Herbs, Their Use, and Other Old-Fashioned Remedies

TUCKED AWAY in a corner of many gardens in Brooklyn was a small plot saved for an herb garden. This little plot was methodically and clearly kept out of cultivation because herbs were prized plants, and owners wanted to avoid losing their root stock as a result of too much digging around them. Herbs seem to multiply and grow best when they are left alone to grow in their own way. If a small plot could not be spared from the main garden, clumps of treasured specimens such as furry whorehound or fragrant mint were carefully placed in an out-of-the-way spot, perhaps near the lily bed or behind an old shrub where they would not be trampled or misused.
Herbs were valuable assets around a home. They were the basis of family health remedies as well as valuable cooking ingredients to housewives. For example, pots of stew in winter and delightful tasting tea in summer were enhanced by herbs.
Cuttings of common herbs such as mint, whorehound, sage and tansy were swapped in a neighborhood, so few gardens did not possess some of these plants. If a person did not possess any, old residents were glad to share a few plants with them.
Medicinal herbs were concocted into medicine for the relief of various diseases, especially the ones that affected young children and those that were highly contagious. Long ago in families of several children, a constant stream of children’s diseases was passed from one to another until everybody was infected with them.
In fact, when a child in a family came down with a disease such as the measles, some mothers almost wanted the others to catch it also so they would get over it together. I have heard of children being placed together to catch the mumps from a sister or brother who had contracted it. Sometimes, children had fun telling how they tried to get the mumps by rubbing their jaws on a sick brother or sister so they might contract the sickness and have a holiday from school.
Many people didn’t stop to think or didn’t know of the serious aftereffects that sometimes accompany these diseases. They were termed children’s illnesses, and it was assumed that at some point, they were certain to get them anyway. But on the other hand, there were no toxoids for the elimination of these diseases, and it was true that children usually had to experience them before they developed immunity.
By trial and error methods, various remedies for certain diseases had been developed through the years. Many of them were effective, and mothers, practical nurses, and particularly grandmothers who through the years have been the guardian angels in families, made frequent use of these potions.
The recipes for these remedies were passed by word of mouth from family to family in a neighborhood and especially to experienced mothers. This knowledge was a financial boon to many family coffers because sending for a doctor to frequent colds, old-fashioned stomachaches, and ills that occur in numbers of children would have strained most pocketbooks. Too few doctors was a problem then just as it often is today. People had to make the best use of what was in their hands.
If a child was suspected of coming down with the measles, the common practice was to get something hot in him. This was sometimes just a drink of hot tea. The acknowledged best tea for testing whether or not measles was in the making was to put a bit of powdered sage or a few sage leaves in a cup of hot water, steep it slowly and then strain the tea. After a child had drunk this mixture, it usually wasn’t long before a crop of bumps would pepper his face and body if he was really coming down with the measles. Of course, this phase of the disease was followed by fever and often a terribly bad feeling that required other treatment. But at least, the mother could diagnose the case and start from there.
Sage had another very potent use. When mixed with a pinch of alum, it made an excellent gargle for sore throat. In fact, I heard my mother say this combination was credited once with helping to cure a case of what was thought to be dreaded diphtheria. Of course, this treatment was used mainly before the common use of the wonderful vaccine for diphtheria now accessible to people everywhere and for which there is no substitute.
There were few cooks in Brooklyn who didn’t know about the pungent flavor that an added bit of sage gave to stuffing used in holiday turkeys. But the amount had to be just right and not too much, or that delicious taste would be ruined. No seasoning can substitute for the wonderful flavor a pinch of sage brings out in stuffing. It was then, as it is now, practically a must for most cooks.
I mustn’t pass over its use in homemade sausage. Few residents did much along this line even though some people kept hogs and raised them on the hills behind Brooklyn. To those who did have hogs to kill and made sausage, sage was an important seasoning used in the meat.
Occasionally, a friend would bring us a small package of homemade sausage, or Mother would purchase a pound or so from a country man. As soon as it was in a pan to fry, the intriguing, satisfying smell of sage would mingle with the sausage smells.
Our garden seemed to have been a favorite spot for growing whorehound. Our first rootstock was more than likely planted by our grandmother who seemed to have planted most of the original trees and shrubbery on our lot.
This whorehound must have been many years old and it seemed to love the soil. Its spreading roots reached out and made a patch everywhere. We chopped it from time to time, but still if we needed to do so, we could have gathered it by the peck. This furry, greyish-white plant grows in dense thick clumps. We had a peach tree in our garden that had become surrounded by a thick growth of whorehound clumps.
One day, I had climbed this tree to get a few peaches and was in the process of coming down. Just as I passed my feet in the final position to jump on the ground, I happened to glance down and see a snake with his mouth wide open holding an egg in it. I yelled and sputtered and lost no time getting away from that tree and out of that whorehound patch.
People made a syrup of molasses and whorehound and gave it to children for colds. Most children loved a candy mixture flavored with a few leaves of this herb. Mothers seldom had any trouble getting children to eat this. Our mother used to make whorehound tea, sweeten it, and give it to us at night as a hot drink when a cold was suspected.
Colds were a continual bug-a-boo. They caused loss of work days, loss of school days, and parents were continually seeing a means to get rid of them. We wore lots of clothes—sometimes two petticoats, a colored one and a white one—and almost everyone had on long underwear. I remember long drawers as a bane of my life that had to be endured. In spite of wearing plenty of clothes, the colds were ever prevalent.
Some people advocated burning a piece of fattypine and letting the rich, black mixture that oozed from it drop in a bowl and then having the victim of the cold eat some sugar with a few drops of the mixture on it. The pine dripping was supposed to have strong curative value.
We also made a standard cold rub every year. Few family members escaped getting covered with this rub in winter. The male members of the family shrieked, yelled and tried to hide under the covers whenever they discovered that they were the intended victims of a rub down. But Mother or whoever was doing the applying usually won.
The ingredients for this mixture were a good-sized gob of pure lard with a few drops of turpentine (turpentine had to be used sparingly) and a pinch of loose quinine added. All ingredients were mixed thoroughly together by kneading. The salve was warmed before being applied to the patient’s chest or side. After the victim was thoroughly saturated, a warm flannel was spread over the affected parts. If the cold was very deeply seated, a warm hot water bottle was placed on top of the flannel to drive in the curative power of the salve.
This might be termed granny medicine. But after a good night’s sleep coupled with plenty of sweating under quilts or blankets, the patient would more than likely improve by morning. Of course, one was advised to remain indoors the next day because their pores would be open.
I became practically an expert in making this concoction. I must confess that I had no love for this gooey mixture being applied to me, and I escaped it whenever I could.
Mothers also commonly used preventive measures. When a mother observed that a member of her brood was prone to catching colds, she often made a flannel vest for the child to wear across the chest, especially when it was very cold. Most children didn’t like this extra shield against the weather, but they wore it. As recently as the period of my son’s birth, my mother made him a dainty flannel bib to wear across his little chest in winter. I keep it as a memento of the dedicated love of grandmothers trying to keep their children in good health.
Another preventive measure many poor children had to endure was wearing a string of asafetida around their necks. A necklace of this medicine was supposed to provide immunity from disease, especially smallpox. A mother carefully made a string and tied it around a child’s neck at the opening of school. It then became a standard part of his health equipment. Pity for the child who had to wear one of these necklaces. The medicine had a terrible smell. When the wearer of a necklace came around, many classmates looked askance and tried to withdraw as cautiously as possible so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings.
When the winter was almost over, the robins began to come back, fruit began to bloom, and the children began to think about shedding their long drawers and shoes. Mothers began to give their families a health check to determine whether or not they needed a spring tonic.
This was a must in some families, and when the time came for doses of sulphur and molasses, members participated whether they needed it or not. Others didn’t adhere so rigidly to this rule and maybe selected tea made from sassafras roots for their spring cleanser. Sassafras tea is really a delightful drink and must have been much more in demand than the dose of sulphur and molasses.
Farmers knew how much mothers doted on this tea, and many of them would go to the woods in early spring for roots, tie them in small bundles and have them for sale on Saturday when they came to town to sell butter and eggs. These little bundles were kept as sort of special, and housewives were delighted to get a bundle of sassafras roots.
Some people liked to get out in the meadows and go down on creek banks on pleasant days to hunt poke salad and cressy greens because they were considered mighty good for the blood in spring also.
Rabbit tobacco didn’t grow in gardens, but it grew in great profusion on the red hills behind our house. Children would go up on the hills, gather great quantities of it and then have fun trying to smoke it in a piece of tissue paper or newspaper. Sometimes the smoke would get so dense that it would get in your eyes. Some of the fumes would go down your throat and almost choke you to death. Then the smokers would moan and call for help as they threw out the remains of the old plants and decided to never do it again. This old weed was said to aid asthma sufferers. In fact, it was recommended for us to use with cases of asthma in our home, but I never thought that its use did much good.
My mother told me about two interesting folk remedies she heard of as a child. They were not used in Brooklyn, but I think they merit a recording. One involves a woman who had a sore that refused to heal on her leg. More than likely, no medical help was available in this little country place, but someone must have possessed folk knowledge of the medical value of heat. A shovel was heated to a red-hot temperature, held up over the woman’s leg at a safe distance and slowly passed up and down over the sore. Whether or not this treatment was effective, I do not know, but the idea seems to have been a forerunner of the various uses of heat rays today.
Mother also told me about the process involved in what was called cupping, which supposedly relieved severe headaches. A very sharp instrument such as a razor or knife was used to slash a place close to the seat of the pain with very tiny cuts. Then a cupping utensil, a sort of little round cup, was placed over the slashes. The suction from the vacuum it created would draw out the blood. The cupping was supposed to relieve the pain that was the result of too much blood in a person’s head.
During the periods when homes were mainly heated by fireplaces and children often attended the fires around washpots, many of them were often burned seriously from falling in fires and standing too close to the flames.
As a child, I heard the fantastic tale that certain individuals, those born with a caul or veil over their faces (whatever that meant) had the power to talk fire out of a serious burn. Sometimes individuals who had been burned badly would be sent to someone credited with this supernatural power to have the fire talked out of a burned face or some other part of the body.
I have my doubts as to any mortal possessing such power, and delayed medical treatment must have resulted in sheer agony for the unfortunate one who had this treatment prescribed. This superstition might have been an old belief brought to this country by slaves from Africa and practiced because they had no other knowledge. I do know that scars from burns are seldom seen today because scientific care is available for badly burned persons.
What a blessing to have the opportunity to enjoy superior medical knowledge today, but long ago, folk remedies did much to help keep the members of the community well.

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