Updated: Jul 11
Simple home remedies on the farm
Memories from life on the farm. Most of the illnesses we had as children were minor, and Mum was our health care worker. In all the years between 1950 and 1956, I can only remember being taken to the doctor once, and that was after a buster from my bike, when I had a sore wrist. Turned out it was sprained, not broken. A couple of weeks in a splint, and I was back to normal.
Most of them were quite simple home remedies, things that are still recommended today; like prunes and prune juice for constipation, or grated apples for diarrhoea. Others were more inventive. Mum used the white sap from the fig tree to treat warts on our hands. Just a few applications, and the wart disappeared. Styes on an eyelid were rubbed with her gold wedding ring. She had ingrown toe nails, which she managed by cutting a small v-shaped wedge out of the centre of the nail, and then filled the groove each side of the nail with alum powder. I have tried both in the past. The removal of the wedge seems to relieve pressure on the ingrowing edges, while the alum seems to deaden the flesh and reduce the pain where the nail is growing in.
Open cuts were washed with salt water, and bandaged with strips of cloth cut from old sheets. If Dad had a cut on a finger, then she sewed together a finger ‘stall’ which looked like part of a glove. It covered the bandaged finger completely, and had 2 ties attached, which were fastened in place around the wrist, with a granny knot.
Dad often collected splinters of wood in his fingers. Usually, Mum could dig it out with a sewing needle, then use salt water or Dettol to disinfect it. Sometimes it was too deeply seated for her to reach, then Dad would visit the doctor. At least once he came home, telling us that the doctor couldn’t find the splinter, and had told Dad there wasn’t one in the wound. But after several days, Dad was in severe pain, and the finger was badly swollen, hot, and deep red colour. Mum decided to poultice the finger.
As far as I remember, Mum simply cut lengths of fabric from a sheet, soaked them in milk, then dipped them in boiling water. Then she just dropped the cloth onto Dad’s finger. Now Dad was stoical, and never showed pain. But I will always remember him stalking up and down through the breakfast room and lounge, with a drawn face, lowered brows and eyes half-closed, muttering his breath. Every time the poultice cooled, Mum would replace it with a new hot one. That must have continued for at least an hour. The poulticing continued each day until the wound turned pale and soft, and eventually the skin burst. Then pus poured out, bringing the splinter with it. Then the wound was kept clean and allowed to heal naturally.
That splinter must have been 10 millimetres [half an inch] long. I think Dad kept it to show the doctor on his next visit.
We did buy some treatments. Vicks Vapour Rub, for chesty colds; Irish Moss cough mixture and cough lollies, black as treacle; whole cloves that were placed on an aching tooth; green Rexona ointment that soothed bites and stings; Condy’s Crystals [potassium permanganate] that when dissolved in water turned it purple and was a mild disinfectant; and codliver oil that I was forced to swallow until I protested that my school mates complained about the smell of my flatulence, [for which, by the way, we had a number of nicknames, such as ‘cut your finger’ or ‘popped off’. I had never heard the word ‘fart’ until I went to boarding school.]
One of Dad’s ongoing problems was very dry skin on his hands. The heels of his hands developed very thick callouses, and in winter especially, these would crack so deeply that we could see the pink living flesh deep below. He used a variety of creams like lanolin, trying to keep the skin supple, but nothing seemed to work. One cream that I particularly remember was called ‘Goanna Salve’. A few years ago, I saw a familiar tin of it in a chemist shop, which I bought just for nostalgic reasons. I have never used it. We were always told that goanna oil was so strong it would seep through the walls of a glass bottle.
Dad also suffered from something then called catarrh, but now would probably be called chronic rhinitis. Today, antihistamines would help. I remember him using a yellow oily liquid, called Kanatox, which he squirted up his nose every morning with an eyedropper.
But a regular source of simple home remedies was the salesman from the Rawleigh’s Company who visited the farm. Mum always bought his citronella, which we used on our skins to deter mosquitos; Eucalyptus oil, which we inhaled from handkerchiefs when we had snuffy noses; and pink Calamine Lotion, that was used on scratches and minor cuts.
The most spectacular cure that Mum made, happened on sister Val’s wedding Day. Her fiancé John, lived on the farm next door, and on the critical morning, was brought to see Mum by his Best Man. John had lost his voice. How would he manage to say his vows, or give his speech at the wedding breakfast?
Mum found a clean sheet of paper and rolled it into an open cone. Then she placed the narrow end in John’s mouth, put half a teaspoon of bicarb soda into the cone, and blew it down his throat. I was not allowed to witness the treatment, but imagine it caused a lot of coughing. Anyway it worked, as the wedding and breakfast went ahead successfully.
I find that writing my memoir, has stirred up memories that have been buried deeply for years. I am still exploring them.