Jan 31, 2018 | by Ellen Dial
No, not the vintage fever those of us with the deep ingrained love of all things vintage have – but actual fever. Aches and pains. That awful feeling when ANYTHING touches your skin. Coughing. Wallowing in your bed of pain.
Dear readers, that is where I was for several days and let me tell you, no good comes from it. The misery of influenza B. Everything hurt and I sounded totally tubercular. Admittedly, not the best patient – thinking decongestants, Advil and tea would suffice, but no. Ended up dragging my shivering, 101-degree fevered carcass to a “doc in the box”, had a spooly brush stuck up my nose and then slinking home a Board of Health statistic with a fistful of antiviral medication. Even more distressing, the admonition to stay home for a couple days, I negotiated it down from four to two. Good times!
Not good times. I know I’m sick when I don’t want coffee or wine. Started my little story here having a cup of my beloved coffee for the first time in five days. The wine had to wait a bit – how shocking is that?
Stressed over the mounting email horrors that surely would await me, I reluctantly obeyed. Working in a senior living community, we must be very careful about spreading the joy around – all of our sweet and darling residents are at risk. So, there I camped on my couch, an actual Typhoid Mary.
As I rested, and slept more than five hours a day, between coughing fits and yes, a little bit of moaning – I started to think about things. Vintage things. Vintage sick bed things. We take antivirals and such for granted, much as we do antibiotics. For most of us, flu is an icky inconvenience, keeping us away from work and play. But for our friends back in the day? It was frequently much more serious.
With that said – how would have my fabulous Aunt Carrie handled this? What would have she done? Would she have been prescribed cinnamon milk and an aspirin, like poor Miss Lavinia Swire on Downton Abbey? Sounds rather unremarkable and look how she ended up…as many, many did, especially in the Pandemic following the Great War.
In my fevered boredom I started to do a bit of research and this is what I found. Grab your stinking poultice and wall mounted nasal douche – let’s take a look at vintage remedies!
Vintage Fever | I Scream, You Scream, We all Scream for Kerosene!
Oh yes, you read that one right – kerosene. The noxious liquid used to fuel your glamping stove – people thought it cured a myriad of evils. It was touted as a cure of the grippe, consumption, catarrh and other maladies. By the way? Grippe means “flu” in vintage disease speak. Catarrh was used for colds, allergies and sometimes the flu.
Take a spoonful with sugar and whiskey to ease the chugging cough of the grippe- many a housewife would whip up this disgusting concoction and keep it handy. Did it work? Supposedly. It could though because the patient feared the cure more than the illness, swallowing down their cough in front of others. I’m positive it tasted atrocious. I wasn’t about to try. I mean, we’re told to not ingest petrochemicals, right?
Believe it or not, kerosene is kind of a thing still amongst those who seek more natural cures, you can buy it “clean” off Amazon. And it’s still used in other parts of the world.
If you didn’t want to swallow it, you could apply it topically- in a dreaded poultice or plaster. Mix it with other caustic ingredients and go to town. It would supposedly ease your chest and the cough. That and remove your skin, as if you didn’t feel bad enough to begin with, now an open wound had to be contended with.
Sidebar: Before I made the move to senior living, I was involved in wound healing and hyperbaric medicine clinics – think that contraption Michael Jackson purportedly slept in-but we used it for medically approved reasons, you know, evidence-based medicine and all that….
A gentleman presented in my clinic with a nasty wound on his leg, he had been treating it himself – with kerosene poultices and swimming in a duck pond. What. The. Heck. It was horribly infected and painful. The duck pond piece of his cure was so beyond crazy that the kerosene poultice paled in comparison. I just can’t. The nurse who removed his poultice was beside herself.
We talked him into stopping his “treatments” and saved his leg. But it’s how his momma would have treated it (OK, maybe NOT the duck pond bathing) back in the day and he trusted her.
Back to the grippe…
Vintage Fever | Mean Mr. Mustard
No, not the song by the Beatles, but…. what I mentioned before – poultices and plasters.
Mix up some mustard, pine tar and perhaps kerosene- slather this stinking mess onto your chest and wait. OK, the chamomile, camphor and eucalyptus plasters probably did the trick, loosening up your catarrh and giving you the chance to breathe normally (think Vicks VapoRub and Halls Eucalyptus lozenges) – but mustard? Man, oh man, I bet that baby burned!
In fact, one left them on “through the burn”, thinking it would loosen congestion and draw the bad stuff out. Advice in removing these horrors included warm water compresses in succession to release the mess, taking with it your skin. YOUR SKIN. How was skinning the patient helpful? Surely it dyed your skin deep yellow and ruined the bedclothes along the way. But of course, if your skin was removed…. Moot point.
Thinking of how miserable I felt, with everything that touched me causing discomfort – I’m certain these plasters and poultices were super painful.
These were eventually replaced with the aforementioned Vicks, it was originally called Vicks Croup and Pneumonia Salve in 1890, becoming VapoRub in 1912. We all have a memory of momma (or grandma) using this on us for colds and the flu. It did help a little, it was soothing and typically didn’t pull our hides off. Perhaps the most soothing part was momma taking care of us and not the stinky ointment.
There were then, as now, many quack cures as well – asthma cigarettes, various snake oils and inhalation “cures” – really too many to name, click here for a diatribe on vintage quack cures. They were loaded with morphine, opium and cannabis. So perhaps you didn’t CARE if you were in your bed of pain? During the first two days of flu-induced misery being drugged up and out of it would have been nice….
So what did I learn? The inconvenience of missing work and basically living under quarantine for several days was not great. For the first part I felt so bad I didn’t much care, but the last several days were fraught with boredom and dragging fatigue. The strong medication made my brain fuzzy and wore me out – in addition to my exhausted body bouncing back from a pretty big illness.
But if I had been around a hundred or so years ago? It would have been super serious. Family would have been called. If it had been right after the Great War? They would have understood how it was spread and taken precautions, before? Not so much. We see they had no real way to treat flu, just address some of the symptoms. Rest was (and still is) the best cure, but in our crazy go-go-go society it’s not really a thing, we soldier on and get to the office, as I did after five days. The flu is still a very serious illness for many – listen to your physician and stay home!
It’s taken a good week for me to feel semi-human and I may never get totally caught up again in this life…
To our dear readers: What “cures” do you remember (and perhaps still rely upon) from your childhood? Have you become a statistic during this big flu season? Did you take care of yourself and stay home?
The author would like to thank: Wikipedia.com, mrt.com, metalfloss.com, catherinescorner.com, whizzpast.com and those who post their images freely on the internet.