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  • Chaska Historical Society

Illnesses and Remedies

from 'Will you live to be 100? A Retrospective on Health and Wellness in Chaska'

Spanish Flu:

Mortality rate in civilians highest among pregnant women (23%- 37%) and people between the ages 20 – 40 (40%) with the peak rate at age 28. People under age five and over 65 also experienced a high mortality rate. Native Alaskans were also disproportionately affected and some of their villages were totally wiped out.

Symptoms: sudden fever, aches, sore throat, headache, difficulty breathing.

Treatment: 1918 supportive care, aspirin, quinine, ammonia, turpentine, topical rubs, bloodletting and Bovril (a thick salty meat extract). Fresh air and sunshine were also recommended.

Prevention: bags of camphor tied around the neck, isolation and masks.


Spanish Flu:

National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, NIH.

Pan American Health Organization, Purple Death: The Great Flu of 1918 – PAHO/WHO

University of Washington Libraries,

Soft Drink Cures:

Coca- Cola: In the 19th Century Coca Cola was advertised as a brain tonic, cure for nervous affections, sick headache, neuralgia and melancholy. It was also touted as the Intellectual Beverage and Temperance Drink.

John Pemberton, a pharmacist and inventor of patent medicines sold the first Coca-Cola at Jacobs’ Pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia in 1886. It was originally sold as a cure for most ailments. It was made from extracts of coca leaves (which contained a very minimal amount of cocaine) and kola nuts, which were rich in caffeine. It was also sold as a fountain drink. In 1903 the coca was removed from the Coca-Cola formula.

7 Up:

7 Up was placed on the market in 1929 by the Howdy Corporation in St, Louis, Missouri and was named Bib Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda. It contained lithium citrate, which was a drug used to treat patients with mental health problems.

No one knows for sure why it was renamed 7Up. It is thought that the element lithium has an atomic mass of 7 or that 7 Up contained 7 ingredients.

Lithium citrate was removed from 7Up in 1948 when it was banned by the Food and Drug Administration.

Dr Pepper:

Dr. Pepper is the oldest of the name brand soft drinks in the U.S. It was first sold in 1885 in Waco, Texas. Charles Alderton, a pharmacist, is credited with creating Dr. Pepper. Customers at the soda fountain soon referred to the drink as Waco. It was originally sold as a health drink. The origin for the name Dr Pepper is unknown.

Early advertisements claimed Dr Pepper would aid the digestion, and restore “vim, vigor and vitality”. An ad from 1913 claimed that drinking Dr Pepper would promote the building of cells that are broken down by fatigue. Caffeine was added to Dr Pepper in 1917 because it was found to be energizing.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s research found that people often had letdowns during the hours of 10:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. It was thought that sugar would provide the needed energy during these times. Dr Pepper utilized this research in its advertising to promote drinking Dr Pepper. By the 1950’s the slogan became “the friendly Pepper-Upper”.



(picture of woman drinking coca cola) Courtesy of Library of Congress, Today in History – May 8,

19th Century Coca-Cola advertisement/ Talking Drugs,

Encyclopedia Britannica, The Coca-Cola Company,

7 Up:

Picture of 7 Up bottle Courtesy of The San Mateo County Historical Association,

McGill University Office for Science and Society, 7Up: Originally an Antidepressant,


Wikipedia, Lithium citrate,

Doctor Pepper:

Picture of Dr Pepper bottle courtesy of East Texas Digital Archives, Stephen F. Austin State University, 1900’s “Thief Bottle” Jim Towns Dr. Pepper Collection,

DrPepper Museum,

Wikipedia, DrPepper,

A short note,

Mystery Illnesses:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries cures for dropsy were aimed at relieving fluid retention. Bloodletting and laxatives were most commonly used. There was little a physician could do for these patients.

The term dropsy is derived from a shortening of the Middle English word ydropsy meaning water.

The term catarrh is derived from Latin and Greek words meaning a “flowing down.”

Mustard plasters were considered a necessary part of every household in the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in rural and isolated areas. They were used for many injuries and diseases, including the common cold or catarrh. While many recipes existed for mustard plasters, they all contain ground mustard and flour mixed with water. The mixture is then wrapped in a flannel or other cloth and placed on the affected area. In the case of a cold this would be the chest. It was thought that the heat caused by the mustard mixture would draw out the poisons in the body.

Apoplexy is a rupture of an internal organ causing internal bleeding and the accompanying symptoms.

The term has come to mean being furious, such as becoming “apoplectic.”

The word apoplexy is derived from Greek, Latin and Old French words for “disable by a stroke, struck dumb”.



National Library of Medicine, Bloodletting as cure for dropsy: heart failure down the ages

Dropsy (n.)


NHS inform Catarrh,

Catarrh (n.)

Picture courtesy of Michigan State, MSU Campus Archaeology Program, In sickness and health: Dr. Sage’s Catarrh remedy bottle,

Brief History of Mustard Plasters,


Wikipedia, Apoplexy,

Apoplexy (n.)

Croup Remedies:

Medical care was scarce and expensive in the19th century. Most Americans self-diagnosed and self- treated. They were also very mobile due to immigration and emigration. Consequently, they often found themselves isolated and separated from family and friends with no one to offer advice on matters of cooking, household matters or care of the sick or injured.

19th century cookbooks offered answers to these concerns and questions. The authors would write in a style as if they were your friend, teacher or confidante offering recipes for cooking but also advice on how to set up a sick room, how to care for the invalid, cookery for invalids and medical receipts (recipes) or remedies.


Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, By Mrs. A.P. Hill, Facsimile Edition, APPLEWOOD BOOKS, Bedford, Massachusetts

Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, Compiled from Original Recipes 1877, APPLEWOOD BOOKS, Bedford, Massachusetts

The Making of the Modern American Recipe, by Helen Zoe Veit, Smithsonian Magazine,

In the 1800’s, Sick People Would Consult Cookbooks Before Doctors, Need to bake a pie and cure consumption? By Lauren Young, October 28, 2016, Atlas Obscura,

The Medicine Show:

The Medicine shows became popular in the late 19th century near the turn of the century, especially in rural areas where there was little entertainment and a scarcity of medical care. They pitched their own patent medicines. The only patent of a patent medicine was the label and the shape of the bottle. If the medicine had been patented the ingredients had to be included in the patent. Most of these ingredients were secret and contained alcohol, opium, cocaine, laudanum and fruit, herbal and vegetable ingredients, but mostly alcohol. These medicines cured everything from headache to cancer and everything in between. Of course, after taking these medicines people felt much better.

Some of the traveling shows were small time “doctors” or “professors” with a horse and wagon. The big shows, however, had multiple tents and entertainment.

Unfortunately, many of the big shows usurped the identity of Indians in order to sell their product. Many medicines were named after Tribes such as the Kickapoo Medicine Company, that sold “Sagwa” products. These medicines were sold by white men dressed in costumes with Native American headdresses. Their shows included Indian dancing, Indian Villages and testimony by “Indian Chiefs” and others. The owners of these companies were aware that anything with the word “Indian” in it would sell. It was thought, at the time, that Indians knew secrets of natural remedies unknown to the white man. Carver County towns had at least four medicine shows in the area between 1890 and 1900. At least two of those sold “Indian” cures.

It wasn’t until 1938 that all ingredients and all relevant facts of the patent medicines had to be revealed.


NYU Dept. of Media, Culture, and Communication, Traveling Medicine Show,

The Great American Medicine Show, David Armstrong and Elizabeth Metzger Armstrong, Prentice Hall, 1991.

American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, Traveling Medicine Shows,

Showmen’s Museum,

Snake Oil Details:

Snake oil was sold widely at the medicine shows, along with other cures. The original snake oil was brought by Chinese laborers working on the railroad. The Chinese snake oil was applied topically and did help with joint pain. American medicine show “healers” created their own concoctions, most of which did not contain any snake oil.

When the U.S. government in 1915 analyzed the ingredients of snake oil they found none. This is when a fraudulent salesperson became known as a snake oil salesman.

Snake oil was introduced to the U.S. by Chinese railroad workers who immigrated here between the years 1849 and 1882. Among the medicines they brought with them was snake oil. This oil was actually made from the Chinese water snake, which was rich in omega-3 acids and did help reduce inflammation. It was used topically. The Chinese workers shared their snake oil with American workers who were amazed at the effectiveness of the oil on their joints.

American “healers” wanted to make their own snake oil, but had to use rattlesnakes, which was not very effective. Most of the early snake oils contained no snake oil at all and contained ingredients such as melted down beef fat, red pepper and turpentine. Other popular snake oils contained white gasoline and wintergreen.

Patrons of medicine shows highly valued snake oil because it was exotic and mysterious, and bought large quantities of the product.

In 1915 the US government analyzed the ingredients of a popular snake oil remedy. It contained mineral oil, capsicum, turpentine, some camphor and some beef fat. The government took the owner of the company to court for misbranding and misrepresenting their product. Since that court case snake oil has become synonymous with one who sells fraudulent products.


NPR, A History of ‘Snake Oil Salesmen”,

The Great American Medicine Show, David Armstrong and Elizabeth Metzger Armstrong, Prentice Hall, 1991.

The Pharmaceutical Journal, The history of snake oil,

Toothache Details:

Dental infections left untreated can increase the mortality rate to 40%. Death can occur in a few weeks or months.

By 1871 some traveling dentists traveled with a folding dental chair, instruments and a foot driven engine for operating a dental drill, which was much more effective than the hand operated drill. By the mid 1800’s fillings were made from gold, silver, platinum or lead amalgams.

As modern dentistry has evolved and with the development of antibiotics death from dental infection has become quite rare. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1963 that endodontics was recognized as a dental specialty.

Because of the scarcity of medical care people had to self-diagnose and self-medicate. The general store sold a wide range of “medicines” from cures for sore throat, cough, tuberculosis, heart disease, constipation, diarrhea, and pain. Some of the medical products sold at the general store did alleviate some symptoms for headache, pain, diarrhea and constipation but they offered no real cure for an actual disease.

The general stores sold what were the popular and well - advertised patent medicines and stocked them on their shelves. The patent medicine companies spent millions of dollars in advertising in newspapers, books, calendars, cookbooks and even made their own trading cards.


The Henry Ford, Shopping at an 1880s General Store, the

Forbes Health, At-Home Remedies for Toothache Pain,

Center for Disease Control, Patent Medicines,

Dental Abscess, Sanders JL, Houck RC. Dental Abscess,

“Dentists’ Disease”: A Brief History, Ronald Carlson, DDS,The International Academy of Biological Dentistry & Medicine,

Macaulay Museum of Dental History, Itinerant,


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