Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Grandma's home remedies

When I was little, my mother (a single mom) did not have much money to spare for doctors or medications and had several remedies she used to help us get better when we were sick.

As a young woman, when she first moved to the 'big city' she had worked as an assistant to a woman who owned a Finnish steam bath and massage parlor (no not that kind!).  Working beside Finnish "Lena", my mother learned many of her natural healing methods brought over from the 'old country'.  My mother learned how to give the best massages - massaging not only your back and feet, but also your legs, arms, hands, scalp, neck and face.  Her massages were simply delicious.

From Lena she also learned a unique way to have a sitz bath.  We were given a sitz bath if we had a bad cold or flu (it was not to heal any affliction with our derriere!).  My mother felt, done properly, the sitz bath would lower our fever and reduce internal inflammation.  She filled the bathtub with about three inches of cold water.  A low bench was placed in the middle of the cold water and we sat on it.  Our bottoms were not in the water.  We were given a facecloth to dunk in the water and then pull up over the area where your leg attaches to your trunk/body.  Then we would dip the facecloth back in the cool or cold water and pull it up over the joining area of the other leg.  Back and forth for several minutes.  There must, of course, be pulse points there at the top of the leg and so the cool water would cool the blood and reduce the fever - or at least that is how I imagine it worked to lower our temperatures.  Mom knelt down beside the bathtub and talked away encouraging us for being so brave in the cold water - which only felt cold at first.  After the several minutes the water had actually warmed up from absorbing the heat of our bodies!  Then we would snuggle into our cozy bed and have the best sleep ever - feeling so attended to, relaxed and loved.

My sister would have seizures if her temperature rose too high, so my mother had another trick up her sleeve to keep her from having high fevers:  a cold compress.  Cold compresses were wrapped around the trunk of our body, from under the armpits to the top of our legs.  She would lay an old woolen blanket cut down to fit the size of our young bodies on the bed.  She had old cotton sheets cut just slightly smaller than the woolen cloth.  She would run the cotton cloth under cold water, wring it out thoroughly and lay it on the woolen cloth.  During this time of preparation she would have been cajoling and begging us to just plop our back down on the cold cloth as fast as we could and she would wrap the edges of it over our belly as fast as she could.   Eeeeeeeek  -  it was cold and we were encouraged to scream and groan in her effort to make it fun.  Then the woolen blanket underneath was quickly wrapped around and pinned, allowing none of the cold cloth to be exposed. 

We were then tucked into bed and left to read, rest or sleep for half an hour.  When she came back to take the compress  off, the cold cotton cloth would be steaming warm (even hot) depending on how high a fever we had.  It had to then be repeated, but this time she would let us sleep through the night with it on.  In the morning we usually woke up fever free.  And if it did not cure the illness, it allowed us to sleep and my sister to not be endangered by a seizure.  Mother would joke:  "If it doesn't kill you, it will cure you!"

The cold compress remedy also can eliminate or lessen a sore throat.  The same procedure as above is followed with smaller cotton handkerchief and a big wool sock.  Repeat the application in half an hour and it will make a bad sore throat go away or at least become bearable.  It really works!  Now if you have a terrible sore throat, you should have it checked out by your physician - but while you are waiting for the meds you get to take effect you can always get some added relief from a cold compress.  Covered properly with the wool sock, it should do you no harm.

Here are some instructions about compresses that I found on a website called, MoonDragon Health and Wellness.


"Applying a compress to a stiff joint or strained muscle is a treatment most of us have used, and a very basic, ancient one. Wraps and compresses, often enhanced with essential oils or herbs, have played a time-honored role as remedies, not just for muscle and joint pain, but also for infections, such as bronchitis and colds. This treatment is also a form of hydrotherapy (water therapy), which was popular in the 19th-century spa culture. Today, compresses are applied either warm or cold or are alternated; wraps are always applied cold. Cold wraps and compresses work by signaling the body to warm itself, boosting circulation and inducing sweating.

Depending on your signs and symptoms, you might use a hot compress, a cold wrap or both. A heated compress dilates blood vessels, brings more blood to the skin's surface in the area applied, is relaxing and relieves aching from inflammation. On the other hand, a wrap or cold compress constricts tissues, feels stimulating and reduces swelling, which is why it is initially used to treat sprains and strains.

Further, an airtight cold wrap is primarily used for boosting the immune system by removing toxins and increasing circulation." 

This is what my mother used for us as children.  It was not easy to plop yourself down on the cold cloths!  She took particular care to make sure none of the cold cloth peaked out from under the wool cloth by pinning it closed and covering us with our sheets and blankets.    Perhaps it was simply her love and attention that effected "the cure" - who knows.  But it was sort of a ritual when we got sick - and although my sister and I dreaded those cold cloths, my mother made a bit of a game out of it and always got it done.  I think it gave her some peace of mind - feeling she was doing something to help us get better.

"Total Body Wrap: This cold wrap, a treatment promoted by Father Sebastian Kneipp, may at first glance seem to be odd or even damply distasteful - until you try it. It has been found to be very effective for stopping a cold or flu in its tracks if it is done when you feel the first symptoms. It spurs immune responses, lessens lymph congestion and is actually very soothing. First, place a plastic sheet over your bed to protect it. Next, take a hot bath. Rinse with cold water, but don't dry off. wrap yourself in a sheet that has been soaked in cold water and then wrung out (to enhance the healing effects, first add a few drops of Lavender or Rose Essential Oil). Then wrap yourself in a blanket, too. Lie down and cover yourself with at least 1 more blanket. Rest for 30 to 45 minutes. You will feel a relaxing warmth spread over your body. Rinse off."

I would love to hear about any of the old home remedies your parents or grandparents used in your childhood home.  Please share some in your comments.

Of course, let's remember that this is not a medical site and what I have shared, or what anyone else shares in their comments, should not be used in place of proper medical care.  Plus, good old common sense comes into play here too.  Just because something is suggested on a blog doesn't mean we have to go out and try it!   Now it is your turn to share your parents or grandparents home remedies!


  1. The old ways and old remedies make so much sense. My grandmother was from Scotland and used many such remedies on my mother and uncle. My mother of course used them with us -- the sitz bath and the compress around the throat most especially. My gosh, I haven't thought about having a compress around my throat for years...never mind the fact that they worked, it was the love and tenderness used in doing these things that made me feel so much better!

  2. Sherry Lee: What a fun surprise! I've never heard of anyone else who knew of cold compresses! Not that it was a regular topic of conversation!!

    My mother descended from English/French/Irish heritage - and my father's parents were born in Scotland. Perhaps these are home cures from the British Isles.

    I never used the body compresses on my children, but we have all used the throat compress at some time with good success.

  3. good morning bonnie!
    how does this time slip away on us ... i so need to learn a balance so i can visit on a regular basis as i so love reading your blog! anyways, i nearly cried when i saw the hot water bottle as it immediately brought back a flood of memories ~ all full of love and nurturing!

    i love your recollection of your mother's heart filled remedies and how she so wonderfully spoke with you and encouraged you to voice your feelings while receiving the 'cure' ~ what a wise woman! i do believe in these old country remedies, but believe it is the loving administration that is the cure above all ...

    our boys still pine for vicks on the bottom of their feet and warm woolen socks at bedtime when they have a cold ...
    my neighbour swears by a cut up raw onion in a bowl, sprinkled with brown sugar for a nasty nighttime cough ...
    my parents used to have this brown jar with an old lid ~ no labels in sight, but it contained a greenish medicinal cream that could cure any wound or cold sore ~ almost like axle grease!
    and one more story to top it off ... going back to the hot water bottle ... when my parents and i visited relatives in aberdeen, scotland once ~ we were staying in an old stone cottage that was cool all the time ~ the first night i slipped into bed to a much surprised and welcomed hot water bottle tucked between the sheets ... ahhh ...
    thank you for sharing your mom's loving care ~ i feel better already!

  4. Very interesting. I may refer back to this post this winter as the flu season sets in. My grandmother always used compresses and especially around the throat. She would iron an old cloth of some sort and pin it around our neck. Tincture of turpintine was another favorite - for everything! My daughter is studying Holistic Nutrition, with a look to possibly becoming a naturapath, so she is busy studying these types of "cures." I agree with you that the attention to those that are sick helps greatly. A little TLC goes a long way.

  5. I remember an ointment my Mom would use on scraps, burns cuts, boils, well, just about anything! It was called Mecca and was yellow and very sticky! I hated it as a child but it seemed to work! I used to get croup and bronchitis all the time so she also would rig up a steam tent over my bed, steamed with a kettle so I could sleep. It was warm, moist and relaxing!

  6. I loved reading this, Bonnie! My Grandmother was a Christian Scientist from the old world and as they did not particularly believe in the medical profession, she used many old time rememdies to cure her ills. We always used mustard plasters on the chest for a cold and used many herbs such as sassafras and peppermint to cure a sore throat or sour stomach.
    When we moved into this house, the original owner was the town pharmacist. Back then, you didn't need a license to practice. The basement of the house had an old desk complete with knobs on drawers from the old pharmacy. We took these knobs and used them as the door handles on our kitchen cabinets. The handles have labels on them for sassafras, hemp, sarsparilla (how they spelled it), rheum and several others. The pharmacist would make tinctures for whatever ailed the customer. The instructions to the tinctures was totally interesting to read!
    As for me, I am a total believer in your Mother's wisdom of "if it doesn't kill you, it will cure you!"

  7. Prairie Girl: I will remember that one - 'vicks on the bottom of the feet and wool socks for a cold'. I know the skin absorbs so much as native american practices can teach us.

    Now, just to clarify - what did your neighbour do with the bowl of chopped up onions sprinkled with brown sugar? Eat it or apply it in a poutice? I had a girlfriend that applied chopped up onions in a poutice to her head for migraines. She swore it helped.

    Thank you for your kind words and interesting comments.

  8. Nancy: Tincture of turpentine - how interesting. I would love to know how it was used - surely only external applications???

    Ultimately love and attention and our body's own innate healing powers are the things that heal.
    Even in psychotherapy there is a school of thought that says it is not the theories, awareness, interventions, interpretations that heal - it is the relationship between therapist and client that performs the emotional healing.

  9. Lorac: Guess my mother didn't know about Mecca! She did use the steam tent - once with disastrous results. My little sister, just a tot had bronchitis or some such and my mother held her on her knee under a sheet covering them both, with a pot of boiling water on the table also under the tent. My sister somehow pulled in over on herself and had 1st degree (not too serious) burns on her chest. My mother was beside herself with guilt for having inadvertently done that to her baby.

  10. I have not heard of cold compresses in the way you describe them. We would do cool baths to bring fever down. And we would sip coke or 7 up for upset stomachs. I remember Vics and steamers.

    But the cold compress sounds like if you can get past the initial shock of the cold they can truly be a comforting measure! I'm filing this away for future reference and hope that I don't really need it :)

    Thanks for the useful info!

  11. Your remedies made me smile. It was just the same when I was small - we didn't bother the doctor unless it was absolutely necessary. My mother's cure all was something called Friar's Balsam. It came in a small bottle and if we were ill we got four drops on a spoonful of sugar - it tasted horrible but it seemed to do the trick! And sore throats were often treated by taking your sock off at night and wrapping it round your throat while you slept!!!

  12. It's funny how more and more you hear people going back to the "old way" of doing things.

    My family has a history of headaches and migranes. I remember when my Dad suffered from headaches that he used to soak a towel in vinegar and then tie it around his forehead. Now I realize that the smell would probably open up the sinuses and relieve the pressure. I remember hiding behind a bedroom door when I was little and I had a headache, because I didn't want to wear that smelly rag!

    If we had sore throats, my Dad made us eat a concoction of cut up lemons, a little bit of oil, and some pepper. That uvula hanging in the back of my throat would stand right up, instead of being swollen and lying on my tongue.

    The third thing that we did, and I did with my kids, is whenever we fell or hit our head, got a bump, whatever, my parents would quick grab a bottle of vegetable oil and rub some oil on the bump. This was supposed to keep the bump down.

    I don't know if all of these are old Italian healings or what.

  13. hi again ~
    sorry ... i guess that did seem a little vague about the onions and brown sugar! actually, you just cut the onion up into a bowl, sprinkle brown sugar on the onion and set it beside the bed on a night table and close the door to the room while you sleep. the sugar seems to pull something out of the onion and the air is filled with it's potency which seems to calm the cough! it is a bit stinky ... but apparently effective to soothing the airwaves ... my guys didn't want to try it, they preferred the vicks ...
    so a poultice of onion for a migraine, eh? wonder if it works for chronic sinusitis ~ i haven't given my netti pot a fair shake yet as it makes me feel like i have just taken a big deep dive into a pool ... ouch. a hot wheat bag on my forehead is sometimes soothing at bedtime ...
    mother earth knows best,

  14. oh, i've not quit laughing since i saw that red hotwater bottle!!! dear heavens! shades of yesteryear - neat post, lady!!! have a great day!

  15. Alicia: Yes, I'm sure Christian Scientists had to rely on home remedies since they did not believe in using conventional medicine. Perhaps, as they say, in this realm, necessity is the mother of invention.

    My mother used mustard plasters too. Once she must have put a tad too much hot mustard, because it left a slight burn mark on my chest for days. I much preferred her cold water remedies to mustard plasters. Hated and fiercely resisted them.

    I would love to see you kitchen with those vintage knobs. But that is what you are known for - right? Vintage!!

    Thanks for an interesting comment!

  16. Vicky: You are welcome - I, too, hope you never have to use them!

  17. Weaver: How interesting - Friar's Balsam . . . wonder if it was juice from the bark of a balsam?
    Yes, I've heard of the used sock remedy - apparently it did not work if it was a clean sock!

  18. Pat: I often visit a website called EarthClinic. One of their main remedies is apple cider vinegar - and I do believe that can help with multiple conditions. Some people on that site also rave about the healing properties of baking soda. You would have to check it out yourself. But sounds like your Dad knew what he was doing!

    I'm sure his lemon concoction worked. Lots of amazing healing properties in peppery stuff too.

    Thanks, that was so interesting!

  19. Prairie girl: Thanks for the clarification. Although, putting it in a poutice and applying it to your body, would bring it in the room with you!!! Just glad I didn't think that it was supposed to be eaten. That would probably give you a major case of heartburn, if it didn't kill you first!!! LOL

  20. GypsyWoman: I have a good friend whose parent's are from England, and she still to this day (even with our central heating) heats up a hot water bottle to tuck into her bed at night. Makes one wonder how much things really help, or how much it is the comfort of doing what our parents did for us, that helps?

  21. Hi Bonnie! Your mother's remedies sound spot on! One thing I recall being added to a cold compress was rubbing alcohol: it was put on a washcloth and then pressed against the forehead. I have a lot of the Kneipp products you mentioned! Most are for herbal baths, such as valerian and hops to reduce stress.
    One colorful remedy was from my Scottish grandfather: nettles beer (which actually had a very pleasant, mild taste), and its effect was to perk you up if you were feeling achy and fatigued.
    This is very interesting, and I hope you'll do it again! xxox

  22. Just reading your post and all the comments brought back memories of my grandmother who lived with and cared for my sister and me. She used many of these same remedies...Vicks on a warm wool cloth across your chest was very comforting. Enjoyed this so much!

  23. Margaret: So many variations on a theme! It all depends on the family's origins, doesn't it?

  24. Wanda: Yes, vicks has had a place in almost every home I think.

  25. Hi Bonnie

    I have memories of Vicks, and hot water bottles...I still have one for chilly winter nights...

    This morning we ran into a Dr friend who is very keen on alternative healings and he mentioned the effects of root canal treatment and 'dead' nerve-less and blood supply-less teeth remaining in the jaw...

    evidently the body's immune system has a continual battle fighting the corpse tooth which is full of bacteria and slowly decaying and this puts a huge stress on the body leaving it open to other illnesses... an interesting theory that he vows is responsible for many serious illnesses... so the moral is we should look at our teeth - but your dentist will more than likely poo poo the idea!

    Happy days...

  26. Delwyn: That is really interesting - and scarey. Most doctors who have not opened up to alternative and integrative medicine will 'poo-poo', as you say, anything they have not yet heard of . . . We really have to do our own research.

    My daughter did so much research on her form of cancer and just informed me today that a doctor was unaware of some Swedish advances in the treatment of her form of cancer - is now going to sit on a panel with him at a conference about this carcinoid cancer, here in Montreal. So some are open and willing to learn from their patients. I find that SO encouraging.

    I just had a root canal that still has a vague ache after six months - - now I am wondering what other havoc it could be causing? Does that doctor recommend having the tooth completely removed? Very interesting. Thank you.

  27. Bonnie I love your mother. My mom use to give us a mustard and bread plaster and that thing really worked.

    Love Renee xoxo

  28. Renee: I had totally forgotten that wettened, soft bread was the medium which held the mustard in a mustard plaster. Thank you for the reminder - and the memory - once I read what you wrote I can recall seeing my mother make one for my sister.

    I love how we help and support and inform each other on these blogs!!

  29. These are lovely, Bonnie, and I wish I'd known of the one that staves off flu a few days ago, before my daughter was diagnosed with H1N1!

    I grew up with hot water bottles, too, and have allowed myself in adulthood to take one to bed EVERY NIGHT in the winter. It's red, just like the one in your photo.

    Thank you as usual for your thoughtful and kind comments on my blog this week. I appreciate them, and you.


  30. Sallymandy: Oh dear, so she does have H1N1. I'm sorry to hear that. Is it like a normal flu and how is she doing? Hope you don't get it.

    I appreciate our connection too Sallymandy.

  31. More than the actual remedies you included in your marvellous post today, I loved your mother's tale. How she was able to cope and find a solution to her financial limitations. Many thanks for sharing this snippet of your past.

    Greetings from London.

  32. I think you mum was very sweet to sit beside the cold bath and offer you encouragement.

    for a sore throat my mum would make home made lemon and honey drinks.

  33. Reading your blog, I was so relaxed, my back, front and two sides felt so good. Then I read about the cold on your back, ooooo my back is still tingling.
    I used the hot water bottle to keep my feet warm, and for cramps (never ran a temp)do remember the vicks and a wash clothe attached to nighty, I use vicks everynight, a comfort thingy. I have had so many root canals. I have to go to the dentist this morning, going to ask.

  34. Fascinating Bonnie. And the remedies seem very practical.

    While not a "home remedy" my memories of my mothers approach to colds was being lathered in Vicks Vapor Rub.

    I can't even type the words without the memories of the scent surrounding me.

  35. My family still practices all the old family remedies handed down from great grandmothers. Growing up in Iowa back when winters were really bad and heating was handled with wood stoves, I suffered from severe 'croup'. Anyone who has had this knows how bad it hurts. My Mother's remedy for this ailment (which the old country doctor could never seem to help) was to finely mince an onion and sprinkle it with sugar. In a bit the sugar draws out the moisture in the onion. This juice was then administered to me by the teaspoonful. It would break the croup and ease the pain every time.

    Wonder when we really decided that synthetically made drugs were better than natural homemade remedies? Of course pharmaceuticals have a very necessary place in our health system but there are those times when simple treatments are better. I'll take sweet onion juice every time over antibiotics.

    Loved your post, thanks for sharing.

  36. These are very interesting and I have never hear about the bath. I think we should all exchange our grandmother's remedies thru our blogs. We might all learn some fabulous stuff.

  37. Cuban: I should write a book about my mother. She was superbly funny and the first part of her life with my father was full of adventure - and then she became a religious zealot - and that was an interesting ride too!

    Thanks so much for recognizing her.

  38. Liss: Oh yes, the essential hot lemon! My mother was a good parent.

  39. Remistuff: What would we do without Vicks? And yes, Delwyn's info about the danger of 'dead teeth' left in our head is a little unsettling for those of us who have had them!

  40. Barry: Seems like it is a common 'scent' from childhood for a lot of us.

  41. C Hummell Kornell: Yes, when did we begin to put all our confidence in industry to be the solution to our problems and our main 'provider' - one answer is when our families became urbanized in order to make a living.

    I'm going to try your onion and sugar remedy the next time I have a cough!

  42. Turquoise: Funny, I always think of sitz baths as being very European - but perhaps they originate more in the scandanavian and slavic countries.

    You didn't share your families' home remedies???

  43. Oh I thought of another remedy. When your ring is stuck on your finger you can spray a little windex and it slides off.

  44. I was raised on home remedies as far as I can remember..My mother who is From southern France had all sorts of herbs for any type of illness, hot compresses were very popular with her..fresh beet juice was given in spoonfuls when we had a flu to strenghten our imunune system..garlic also was used on wounds and taken to fight infections....her mother too was very much into herbal healings...doctors were a last resort in my house...

  45. Marlene: And look at you now! Beautiful and healthy - an advert for home remedies!

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