Flu Season Survival Tips From the 19th Century

by Jessica Leigh Hester

Think winter sucks when a stranger sneezes in your face on the subway? At least you can head to Duane Reade for a Z-pack. Our 19th-century brethren weren’t so lucky. In case crazy racism, gruesome battlefield surgeries, and panning for tiny pieces of gold weren’t sufficient bummers, they often took a DIY approach to medical treatments and household fixes. Because what could go wrong?

To deal with conundrums ranging from oozing sores to moth-chewed blankets, homemakers turned to domestic guidebooks — almanac-style compendiums brimming with detailed (albeit dangerous) solutions to tons of dilemmas. Want shiny locks? Dump some rum on your scalp. Got an open wound? Just slap some tar on it. These authors didn’t always get it right — I’m pretty convinced that fish skin does not impart a delicious taste to boiling coffee — but they sure gave it a try.

Since we’re in the clammy clutches of another polar vortex and another flu season, it’s time to dust off these tomes and mine them for pearls of (questionable) wisdom. Why reach for the Sudafed when you could try out a possibly-unsafe 19th-century remedy, instead? Spice up your life. Here’s how you’d be combating your phlegm, Victorian style.

Soothe A Sore Throat with Vinegar and Raw Eggs
In her 1829 book The Frugal Housewife, Lydia Maria Child, a badass social reformer, novelist, and journalist, waxed poetic about the healing powers of vinegar. If your throat’s feeling raw, she suggests, “inhal(ing) the steam of scalding hot vinegar through the tube of a tunnel.” (Like a bong, without the high.)

If you’ve got laryngitis, try chugging frothy eggs. The oddly-titled Things A Woman Wants to Know: An Edwardian Housewife’s Guide to Life advocates beating a fresh egg and thickening it with pulverized sugar. “Eat freely of this, and the hoarseness will soon be relieved,” the author promises. Foodborne illness, be damned.

Fight Your Fever with Malt Beer, Coffee, or a Jacket Made of Tree Bark
A convenient excuse to toss one back: “The constant use of malt beer, or malt in any way, is said to be a preservative against fevers,” Child claims. I am fine with this claim.

Another option, courtesy of Gunn’s Domestic Medicine (1832) is to spike your morning coffee with lemon or lime juice, and drink it on an empty stomach. Gunn was a big fan of this tactic. The writer noted, “in no instance in which the remedy was fairly tried did I ever know of it to fail of success.”

If you’re too sick to swig, you can just wrap yourself in a jacket lined with dog-wood, wild cherry, and swamp-poplar bark. It’s kind of like a cozy throw blanket, except itchy, and, you know, generally uncomfortable. But then again, did you ever hear a tree complain about the weather?

Ease Your Earache With Onions and Wool
A simple solution for sinus congestion giving you ear trouble: just shove an onion in there. (Technically, the onion should be boiled, and you only need to stick the piping-hot center into your helpless ear canal. Think of the little bulb as an edible Q-tip.) Wincing at the thought? There’s another option: cotton balls drenched in sweet oil and paregoric — a form of opium.

But Most of All, Just Stuff Your Face
When in doubt, self-medicate with doughnuts. My favorite passage from the Edwardian book:

In the winter season remember the necessity which exists for an increase in our fatty foods, and don’t neglect the advice to take plenty of fat in cold weather. This is a natural law of diet, and its observance will result in saving us from much illness.

Grab something deep-fried. It’s for your health.

Photo via digitalnc/flickr.

Jessica Leigh Hester is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor obsessed with quirky histories and forgotten places. She highly suggests that you get a flu shot. Follow her @jessicahester.