxative and applied externally for a variety of ailments, including warts and injuries. Aunt Gladys would put castor oil on a clean flannel cloth and apply it to skin that was dry, irritated or infected. Warmth also soothed these skin problems, so she placed a hot water bottle on top of the cloth and later used a heating pad.

Despite its horrible fishy taste, cod liver oil was a popular remedy. Grandpa and Grandma used it regularly, and Aunt Gladys followed in the tradition. Gladys didn’t know much about vitamins, but she said that taking cod liver oil contained something that prevented rickets. All the Lett family members took a teaspoon once in a while. 

Aunt Gladys also believed that cod liver oil was good for digestion and said her ancestors trusted its reputation in folklore — to help people with rheumatism and to treat “wasting” diseases.

THE KITCHEN CUPBOARD featured many home remedies. One of Grandpa’s favorite remedies was turpentine, which was made from tapping the crude resin in pine trees. Oil of turpentine was taken as a remedy for bladder, kidney and rheumatic afflictions and for respiratory complaints. Grandpa also talked about two other pine by-products — rosin, which was used in ointments and plasters, and pine oil, which he rubbed on his aches and pains. 

Rubbing alcohol was applied for many skin irritations, especially cold sores. A dropper full of alcohol in the ear canal was used to relieve earaches and continues to be a popular remedy today to prevent swimmers ear and to treat infections.

For decades, country folks depended on traditional home remedies and used their own concoctions because this practice was in line with their heritage. After all, in the Age of Grandpa and Grandma, people in rural communities couldn’t afford doctors, and most were available only for delivering babies and dire emergencies anyway. 

While some ideas about treating various ailments were misinterpreted and/or considered superstitious folklore to be avoided, most of the old-timey remedies have been passed down through the generations because they brought relief. Many therapies have stood the test of time!

AlexSandra Lett is a professional speaker and the author of “Natural Living, From Stress to Rest;” “A Timeless Place, Lett’s Set a Spell at the Country Store;” “Timeless Moons, Seasons of the Fields and Matters of the Heart;” “Timeless Recipes and Remedies, Country Cooking, Customs, and Cures;” and “Coming Home to my Country Heart, Timeless Reflections about Work, Family, Health, and Spirit.” Lett can be reached at (919) 258-9299 or LettsSetaSpell@aol.com.