Country Folk Medicine: Tales of Skunk Oil, Sassafras Tea, & Other Old-Time Remedies
Gathered by Elisabeth Janos
(I got this book from the library, but I'm going to have to buy a copy. It is one I want to have around.)
Elisabeth Janos had the sterling idea of gathering stories from old folks about what kinds of things they did when there was a medical problem, but a doctor wasn’t around, or a family couldn’t afford a doctor. She went to senior centers and nursing homes around New England, Yankee-land, and simply asked this question to the elders. And she got answers, lots of answers, many in agreement, about various folk remedies. This is a fascinating book on many levels: what folks actually did, what kinds of remedies they used, what worked or seemed to work, how the remedies were applied, etc.
Janos wisely allows the elderly folk to tell us in their own words--she provides lots of quotes and stories. There’s a real feeling of authenticity here. For instance, for colds:
Three drops of turpentine on a spoon of sugar--the greatest thing there is for a cold. My doctor said that a long time ago. Take it at night and in the morning the cold is better.
Cut raw onions in big slices and place in a pie plate. Cover them with brown sugar and put them in a warm oven. The heat melts the sugar and goes through the onions and makes a syrup. When it’s cool, take a teaspoon whenever you cough. (She Survives had this in her post on Favorite Herbals a while back. Seems this one works!)
What did these rural country people use for medicines? Whatever they had available in their kitchens, barns, woods, fields, and occasionally something from a store or a neighbor. During the early part of the last century, many people were poor. There wasn’t as many of doctors then either, and most rural doctors were combination allopath (what you think of as a normal doctor) and folk medicine. If a plantain leaf would work on a bee sting, then the rural doctor would get a plantain leaf. There wasn’t a big supply of pharmaceuticals either--most drugs hadn’t been developed yet. So people used what they had.
Janos includes a section on what she calls sewage pharmacology--the use of cow manure or human urine as medicines, usually topical, applied to the skin (mostly). The use of manure and urine is ancient, and is still practiced in parts of the world today. As it was in New England, early in the 20th century. For example:
We had a large family. When diphtheria struck, Father made us horse-bun tea. He steeped it on the stove. The ones that took it lived, the ones that didn’t died.
When we’d get poison ivy on our feet, Ma would have us walk barefoot through cowflops. I used to like the feel of it oozing between my toes.
In World War I, the outfit that my father-in-law was with had no gas masks. They would urinate on a hankie and put it over the face. It would keep gas away from the throat and eyes.
Hmmmmm. I don’t think I’d walk barefoot in cowflops for poison ivy, but if I’m in a crowd of people and the cops were spraying tear gas, then I would definitely try the piss in a hankie over the face trick. Seems to me that one has possibilities. Human urine is sterile and therefore potentially quite useful. I know that urine therapy is practiced in India (and probably worldwide), but it isn’t talked about in this country.
What were the medicines? Pine resins, spruce gum, Gilead balm beads, turpentine, kerosene, various animal oils such as skunk oil, snake oil, bear grease, clay and mud, herbal teas, spices, mustard plasters, dirty old socks, flannel, red ribbons and many other items were the pharmacopia of the day. The one that really caught my eye was skunk oil, yes indeed, the oil from a skunk. Actually, the oil that comes after you render the fat of a skunk.
The folks Janos interviewed swore by skunk oil. It was used for colds, rubbed on sore muscles, taken by the teaspoonful or as a few drops of the oil on a teaspoon of sugar, or rubbed on bones that didn't heal properly.
There is nothing so good as skunk oil, nothing. When I needed some of the oil, I would take a BB gun and shoot a skunk in the head. I never knew the oil to go rancid. We used it for everything. We rubbed it on the feet to keep them smooth and soft. Sometimes women even rubbed it in themselves for contraception.
My mother fell and shattered her elbow so that the arm was all contorted. I shot some skunks and hung them up. I took the fat and put it in a double boiler until it melted. I brought two quarts to my mother, with instructions to heat it until it was very warm, then massage it in and cover it with flannel. She was to do this at least two times daily. This straightened the arm in a year and a half. The doctor couldn't believe that the arm straightened, and asked her how she had done it.
Janos even includes a story where skunk oil was used to cure laryngitis.
It seems to me that there is much that is useful in this book, and since we’re all likely to be as poor as the folks in the book were, we might keep some of these items and stories of their use in mind. Unfortunately, turpentine and kerosene are not made the same way anymore (says Janos), so it probably would be ineffective and dangerous to use them today. But for the piney resins, kitchen produce, herbs and spices and other ingredients? I would give most of them a try.
You see, I don’t think people used these things medicinally simply because they were “dumb,” or “hicks” who didn’t know any better. I’m sure they used them because they WORKED--maybe not every single time, but often enough. These were cures passed down from generation to generation. Hell, some of these cures go all the way back to the Egyptians and ancient Greeks and Arabs.
I’m not sure where the dirty sock for a sore throat idea came from, but it seems to me there must have been something to it. Some odd chemical/electrical/magnetical or who knows what reason.
For a sore throat, we’d wrap a dirty sock around the neck. I’d use my brother’s or father’s. All there were, were wool socks in those days. You’d wear them five or six days in a row--they didn’t wash every day like they do now, had to wash by hand.
When I had a sore throat, I would grease my throat with chicken fat or lard. Then I would take my mother’s or father’s warm, dirty sock and tie it around my neck before I went to bed. It really made me sweat.
Hmmmm. I may try it. Just to see if it would really work, because if it did, how curious, how interesting would that be? How could I explain it? Things like this make me wonder.
Here's one cure that is really odd. A spry old gent interviewed by Janos said it was an old Indian cure for broken bones and sprains:
Take a half pint of night crawlers and a half pint of heavy cream. Bring it to a boil, simmer it for ten minutes. Let it cool. Skim off the top. Use the stuff you skimmed off for broken bones; run it on a few times a day. I had a friend that broke some fingers adn he couldn't move them. After two months of this treatment, his fingers were fine.
This is a fascinating book and I highly recommend it if you are interested in simple ways of healing. As always, take it all with a grain of salt, be curious and openminded, but don’t be stupid. If something seems dangerous, it probably is, so don’t do it. Or do it at your own risk.
PS. Sorry--can't resist. Some more info on Skunk Oil. :)
The only place I could find to purchase skunk oil was from Cabelas, where it is sold as a product to kill human scent for hunters. If I can’t get one of our young men to trap or shoot me a skunk, maybe I'll just buy some from Cabelas.
Where/What is Skunk Oil?
Skunk Oil A:
Skunk oil is an oil that is obtained from the two lateral glands that run the length of a skunks back. Skunks store fats in these glands for use during hybernation or semi-hybernation in warmer climes. There is very little odor to this oil. Skunk oil was used by the Native Americans as a healing balm or as a liniment. When rendered from the glands, over a low heat, it has the consistency a SAE10 motor oil and the feel of a coal oil when applied to the skin. It has gives warming sensation as a mild liniment would.The early explorers and fur buyers, especially in Canada, found that this oil was a very useful addition to their medical kits. They paid the Indians a premium price for his product.
Skunk Oil B:
However, in Country Folk Medicine, I got a different impression of what skunk oil is:
When I needed some of the oil, I would have my husband go out and shoot a skunk. I would skin it, clean it, and cut it into quarters; then I’d put it in a hot oven to get all the grease out. After it was about half cooked, I’d put slices of raw potato in the bottom of the pan to clarify the oil. When we used it on rheumatism, it’d make the ache stop.
Another article on skunk oil.
As far as I’m concerned, modern American medicine has shown that it is far more interested in money than in healing, and is therefore mostly worthless. Trauma care, however, is said to be great here. I’ve only had that experience once, and the docs and nurses in the ER did a fine job of patching me up after a car accident. But American medicine for diseases? Illnesses? Actual sickness? So they can apply as many life-threatening drugs and treatments as can hike up the bill? Even granting them some humanity, in that they really wish to help people, I think modern doctors, allopaths, have taken a really wrong turn with their reliance on pharmaceuticals and invasive medicine, and operations.
No thanks. I’ll stick with herbs, nutrients, real living food, and maybe even some skunk oil. If my husband thinks garlic syrup is bad . . . Just wait til he gets dosed with skunk oil. This blog may end abruptly, in that case. We’ll just have to wait and see. Onwards!