The Way it Was: Goose grease and other old-time remedies

by John Straka Published:

Before there were patent medicines, people used home remedies to cure their illnesses. It's only during my lifetime that drug stores began putting together prepackaged drugs for such common illnesses as headaches, coughs and constipation. When a family lived on a farm, miles from the nearest drug store, they made do with what they had. Most of the time, those home remedies didn't do much to cure an illness, but they made the patient feel a little better. They treated the symptoms, not the disease.

When I was a boy, there always was a small green bottle of snuff in our medicine chest in the bathroom. Inhaling a pinch of snuff brought on one or more hefty sneezes that cleared all the congestion out of my nose. That temporarily made it easier to breathe and I felt better.

If the congestion was in my chest, Mom would rub my chest with a mixture of goose grease and camphorated oil and cover it with a piece of flannel. She would give me a cup of hot tea with sugar and lemon and a spoonful of Father John's cough medicine. Then I'd be tucked into bed and covered with a cozy warm feather quilt. I'd break out in a profuse sweat and fall asleep. In the morning the cold would be all gone and I'd feel like a million bucks.

Father John's cough medicine was the only medicine I ever took that really tasted good. It was kind of a light brown/tan color, came in a brown glass bottle, and was thicker than modern cough syrups. I don't know what the good tasting ingredient was, but it tasted a little like butter.

Camphorated oil, when warmed up by body heat, would give off an aroma that would help clear out a stuffy nose and make it easier to breathe. I don't know what the goose grease did, but it added a bit of the smell of good food, and that was comforting. When Vicks Vaporub came out, it acted a lot like goose grease and camphor oil, but it was a lot easier to use.

Some people used a mustard plaster, instead of goose grease, or maybe a poultice. Those two remedies were before my time. I'm not even sure what a poultice is.

If a cold would hang on or if more than one person in a family had one, there were two surefire treatments for it. One was a big bowl of real old-fashioned homemade chicken soup. Modern science has proven chicken soup is good for a cold. There is a saying that if you have two chickens and one gets sick, you should use the healthy one to make chicken soup to cure the sick one.

The other old Bohemian remedy for a cold is what was known as flu soup. Basically that was a hearty beef stew with lots of barley in it. Not quite as good as chicken soup, but almost.

I have a good supply of horehound drops that will do wonders for a sore throat. If you have never tasted horehound drops, it might take a while to get used to the unique flavor.

When you do that, they are so good, you will suck on them even when you don't have a sore throat.

I remember when our doctor would prescribe a tonic, usually during the recovery period after an illness. I don't know what was in that medicine or if it worked or not. I haven't heard of anyone taking a tonic in many years. I wonder what's the modern equivalent? I've heard of people giving their children sulfur and molasses in the spring to get them ready for the activities of summer. That was a bit before my time, too.

Constipation was always cured by a good dose of castor oil. Sometimes that was given just to clean out the digestive system. It tasted awful. Kids would do almost anything to avoid having to take castor oil. It was that bad. Then came citrate of magnesia. I would be sent to the corner drug store, the druggist would open a bottle of citrate of magnesia and drop a pill into the bottle. That would make it fizz and by the time I got home it was ready for the patient to drink.

It tastes pretty good. I know because just recently I had to drink a bottle of it and I was surprised it's still being used.

Before modern adhesive bandages (Band-Aids) a cut finger or toe was cleaned with soap and water and treated with either iodine or merthiolate before being bandaged with a narrow strip of old cloth, usually white.

There was a special way to make a knot that would hold the bandage in place. It hardly ever worked for more than a few hours, especially on an active barefoot boy's toe. Adhesive tape was an improvement. I have some left over merthiolate, and I think it, and iodine, are no longer available. Peroxide is a better substitute.

When my parents ran a candy store with a soda fountain, (1926-1929) customers would ask for a Bromo. That was a cure for a headache and for a hangover.

If my memory is correct, it was some powder or crystals in a glass with seltzer water added. It would fizz like crazy and I remember it as Bromo Seltzer. I think it was replaced by a large tablet under the name of Alka Seltzer dropped into a glass of ordinary drinking water.

Now we have antibiotics, a variety of constipation remedies, drug stores with shelves full of all kinds of products to treat colds, cuts, coughs, headaches, fevers, and other ailments and a variety of pain relievers. They are all prepackaged and labeled, ready for instant use. No goose grease.

Editor's note: Straka can be reached via email at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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