pediatric housecalls Robert R. Jarrett M.D. M.B.A. FAAP

Vintage Advice: Hair, Tuberculosis and Skin

One only needs to peruse the pages of an old medical text to see how much things have changed in the past 100 years.
Vintage ads for vintage remedies
Health Knowledge: 34 Departments Scientifically Illustrated is a vintage two-volume textbook containing the medical understanding of literally the worlds leading physicians and medical institutions (Yale, Cornell, the Royal College of Surgeons, etc.); and which represented the “best practices” of physicians – in 1919.

Remedies We Don’t Do Anymore

A recent fixation of people is watching television programs and movies about pioneering and subsistence living. Perhaps it unconsciously ties in with a belief that “nature knows best” about developing and sustaining life.

And perhaps that may be true for nature over its millions of years using natural selection; but, we must remind ourselves that human history isn’t that lengthy. I can tell you that, for the most part, the “practice of medicine” is what it is TODAY, based on current understanding no matter what our best intentions.

Any yearning for “the old ways” surely shouldn’t include medical care! Remedies and procedures used on patients back then were based on excruciatingly limited knowledge of life science and in many (if not most) cases were “WAGs” (wild ass guesses) even if they were done by scientists making them “SWAGs” (scientific wild ass guesses).

We’ve seen what the above-mentioned book had to say about Croup, Colds and Pregnancy. Now lets take a gander in the sections on Hair Care, Tuberculosis and Skin and Scalp.

Hair Care

The concept of “daily ablutions and attending to ones coiffure” were old-world concepts that had to be redefined when people found themselves with a whole lot less discretionary time on their hands while merely trying to survive. By the early 20th century however some of those longings for “civility” were coming to memory as life became a little less rigorous.

Marketing and merchandising (however legitimate) made numerous concoctions available based on herbs, alcohol and yes… our friend turpentine; which, as you saw in the last article was used in just about every concoction for just about everything.

1 – Brush hair for 8 minutes every morning and night

The nearly universal style of women’s long hair was definitely improved by brushing to distribute natural oils the full length of the hair – not to mention remove dust, pollution and any tiny critters seeking refuge. You’ve got to remember that back then hairbrushes were soft natural fiber and there was no cheap synthetic knock-offs. Without those rationale however, we realize that too much mechanical manipulation, especially with the synthetic brushes, can break the hair and even cause alopecia (the stuff falls out.)

2 – Use a tincture of pepper mixed with rosemary spirits to treat overly greasy hair

3 – Use rum mixed with sulfur to treat grey hair

4 – Use rum mixed with cologne and rose water to prevent alopecia

To quote the book we’ve been referencing: “no man or woman…should commence to have gray hair, if their scalps are healthy, before the age of fifty.” Of course that, for the most part, has been superseded with the understanding that much/most anything to do with hair growth and color is genetic and therefore impervious to concoctions.

There were two “foolproof” remedies for grayness; namely, daily rub into the scalp either: henna leaves steeped in boiling water or sulfur mixed with rum.

In fairness, the text does then give an entire section of instructions for hair-dyeing with the caveat:

5 – Elderly patients should avoid dyeing their hair for aesthetic reasons

“Elderly people,” the text advises, “would do well to think twice before dyeing their hair. In their case, dyed hair seems to emphasize the lines upon the face, and to give a greater appearance of age.”


The most important thing that nearly everyone knew in the early 20th century about the basically life-ending disease of Tuberculosis (Tb) was that: It is highly contagious! Rugged rural life gave less congestion and pollution but contained: cows – which could pass their Tb to humans. Removal to a sanitarium was an oft-used method to prevent spread.

1 – Encourage the selection of a suitable occupation

2 – Adopt an open-air mode of life

Crowded housing and poorly ventilated workplaces were responsible for most of its spread so it was good advice for everyone, not just those who were “weak-chested,” to avoid places where already infected individuals could spread the disease to you.

Those with “weak chests are not fit for occupations in closed and ill-ventilated rooms,” physicians advised. People at risk for, or with a family history of, TB were encouraged to adopt an outdoor or open-air lifestyle and occupation. Once you contracted Tb we now know that the reason you stayed out of congested public places was to prevent giving it to others not to improve your own health. The real reason it was healthier for someone with Tb to move to the country was that the air in cities (without pollution regulations and no-smoking sections) was a complete cesspool! People with ANY lung problems would gasp and die trying to breath it.

3 – Carry a wide-mouth flask to collect sputum

For some (especially men) with the disease, a very difficult habit to get in to was to NOT spit on the ground. They realized that whatever was causing the malady was spread by coming in contact with all the sputum produced in the disease.

Therefore, it was felt wise that those with TB carry a flask filled with a carbolic acid solution to collect and sterilize sputum – a much better approach.

4 – Segregate all cows with inflammation of the udders that the patient might come in contact with

Farmers and others coming into contact with cattle were cautioned to always be on the lookout for TB-infected udders; this seems smart, because bovine TB can be easily transmitted to humans.

Skin and Scalp

In medical school we had a professor who began “I can teach you everything you need to know about dermatology in one sentence: If it’s dry – wet it down; if it’s wet – dry it out.”

After looking at vintage medical texts, it doesn’t look like the basic concepts have changed much in the past 100 years – EXCEPT the methods we use to do it. We still wet them if they’re dry and dry them if they’re wet.

1 – Sour cream that has been buried in dirt overnight for dry skin

In the early 20th century, glycerine, tar and lard-based preparations were very popular and widely used to moisturize dry skin. All three are occlusive in nature and therefore, as we know now, hold in the bodies natural moisture – which is how they work. Treatments of today work the same way, just with different ingredients. [Although, just read the tiny print where they list the ingredients on the label sometime.]

One of the old-time approaches intrigues me: Scoop a half-cup of sour cream into a piece of flannel and tie it in a bundle with a sturdy string. Bury it overnight in a patch of loosely-packed ground, not recently contaminated by animal waste. Retrieve it and place the cream in a jar for use.

Ostensibly the cream was enriched with minerals from the earth during the “overnight soak” which aided in the healing. Right… somebody try this out and let me know how it works.

2 – Gunpowder and vinegar for ringworm

3 – A mixture of lard and ground cannabis (hemp, marijuana) for acne

Huh? From what we know now adding more occlusive grease and irritants to already greasy and irritated skin – well you do the math.

4 – Kerosene for lice

Lice and fungal skin conditions were treated with such compounds as kerosene, sassafras, and gunpowder and in all likelihood it was only the kerosene for lice which actually worked – UNLESS you got burned, which was also very common in children back then who were treated with these flammable liquids. [DON’T try this at home]

Today we use pediculicides, which are a whole lot safer and more effective.


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