Remedies for cold/flu as old as the disease

Special to the EagleHerald Policemen in Seattle wore masks made by the Red Cross during the influenza epidemic in 1918.


The current flu season is the talk of the town. There aren’t many families in the M&M area who have been lucky to escape the virus.

Government health experts say the flu is worse than normal, starting earlier and covering a broader region of the country. Thousands of people were hospitalized with flu symptoms before the new year was ushered in, and the momentum is stabilized.

Health professionals are concerned because of the early start. They say the flu season usually peaks in January and February.

Modern-day medicine is unparalleled when comparing it to the health practices of previous generations. People didn’t travel years ago like they now do, and transmitting disease wasn’t as risky as contemporary times. Our ancestors, however, never had the health safety nets and the phenomenal advances in medicine and treatment like the patients of today.

Nor did they have Medicare, Medicaid and the private insurance plans to support their needs. And the nation’s population was smaller.

So how did our ancestors deal with the common cold and the flu with fewer doctors, nurses and other health care professionals, and far less medications and other tools?

I turn to the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 that staggered the U.S. and the rest of the world. According to The World Almanac, the sickness killed 20 million people worldwide, including 548,000 in the U.S. alone. Thousands of men died from the flu while serving in the armed forces in World War 1 (1917-1918), the curse continuing well into 1919 after the war had ended on Nov. 11, 1918.

In the spring of 1918, a deadly new strain of influenza appeared within an Army training grounds in Kansas. U.S. soldiers were believed to have carried the virus to Western Europe when they went there to fight in the war. The epidemic peaked in the fall of 1918.

Many of the patients infected with the flu developed complications from pneumonia and died within days after the symptoms appeared.

Many readers have stories to tell how the flu and pneumonia impacted their ancestors. Consider, too, the life expectancy rate at birth in 1920 was 53.6 for males and 54.6 for females. The life expectancy rate is now 75-plus for males and 80-plus for females.

Doctors made house calls in the 1918-1919 flu season, but the number of hospital beds and medical clinics were minimal, travel conditions were primitive and there were no rescue squads making home visits.

A Page One news article in the Menominee Herald-Leader during the flu crisis encouraged druggists to conserve stocks of Vick’s Vaporub because it was needed in the “flu districts.” The article further noted that druggists (their common identity then) were “18,000 gross” behind in meeting orders of the famous Vick’s product. Three million jars had been shipped the previous month.

I don’t know how effective Vick’s Vaporub was in treating flu symptoms in 1918, but I know it was a favorite remedy at our house in the 1930s when I was a little runt. My mother would apply hot, wet cloths over the throat, chest and back between the shoulder blades to open the pores. A heavy layer of Vaporub was then applied over the skin and the area covered with hot-flannel cloths.

The same routine was recommended for head and chest colds.

Additionally, local public health officers (physicians) recommended people coat their nasal passages with a weak solution of Menthol in liquid petroleum as a protective treatment.

Advertisements for home remedies filled the local newspapers for the treatment of other ailments. They may bring chuckles now, but they were appealing to people in need at the time.

The one that caught my attention was this ad: “Sanitary science has made rapid strides of untold blessing to humanity, and untiring research calls for drinking a glass of warm water each morning before breakfast, mixed with a teaspoon of limestone phosphate to wash the stomach liver and bowels of the previous day’s indigestible waste.”

The advertisement further noted that people who awoke in the morning with a splitting headache, stuffy nose, foul tongue, nasty breath and acid in the stomach will feel “fresh as a daisy” if they practiced the hot water-limestone routine.

Lydia E. Pinkham’s vegetable compound was the go-to fix for women who awoke with fatigue and rattling nerves. For women who began a new day “when your head feels like a basket of broken bottles,” it was recommended they try Beecham’s Pills.

Sloan’s Liniment had its place on local drug store shelves. Rubbing the liniment in areas of the pain would relieve the discomfort and “soothe the nerves.”

Dr. W.B. Caldwell’s “Syrup Pepsi” was recommended as a “perfect laxative.” The medicine was available in 50-cent or one-dollar bottles. A free trial bottle was offered by writing Dr. Caldwell at his Illinois address.

How about a “Mud Bath” for curing rheumatism? Waukesha Moor Bath Co. advertised its specialty in local newspapers. The Mud Baths “promised wonderful results in a very short time.” The treatment, according to the advertisement, was also good for diabetes, Bright’s Disease, gallbladder problems, neuritis and lumbago.

At the turn of the 20th century, a major medicine company chose Menominee to manufacture its line of health products. A man named Noel Touchette had a large base for selling his “Touchette Remedies” in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and the Dominion Republic.

A promising young physician was to serve as president and general manager of Touchette Medicine Co. and was to be associated with the owner in the “manufacture and preparation, on the most scientific basis, of all the company’s specialties.”

The “young physician” was never identified and the company’s existence in Menominee was shortlived.