Turpentine–For All Your Health Needs…

I’ve been entertaining swollen glands, a sore throat, rattling cough, fever, ear infection and laryngitis for almost a week now. Complete misery, as anyone knows and everyone forgets—me included—until waylaid.

turpenting for illnessLuckily in 2015 we have antibiotics (I’m on my second, stronger prescription now) to help our bodies fight these germ wars. In writing The Garden Promise and reading all the family letters that help shape that novel, I know how often various members of the Arthur family fell ill. And this current illness reminded me how difficult it must have been to deal with sickness way back then.

Nineteenth century sick-folks were limited in treatment choices, but they certainly tried hard. Here is an excerpt from a letter from Jeanie to her son, James, giving him the updates on his brother and sisters and a friend.

The nurse sent Dorothy home from school at noon today because her throat was sore. I gave her the turpentine and hot water cure. Hope it will help her. It cured Gale of sore throat in one night last week but he had a sore neck instead. Gretchen Rossiter has tuberculosis and the doctor has ordered her to Texas for the winter.

At first I thought Dorothy’s turpentine treatment was something she took by mouth. But the following recipes for soothing sore throats and treating a cold on the chest from The Compendium of Cookery illustrate something different:

The recipe for treating a Cold on the Chest suggests, “A flannel dipped in boiling water, sprinkled with turpentine, laid on chest as quickly as possible will relieve the most severe or hoarseness,” was probably what my great-great grandmother’s “cure,” was. It also explains how the cure could have made Gale’s sore throat disappear but also give him a sore neck. I imagine a towel dipped in boiling water and immediately applied to the throat would make anyone’s neck smart for a day or two.

I included the line about the Rossiter girl being ordered to Texas for the winter to deal with her TB because it just sounds funny the way it’s written. “Off to Texas with you!” as though sending someone to the corner store for lemons.

The cure for a sore throat in the Compendium orders: “Cut slices of salt pork or fat bacon; simmer a few moments in hot vinegar, and apply to throat as hot as possible. When this is taken off, as the throat is relieved, put around a bandage of soft flannel. A gargle of equal parts of borax and alum, dissolved in water, is also excellent. To be used frequently.”

In case you’re wondering—alum is “a colorless astringent compound that is a hydrated double sulfate of aluminum and potassium, used in solution medicinally and in dyeing and tanning.” And, borax is “a white mineral in some alkaline salt deposits, used in making glass and ceramics, as a metallurgical flux, and as an antiseptic.”

Yikes, okay, if desperate enough, I suppose one gargles with harsh chemicals. I sympathize with meds not working—I get it.

The honey, flaxseed, rock candy and lemon cure for a cold is not too bad, but still. When it comes to disease—2015 wins. Despite my repeated trips to the doctor for the right medicine to obliterate this mess of bacteria, I can say I appreciate it far more than a nice gargle of borax and alum.