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1800s Medical Cures That Still Work Today

1800s Medical Cures That Still Work Today

Once upon a time, more than two-thirds of all Americans lived in rural towns or extensive farms. Indoor plumbing was unheard of, homes were heated with wood and lit by kerosene or oil lamps, work was hard and diseases were plenty.

Should we find ourselves back in these precarious times – or we simply prefer natural remedies — we might find it beneficial to know what types of herbs, medicines and common practices were the tool of the trade for the 19th century doctor.

Keep in mind that there were no vaccines, no lab tests and no antibiotics. Hospitals were located in large cities and surgery was reserved for extreme cases. Doctors traveled for miles on horseback to treat their patients, and payment was generally a hot meal and a place to sleep, and perhaps a hog or some chickens for the doctor to keep or sell as he liked.

Almost all treatments were done right in the home, or outdoors where the light was good. There certainly were times when the doctor knew that his patient would not survive, but he tried his best, knowing that if nothing else, the family would feel better, believing that they had done all they could.

Let’s take a look inside that black bag of medicine and find out what doctors used pre-pharmaceutical times.

Treatments and Research

If you were fortunate, your doctor was up to date with the medical research of the times, such as books by University of New York doctor William Thomson. Otherwise, your local doctor might have relied on Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, which relied on herbal treatments.

With no antibiotics and very little understanding of how diseases worked, gargles, “tonics,” hot baths or steam baths were often recommended. Doctors tended to treat the symptoms, rather than the disease, due to lack of knowledge.

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Doctors understood very little about bacteria, but they were aware that there were tiny organisms that could be seen under a microscope. These could be transferred from one patient to another. So while they may not have fully understood how they worked, doctors began working with “disinfectants” in the later part of the 1800s. Common disinfectants were chlorine, lime, sulfur and charcoal.

Common Herbal Treatments

Without the use of any real working drugs, doctors relied heavily on herbal remedies. Many doctors continued to add to their skills by learning from medicine men of the indigenous people, as well as from women who often passed their knowledge on from generation to generation and the slaves brought from Africa, who also contributed their knowledge of healing herbs and plants.

Fortunately, doctors had many pain relievers available to them at this time, including aspirin (which they made from the bark of willow trees). There were fever reducers made from the feverfew plant, as well from meadowsweet.

Camphor was known to ease itchy skin. It was also commonly used to prevent infection by washing the wound with a solution made from camphor, or soaking bandages in the solution, then wrapping the wound.

1800s Medical Cures That Still Work Today

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Opium was known to stop diarrhea almost instantly, and cathartics were from a wide variety of plants, such as milkweed or bloodroot.

Most of these types of medicines were used to make the patient as comfortable as possible, while nature took its course and the patient could heal on his own.

Other treatments including apple pectin, which was mixed in juice to stop arthritis, and honey, which was used as a face wash and a treatment for most insect stings.

Tea and compresses made from cloths soaked in tea were often used to wash everything from hair to burns to wounds.

Some treatments are still used today, such as baking soda to brush the teeth or ease indigestion. Castor oil was used for everything from a general health tonic to a chest compress for coughs and colds. Salt was used as a gargle for sore throats. It worked then and still works today.

Herbs and ‘Female’ Problems

It was very common in the 1800s for women to treat other women with herbs and remedies that have been passed down for generations. Midwives were often called upon to deliver babies as well as to help with what was called “female problems.”

1800s Medical Cures That Still Work Today

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Teas made from motherwort were often used to “calm the nerves.” This is a mild sedative and it works remarkably well.

Painful menstruation was often treated with a tea of red raspberry leaves. This was also the same treatment for infertility. Excessive bleeding was treated with shepherd’s purse. Labor pains were treated with blue cohosh while menopause was treated with black cohosh.

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Women suffering from fainting spells were often given a large tablespoon of vinegar. Bladder infections were cured with calendula tea, and chamomile tea was used for just about everything that ailed women, from menopause to insomnia.

Treatments We’d Rather Forget

You can’t talk about the history of medicine without speaking about some of the items and practices that will make you shudder today.

Mercury was used for almost 500 years as a common elixir that was supposed to rejuvenate the body. It was also a popular “cure” in the 19th century for sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis. While mercury probably did kill off the infection, it generally killed the patient as well, most likely from kidney or liver damage.

In fact, let’s not forget that during most of the 1800s, there were no laws in place as to who could call themselves a doctor. Massachusetts passed the first license laws in 1819 but then repealed them in 1835. It wasn’t really until after the civil war that states got serious about licensing doctors.

Tuberculosis (called consumption in those times) was a terrible condition with no cure. Most doctors simply recommended bed rest and to move to a drier climate.

Other treatments, such as those for colic, didn’t need the doctor anyway.

A common “remedy” for colic was to close all the windows and doors to the baby’s room, and have daddy smoke his cigar or pipe right outside the door. (Can’t help but wonder how that one worked!)

Cures for colds and the flu were varied, but included drinking rabbit dung tea. We don’t suggest trying that one, no matter how dire the situation!

What old-time remedies would you add to this list? Share your tips in the section below:

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  1. I have been using herbs, spices, foods and non-food items for health and healing for over 47 years. Even as a child, my family had its own home remedies that had passed down that was used for illness. I still rely on these remedies, though I’ve updated some by adding herbs for more potency.

    Most pharmaceuticals came originally from plants. Scientists and researchers isolated the constituents in the plants that were used medicinally, then they made a synthetic version and patented it, thereby making pills for doctors to use. One cannot patent a plant that grows wild everywhere.

    My baby grandson was diagnosed with a candida infection in his groin and private area. The doctor wrote out a prescription for a medical cream. The cost was over $60 for a small tube of cream. My daughter and her husband could not afford the cost. I told them I would make a salve for the baby and it would work as well or better than the cream. Within a week the infection was all cleared up and gone. It cost me about $4.00 to make the salve. I used 4 herbs that are anti-fungal in a base of olive oil. I also added drops of essential oils known for their anti-fungal properties. Many herbs and spices are anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, and anti-viral.

    I am never out of activated charcoal (in capsules and in bulk) for wounds, poisons internal and external, for diarrhea, vomiting and food poisoning, and for bug and spider bites. Many foods such as lemons, beets, limes. oranges, carrots, cabbage and others have known healing properties for everything from poison ivy and oak, to help pass kidney stones and break them up, to mastitis.

    It is ever more important that people teach themselves herbal and food remedies so they can help themselves. Around our house we’ve used these remedies for birth, miscarriage, menopause, pleurisy, colic, burns, and even to clear up MRSA.

    To say the least, we rarely, if ever, see a doctor. Most of the herbs are wildcrafted from our yard, the woods and fields. Dried herbs and roots, inner bark of trees, and more are in jars, tinctures, capsules, and bags (sealed). Our animals are also treated with home remedies and herbs.

    I’ve spent the better part of my life self-teaching myself what i know. I’d have loved to have mentored with someone, but it never materialized. If I can do it, anyone can.

    Do not pooh-pooh these old folk remedies and herbal lore as superstition and quackery. They work.

  2. I would enjoy a book about home remedies if you put your knowledge out for peaple to learn from.

  3. I would like to share a fix for an absessed tooth but first a story that happened to me and I wish I had known this then.
    I was in my early 20s and I spent the night at my folks house on Christmas Eve which was Friday and Christmas was Saturday. I remember it was about 10 oclock when I went to bed. I slept all night and when I woke up it was just getting light and my face felt funny and it should have due to looking like a chipmunk and the pain that follows all the swelling from an tooth that decided to screw my Christmas up. So being Saturday there are Dentist that are open for business but are there any on Christmas Day? So I layed in bed the whole weekend until Monday morning and by early afternoon I was taking 2 antibiotics and within 2 hours the swelling was going down and I was able to think again. Simply amazing! From that
    point on I told myself that was never going to happen again so I would save back 3-4 antibiotics to start the process until I could see the Doc. I always carried antibiotics backpacking or any where i went it was a priority and I never had a problem but i was prepared. About 10 years ago I had just met this guy who would turn out to be a good friend and I told him how i felt a tooth problem i had been having and he told me a way to handle like they did 200 years ago. Whiskey. You don’t drink it you spit it out after swishing it around your mouth all around the bad tooth for at least 30 minutes or even an hour spitting it out everty 6-8 minutes keep repeating it only takes a little bit in your mouth and yes it burns so mix saliva with it so you can handle it and keep it as strong as you can. You are not going to feel the effect for awhile but after you subject your mouth with a bombardment of whiskey it may feel a little weird for a few minutes but by the next day you will feel the swelling going down

  4. Iodine and mercurochrome were used for sterilizing cuts and broken skin. Placing a cut finger in turpentine was a quick healer. I remember cutting my thumb to the bone and having my Dad dip it into a cup of turpentine. The pain eased almost immediately and it healed up in about a week. My Mom used mustard plasters on chest colds. She would take a large cotton dish cloth and place it on my chest, scatter mustard powder on it followed by a layer of flour, then drizzle it with water and then another dish cloth. It generated a great deal of warmth (and stink) but it would often draw out coughing, etc. Babies cutting teeth got a “sugar tit” which was about a spoonful of sugar soaked in turpentine and place in a cloth which was twisted into a tit so the little one could suck it. Constipation was either treated with castor oil, or a big soapy enema which always cleared the problem up very quickly. For a sore throat, a piece of hard candy was often offered to suck on. A hot toddy was an adult treatment for a cold: Whiskey, hot water, lemon juice was either gargled or sipped and, if it didn’t cure the problem, left one oblivious to the discomfort.

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