In Attics And Archives

Volume 4-Issue 6, page 3

By Lara Maynard

(Newfoundland Folk Medicine)

I have recently learned that the Torbay Museum has been working to compile information on folk medicine in Newfoundland, so my article this month is meant as a little contribution to help that effort along. Almost every reader certainly has some experience with or knowledge of this sort of thing. Why not jot it down and send it along to the museum?

I was eight years old when my brother was born in April of 1981 and sent down to Flatrock to stay with my paternal grandmother during my mother's hospital stay. But even when she returned home with our "little man," as he was called for some part of his infancy, I remained in Flatrock for several days, an exile. It wasn't exactly that this new sibling had totally displaced me, but my presence would have put the newborn's health at risk. You see, I had a case of chickenpox that had indecorously peppered every inch of skin and orifice of my body with a relentlessly itchy rash.

So I waited out the disease on Nan's kitchen daybed, watching "The Price is Right" and other daytime television delights and eating chicken noodle soup. I had a nasty case of the chicken pox which had me freezing one minute and scorching the next, but it was the constant head to toe itching that was the worst. Nan's remedy to this was a mixture of baking soda and water and she applied this paste to my body several times a bay. I remember feeling some relief when the coolness of it touched the affected areas.

The use of baking soda (also known as bread soda) paste to relieve itchy skin conditions is a common home remedy. As well as for things like chickenpox, it is used topically on insect bites and stings. Baking soda is also dissolved in water to make a solution to take for heartburn or gas.

Like chikenpox, diseases like whooping cough and measles most commonly plague us in childhood. In 1937 P.K. Devine relayed a method of curing these conditions with a particular reference to a resident of Pouch Cove.

When whooping cough, measles, croup and other infantile ailments become epidemic they can be cured or averted by passing the child three times underneath and over the back of an ass and uttering the name of the Blessed Trinity. This was witnessed frequently in the streets of St. John's seventy years ago, and a full description is given in the newspapers of the time. A man named William Dawe of Pouch Cove had an ass with white cross on its back "an essential feature" and did quite a business when he came to town, whether for money or charity the record does not say. One of the doctors of the way took up an argument against it, but got nowhere. The mothers got the results they sought in their simple faith, and that settled the argument.

I imagine that this ritual would be a peculiar sight to witness, especially if the ass wasn't feeling co-operative.

Among the cure alls that have been popular over the years is Minard's Liniment. It was supposed to be used as a rub for things like headaches, sore throats, asthma and arthritis, but it wasn't uncommon for people to take it by the spoonful, sometimes mixed with things like kerosene or molasses. This liniment is still available in many pharmacies in its blue and red label and we often have a bottle at home. The label now only says that it's for relief from things like sore muscles and sprains.

I've always hated the pungent stuff myself. I remember my mother rubbing it on my chest when I had the flu. The fumes caught and burned in my throat and nostrils and made my eyes water, and I was convinced that she was trying to do away with me in my poor health. The only comfort I could find in it was that the name Minard sounded close enough to my own surname that I could entertain the thought that I was related to the Minard's of liniment fame, and that they would call me up someday to say that I was an heir to the family fortune.

A few other examples of folk medicine include:

- Putting pickled herring on a sore throat.

- Making bread poultices for sores or cuts.

- Soaking a brown paper bag in vinegar and putting it on an aching head.

- Mixing molasses and soap into a paste, spreading it on cloth, and applying to a boil.

- Rubbing a snail on a wart, then nailing the snail to a fence post.

- Placing warm coarse salt on a sock from the left foot and putting that on a sore throat.

- Rubbing fat pork on a wart, then throwing the pork away over your shoulder.

- Mixing castor oil and gin for diarrhea.

For those of you who might be interested in this topic, there is a book called Home Medicine: The Newfoundland Experience by John K. Crellin which was published in 1994 by McGill Queen's University Press. it should be available in the libraries with Newfoundland collections.

Back to Oceanside Press Articles