Magic in a bottle

By David Turner in Places, Events, & History, Rural Stories

Health and medicine, is it possible to mention one without the other? These seemingly inseparable identities are as ageless as time itself.

History records medical surgery being performed as far back as 5,000 BC. One interesting procedure was “trepanning,” a rudimentary preclude to modern-day brain surgery. The operation had its restrictions, available only to patients “acting in an abnormal way,” a wide open window it would seem. It consisted of drilling a hole into the patient’s skull with a metal auger, another variation was puncturing the skull with a hammer and steel spike. While lacking finesse, the practice, regardless of method, was believed to allow “evil spirits” contained within the brain’s mass to escape. Data is scant on its effectiveness.

When Europeans began settling North America in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they discovered an extremely hostile environment. Diseases such as malaria, diphtheria and yellow fever, especially among infants and young children, proved devastating. Estimates peg mortality-rates as high as twenty-five percent during their first five years of arrival.

However, it worked both ways, as immigrants introduced unprecedented diseases to North America’s indigenous population.

For generations, native cultures had placed strong emphasis on the medicinal qualities inherent in the animals, forests and vegetative growth by which they made their living. But that was before European colonization; any healing abilities characteristic in nuts, berries, vegetable roots, tree bark, animal fats or oils, stood no chance against smallpox or tuberculosis. With no genetic resistance to such infections, results were catastrophic among native tribes, many bands simply vanishing.

An interesting chapter concerning the history of health and medicine, but on a lighter note, was the nineteenth and early twentieth century phenomena of the “medicine show”. Broadly referred to as “gypsies” by the rural population, the origin, customs and cultural background of these itinerant travellers were as diverse as the personnel themselves.

As a boy, my father recalled how each spring these colourful characters would arrive in their wagons and caravans and set up camp in a nearby pasture field or orchard. The band would remain for a few days, maybe a week, depending upon how accommodating the audience.

Sleeping arrangements for this assembly were either courtesy their caravans or the ground, depending upon weather. As far as provision for sanitation requirements, well that was information no one really needed. Meals were cooked in metal pots over an open fire, chicken seemingly the mainstay. Although never proven, it seemed coincidental that farms in close proximity noticed a few hens missing from their flocks whenever these roving travellers were in the area. As well there was a degree of suspicion concerning the source of oats for their horses.

Despite lingering questions and reservations regarding practice, rural families in need of respite from endless chores and a long winter would gather for the evening’s entertainment.

Singers, dancers and magicians were all represented, but the exhibition’s main theme was the sale of some “wonder” medicine. Just one bottle of this magic elixir, according to its promoters, would cure any number of health-related complaints, and in addition, “restore, revitalize and stimulate” the body’s natural rhythm. Conspicuously absent from the bottle’s hand-written label was any recognizable brand name, and ingredients, if listed at all, were vague. “Secret herbs” was a consistent but undefined phrase.

Although the concoctions varied from year to year, fruit juice generally served as the basis, the flavour largely dependent upon orchard availability. A pleasant taste was paramount, so any lingering bitterness from a “secret herb” was disguised by a sweetener, brown sugar or molasses the most prevalent. Vanilla extract also proved popular. The only constant seemingly was rum, containing as much as seventy percent in some cases. Undoubtedly, this was the product’s principal appeal. Those unable to legally secure alcoholic beverages, or those with strong-willed temperance wives, proved frequent clients.

Then as now, sex sold product, so one could always count upon a couple of beautiful young women to provide the sales pitch. Their target was absolute, teenage boys and young unmarried men. Just seventy-five cents for a small bottle, a dollar and a quarter for a large; how could any red-blooded male resist the wiles of these dusky-skinned beauties? A flash of a smile, a toss of the hair, a playful caress, intoxicating perfume, revealing wardrobe, any of the above would have these farm lads digging deep into their overall pockets for spare coins.

But sales of therapeutic cure-alls were by no means restricted to these roving entrepreneurs. An infinite selection was available at any village general store; as well, every rural newspaper and magazine of that period ran extensive mail-order “home remedy” advertisements. The greatest divergence between those dispensing medicinal aids in local stores and by mail-order, as opposed to “on the road” marketers, was the advantage of brand identification, an important element in a highly-competitive environment.

Some of the more popular products of the day included Radway’s Ready Relief. Ailing cows, melancholy horses, sickly pigs, as well as a variety of human infirmities could supposedly benefit from this wonder tonic.

Peruna, for “human consumption only,” was a perennial favourite, due to the fact that among competitors it was considered to incorporate the highest alcohol ratio.

Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was more targeted in its sales approach, pursuing “female complaints” or women facing the “change of life.”

Probably the best-known purveyor of natural remedies in the 1800s and beyond was Dr. Alvin Chase, a Michigan-state medical graduate who garnered wide attention through his annual almanacs. The focus of his magazine were the vast array of health remedies, but within its pages were also monthly calendars, horoscope predictions, cross-word puzzles, jokes, household hints, recipes and weather forecasting. Product testimonials from grateful advocates of his bottled medications were highly promoted. Consistent favourites included Dr. Chase’s Nerve Food and Dr. Chase’s Liver and Kidney Pills.

The former bears interest in that it contained undefined amounts of arsenic and strychnine, although as pointed out, “well below lethal rates.” Good thing, as both, even in small dosage, can paralyse the respiratory system in minutes. Just ask any rat. Two centuries ago, strychnine was utilized to fight malaria, while arsenic’s focus was directed towards syphilis. Despite its dubious ingredients and potential for disaster, Chase’s product sold extremely well, promising to cure, or at least offer relief, from a list of irritabilities including nervousness, chronic tiredness, nervous stomach and dizziness.

The liver and kidney pills were equally astounding for reprieve from a spectrum of medical distortions: indigestion, torpid liver, bowel disorders, heart issues, bladder infections, shortness of breath, urinal discourse, paralysis, formation of gall stones, coated tongue, backache, weak kidneys, even “mental decline.”

My grandparents grouped the ailments that descended upon their household each winter, into two distinct categories: the misery or the croup. From what I understood, the croup was basically a cough combined with some variation of bronchial congestion, while the misery encompassed an extensive catalogue of medical calamities: headache, sinus congestion, muscle ache, runny nose, sore throat, pleurisy, backache, fever, chills and dizziness.

As in many households of their era, “natural” remedies were commonplace. A woolen sock saturated in hot goose grease placed on the chest was a popular defence against pneumonia. Onion poultices were also a fashionable method to “draw out congestion.” Inhaling turpentine fumes supposedly helped clear clogged sinus passages, while others claimed a heaping tablespoon of horseradish worked equally well.

In conjunction with these natural solutions was a stockpile of “store-bought” medications: Dr. Chase’s Syrup of Linseed and Turpentine for asthmatic respite. For relief of bronchial congestion, Dr. Chase’s Catarrh Powder proved a popular recourse, perhaps because it guaranteed a minimum, five percent content of cocaine. Dr. Chase’s Burdock Blood Bitters was a burdock-dandelion derivative designed to purify the bloodstream.

A last thought on this subject concerns an aunt of mine. Lila was a definite proponent of the half-empty establishment. In her world, it seemed good fortune was acceptable only if misfortune was recognized as a consequence. If blessed with timely rain and bountiful crops one year, Lila would confidently predict drought and famine would result the following year.

Every winter when beat down by the misery, and when neither natural nor store-bought remedies were having effect, Lila would lament, “I’ll never see spring this year.” According to family members she’d been uttering that refrain for decades, but despite the self-diagnosis, she lived to be almost ninety. At the funeral, someone issued a catty remark that her catchphrase, “We’ll pay for this!” would seem an appropriate epitaph for her headstone.

I’m reminded of a family gathering at her place, it was just after Christmas and the weather was unusually mild, in fact someone commented it was the first Christmas season without snow in over thirty years. The unseasonal weather had been the prime topic of conversation, most delighting in the rare experience. Except Lila. “It’s not healthy,” she moaned. “We’ll pay for this! A green Christmas means only one thing, a full graveyard!”

It occurred to me at the time, that considering the vast array of remedies lining my aunt’s pantry shelves, wouldn’t you think at least one might have promised relief for “negativity”?