1800s Medicine and a Give Away!

 If only we knew then what we know now. Yes, I’m talking about the medical profession. Doctors in the old West weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Many had no formal education at all. And the ones that did often practiced medicine in the bigger cities.
But thankfully, there were those that went west. And just as unfortunate, so did a good share of quacks, home bugs, charlatans, swindlers, and tricksters. each of these unscrupulous chaps (not to mention a few women) hawked tonics, potions, and pills aplenty. And, believe it or not, they were quite successful at it too. So long as they were plying their wares to an unsuspecting public.

So how did they do it? Unsuspecting or no, one would think the people would figure it out. Easy. They played on people’s fear of death and sickness. Problem was, all those tonics potions and pills didn’t work. Half the time they did more damage than good and even killed the poor patient. Granted, there are those that have scams in the ensuing decades since the old West existed and thankfully we’re not as unsuspecting as we used to be. But back in the good old days, things were done differently and often painfully. For instance, have a baby that won’t stop crying? Why not reach for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup? If that wasn’t handy you could try Godfrey’s Cordial, Jayne’s Carminative Balsam, or Daffy’s Elixir. Hmm, I wonder how daffy, Daffy’s Elixir made you? Considering all of this contained morphine or opium (no wonder babies went right to sleep) it was a safe bet one might get a little loopy. Problem was, some people took them and never woke up.

But opium did get an upgrade. And when it did, it got a new name too. Laudanum. For those of us who write historicals, this is something we’ve used in our stories on occasion, having our characters down in a spoonful or two mixed with water. believe me, if there was anything else we could give our characters to get the better we would. But there’s only so many things available in the time. You were writing in.

Opium might’ve started wars in the East, but its upgraded version, laudanum, took its toll on the west. Sure, it wasn’t as potent as straight opium, but laudanum packed its own particular punch and tasted better. Added alcohol only intensified the euphoric and mind-altering effects. Laudanum was touted by most physicians of the time and you could get it without a prescription. You could take it home, (no opium den required) and, if you were really good at taking it as the doctor ordered, form an addiction. This dark side of early medicine was all too real. Druggists of the times sold gallons of laudanum, opium elixirs, and narcotic nostrums. And then morphine showed up …

Back in the 19th century, bleeding, purging, leaching, and enemas were still the rage. Yes, I know, ew! But when morphine came along, doctors discovered a much gentler treatment. Coupled with opium, it went on to occupy materia medica tests forever after and was recommended for obvious ailments like pain and diarrhea. By the way, Cholera and dysentery killed far fewer people, thanks to opium, so there is that. However, the medicines were also thrown at people for anything that ailed them. And I do mean anything. They used it for rabies, tetanus, ulcers, snakebites, diabetes, poisoning, depression, and other mental illnesses. All of which was said to be cured by these incredible wonderment’s. Are you shaking in your boots yet? Yikes!!

Since I researched these things, (I’ve had characters with bad coughs and other ailments)  I’ve grown a new appreciation for modern medicine and sometimes think about the quacks of the 1800s when I’m in line at the pharmacy.  We’ve come a long way since then, thank Heaven. And though there were a lot of tricksters back in the day there were also some good home remedies that actually worked. Did your grandparents or parents use home remedies? If so, what were they? I’ll pick a random winner from the comments below to receive my Brides of Noelle Book Collection, which does include the story with the character with the bad cough. Oh horrors, he had to take some laudanum! He survived, by the way …

Kit Morgan
Kit Morgan is the author of over 100 books of historical and contemporary western romance! Her stories are fun, sweet stories full of love, laughter, and just a little bit of mayhem! Kit creates her stories in her little log cabin in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. An avid reader and knitter, when not writing, she can be found with either a book or a pair of knitting needles in her hands! Oh, and the occasional smidge of chocolate!
Updated: February 24, 2020 — 4:57 pm

49 Comments

  1. My grandmother would take a bottle of whiskey and put peppermint candy and aspirin in it for a bad cough. She would have it sitting by her chair and you better not have a cough around her for she would get what I thought was biggest Spoon ever and make you take one or two spoonfuls of it

    1. Oh my! I’ve never heard of that mix before!

  2. My paternal grandparents came to this country in the early 20th century and I don’t remember them having a home cure. They both were from Norway. My maternal grandparents I didn’t know that well but I figure since my maternal grandfather worked on the reservations that they must of picked up plant based remedies for illnesses.

    1. Oh, I’m sure they did, Kim! They probably had all sorts of home remedies that were plant based.

  3. I can’t remember a home remedy. But I sure am glad I grew up in a time of many great medical advancements.

    1. You and me both, Carol! Our average life span is so much more compared to back then.

  4. I don’t remember ever having a home remedy when I was growing up. But these days (not being able to afford health insurance) I research different things to help when my husband or I get sick. My favorite is elderberry and Oscillococcinum for the flu. I found out about the combo on Facebook and it really does seem to work. We both ended up with the flu last month and this combination helped it go away much faster.

    1. Janine, I’ve just jumped on the elderberry syrup band wagon. I’m always a bit skeptical about supplements, but people sure seem to think it works, so I figure, a couple of teaspoons a day is worth a try. And with the Coronavirus scares going on . . . who knows?

      Glad you feel it worked for you and your husband! I’ll have to check out the oscillococcinum.

    2. Wow, that’s interesting. I’d not heard of that remedy before.

  5. My grandmother didn’t use herbs her cure all was a cup of tea and a slice of toast. I still to this day just want tea and toast when I am sick.

    1. I’ve heard a lot of folks love that combination when they are sick, Vicki!

  6. Lemon drops were used in a pinch if we were out of cough syrup.

    1. Yep, I remember getting those too, Melanie!

  7. Gargle with salt water for a dry, hacking cough. IT WORKS!

  8. My Mom made a poultice of chopped onions, water and sugar boiled together and cooled for coughs and colds of winter . It was put on the chest to help relieve the ailments of a cold—–hated it!

    1. Oh, yikes, Estella! I’ve never heard of that one before. I think I’d hate it too!

  9. well being from Indiana and having sinus issues – my Grandmother would grind fresh horseradish root and just walking into the kitchen would quickly eliminate any stuffy nose!!

    1. Oh my! That certainly would, Teresa!

  10. Honey and whiskey for cough syrup. Also a Hot toddy for the monthly cramps. That’s the only home remedy I can think of right now.

    1. I’ve heard of honey and whiskey for coughs, but not the hot toddy for monthly cramps. I’ve sure a lot of people would like that one!

  11. The only ones I remember involved alcohol. My grandmother said to rub the gums of a teething baby with whiskey.

    1. Yes, my mom used to do that to us, and told us to try it on our own kids.

  12. For a sore throat it would be to mix some lime into honey and take a spoonful of it, for stomach ailments it could would a cup of warm yerba buena which is ( spearmint) tea. For a cough with phlegm it would be a cup of warm oregano tea.For earaches warm oil, I believe it was olive oil put in the ear. I’m just glad to have not been born in the the older times. I just don’t and will never understand how some Drs.(quacks) didn’t have any conscious at all. Thank you so very much for sharing your post, it is so very interesting to me. Have a Great week. Your book sounds like a very good read and the cover is beautiful. Thank you for the chance.

    1. Yes, back then they peddled whatever they though would make them money, never mind what it did to the poor person that took it. It was very interesting researching it, Alicia!

  13. Welcome Kit. What an interesting post today. I have not really delved real deep into the medicine of the time. But you bring out some truly interesting things. Even though we have advanced a lot in medicine, I feel like we still need to be ever watchful and careful. I do a lot of my own research and talk to a dr I trust and respect. I got epilepsy when I was 13. I shudder to think what would have happened back then.

    1. Research is a good thing, Lori! I know my sister, who’s had a lot of different surgeries, always checks things out thoroughly. Like you said, you have to nowadays.But still much better now than then!

  14. My mom always rubbed our feet down with Vicks when we were sick and put socks on. I truly believe this works miracles with a cold.

    1. I did that with my kids when they were babies and toddlers and had a bad cough.

    2. My mom used to do that too, Tonya!

  15. For sore throats, my Mom had us gargle with warm salt water. For ear aches, warm olive oil.
    My husband and I take elderberry tablets as preventative.

    1. Rena, you’re the second person to mention elderberry. I’ll have to look into that.

  16. For mouth sores, we used salt. For sore throats use hot tea with honey.

    1. I love hot tea and honey for a sore throat, Caryl!

  17. My grandma told me salt water is great to gargle with… helps sore throats.

    1. Yep, I’ve heard that too, Colleen. Though I’ve never tried it myself.

  18. My oldest daughter just turned 50 and even then my grandmother told me to rub a little whiskey on her gums when she was teething. No, thanks. We had the usual hot tea and honey (which MY granddaughter swears by), gargle with salt water but nothing else too radical. Sometimes when I go to the drugstore, though, I think we must be just as anxious as those in the Old West for a cure – look at those aisles and aisles of things to fix whatever ails you! Enjoyed the post and thanks for the giveaway.

    1. You make a good point, Sally! We have loads of “cures” out there, but now sometimes the confusion comes in discovering which one is best.

  19. I used to have terrible earaches as a child, and my mom blew cigarette smoke in it thinking the warmth might help! I don’t know where she got that “remedy’—-likely Indian Territory.

    1. Oh my! Now there’s one I haven’t heard before!

  20. Gargling with salt water, hot lemonade with honey, hot tea with honey were all some of my mother’s favorite remedies. My father-in-law told of having sagebrush tea when he was young (he was born in 1907). Now we know that sage brush contains quinine. We were never given willow bark tea but people talked about it and it has one of the main ingredients in aspirin.

    I am amazed at the popularity of Elderberry syrup. We had elderberries in our backyard when we were growing up. We made jelly and pies but never syrup. They grew wild in our area so we kids were allowed to pick them and eat them and play with them. They add a nice color to mud pies.

    1. You’re not the first to mention elderberries. Someone else mentioned there are now elderberry pills you can take.

  21. whiskey and honey for a cough.

    Speck for a kitchen-related burn. (I don’t recommend it.)

    1. Isn’t Speck pork fat, Denise? And yeah, on a burn, yikes!

  22. We have a homemade recipe for swimmer’s ear that I swear by. It’s white vinegar mixed with rubbing alcohol (I can never remember the proportions, but I’ve got Mom’s old dropper bottle with the faded label to remind me when I need to make more.)

    1. Oh wow, Carrie. That’s new to me too.

  23. My mom would give my brother and me camphor with a little sugar for sore throats.

  24. I’ve not heard of this one either, Connie. Wow, there are quite a few interesting remedies getting posted!

  25. We have our own brand of medical hucksters today with the pain clinics and other doctors who over prescribe addictive drugs like oxycodone. Initially they were not totally to blame, but too many continued even after the problem was brought to light.
    As for home remedies, one my mom used frequently with 6 children was clove oil. If we had an earache, she would warm some up (not hot) and put a couple drops into the ear canal and put in a small piece of cotton ball to keep it from leaking out. I don’t know how effective it was for earaches, but it felt good and did seem to help. We also used lemon and honey in hot tea or hot water for sore throats and colds.

    1. I’ve heard of the clove oil treatment. One of our neighbors used to use it with her kids.

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