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Dekker: A cure for what ails you

Tinley Park Historical Society volunteer Kurt Dekker portrays snake-oil salesman peddling his wares. | Supplied Photo

Tinley Park Historical Society volunteer Kurt Dekker portrays a snake-oil salesman peddling his wares. | Supplied Photo

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Updated: February 21, 2013 6:13AM



There is nothing worse than that sinking feeling when you realize you’re coming down with something. When it hits, your daily life comes to a halt.

This winter has started with a bang, with a flu that is taking its toll on so many people. Everywhere I go, someone is either out sick, recovering from or coming down with the flu.

And it’s not just here; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said most of the country is experiencing high levels of flu-like illnesses.

So far, I’ve been fortunate. They say there isn’t much you can do except ride it out. (Please don’t take this as advice; see a doctor if you need to.)

I’ve heard a lot of ideas about what to do once you get it, including hot tea, humidifiers, lots of liquids and the oft-mentioned Vicks VapoRub.

One of the most interesting home remedies I’ve heard is to cut an onion in half and set it out in your home. Supposedly, the onion has properties that will absorb germs in the house.

This got me wondering about what people did long ago, before antibiotics and modern medicines. I took a step back in time to our Tinley Park Historical Society to see what I could discover.

I learned a bit about the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed between 20 million and 50 million people worldwide. At that time, they had no idea where it came from or what it was.

That pandemic even took its toll on Tinley Park. Today, you still can see what was known as Potter’s Field in the Zion Lutheran Cemetery at 167th Street, between Central and Ridgeland avenues. Local victims of that flu epidemic were buried in the southeast section of the cemetery.

I discovered a “Guide to Good Health” booklet from 1919 filled with remedies of the day. It touted Rawleigh’s Medicated Ointment, which was made of menthol, camphor, eucalyptus oil and other “germicidal agents” that could be taken internally or applied externally to relieve colds and respiratory infections.

The Rawleigh Co. also sold a mustard ointment for congestion and chest colds, and the product boasted being far superior to mustard plaster poultices, turpentine and lard applications.

My favorite product was the company’s salve, which healed cuts, burns and bruises, and could be used on livestock! You don’t see that on many labels today.

I also discovered an advertisement for Paragoric, an opium-alcohol medication for soothing newborns.

It’s hard to imagine, but the Bayer company that we today know for aspirin actually developed heroin and coined its name. Heroin was promoted primarily for the relief of coughs, pain and diarrhea.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it seems that tinctures and tonics were the way to go. These curative elixirs were made from roots, berries and exotic extracts and claimed to cure everything from hair loss to malaria. They were promoted by reputable companies and “snake-oil” salesmen alike. Some contained as much as 90 percent alcohol. I imagine it did make you feel better, at least for a while.

In a book written about life during the Great Depression, I found more references to using onions as a cure for colds or flu. The book said frying yellow onions in goose grease and wearing it as a chest compress would relieve congestion and aches. Onions also were baked in the ashes of a fire all night, then eaten in the morning to relieve coughs and congestion.

Whether old wisdom, common sense or quackery, we sure have an interesting history of medicating ourselves.

We still have a lot of winter to go, so I think I might stock up on onions.



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