August 22, 2009

An Impractical Cure for a Cough

I've had a nasty cough this week. It's either an allergy attack, or it's a mild cold being aggravated by the hot dirty air that's been blanketing Boston.

I'm a firm believer in modern medicine, but out of curiousity I looked through some of my folklore books for an old-fashioned cure. Here's the best (meaning most convoluted and impractical) one I found, from Eva Speare's 1932 book New Hampshire Folk Tales. It's technically for whooping cough, but sometimes that feels like what I have! It's also another case of horse magic, which I wrote about before.

If a child had whooping cough, it was believed that if you saw a man riding a piebald horse and you should ask him for a remedy, if his instructions were followed the child would be cured.
So, a woman whose children have whooping cough sees a man riding by on a piebald horse and asks him for a cure. He's confused, since he doesn't know anything about medicine (or about this piebald horse superstition). He says:

Er, hang it, I don't know. Take a harrow tooth and steep it in skim milk.

Huh. I was a little puzzled when I first read this because: 1. I didn't know what a harrow tooth was, and 2. I was surprised they had skim milk in the 19th century. I found out that a harrow is a farm implement that is used to pull up weeds (a little bit like a plough), and a tooth is one of the blades.

So, the man on the piebald horse is basically instructing the woman to take a piece of a farm implement that's been dragged through the dirt behind a horse, stick it in milk, and (I suppose) make her kids drink the milk. This seems like it would make the children sicker, but according to the story it works. The kids are cured of their cough.

I'm going to stick to cures I can purchase at Walgreens, but I suppose they didn't have decongestants 150 years ago.

1 comment:

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the post, Peter! Ah New England remedies!