When People Used Opium to Calm a Fretful Child -- Museum Exhibit Musings

A friend recently sent me an email titled Why Our Great Grandparents Were Happier that looked at medicines popular at the end of the 19th and early 20th century that included everything from heroin to opium to marijuana to high quantities of alcohol. It is impossible to read the newspapers of the early 20th century without coming across advertisements for all kinds of medicines. Many of them are written as “articles” and have people telling of the benefits of the different products they have taken. This all got me thinking about what medicine was REALLY like in 1906-1913 in southern Alberta and Lethbridge.

There was formal medicine through the hospitals (and there were a wide variety of hospitals including isolation for contagious diseases, maternity and general hospitals) but there was also informal, folk medicine that people brought with them from all over the world. A few years ago I had the opportunity to collect home remedies from across southern Alberta. Some of these are incredibly funny. Some scientists and doctors could probably learn from. I certainly don’t recommend or endorse any of these remedies but include these two for their historical and archival interest.

Contagious Diseases

Put saxifrage in a small cotton bag which is then hung on a string around the neck. Saxifrage has a strong unpleasant odour. Saxifrage was used to ward off disease, especially during epidemics of communicable diseases. It was used whenever you were in contact with people at school or meetings. Rhea Martin says her “grandfather prepared this remedy for his children to wear to school or church as a protection from current diseases. It was probably effective because it kept people at a distance. My mother was required to wear this.”
Saxifrage is a plant (herb) that grows abundantly in dry, chalky pastures, and is very generally distributed over the country.


Arlie Bodnar says that sulfur mixed with molasses was used to “clean you out.”
Hilda Rogers, of Lethbridge, says her father swore by licorice powder as a cure for constipation. She says it worked well, though you didn’t want to use it too often.
Epsom salts and castor oil were also commonly used to cure constipation. They gave you great belly aches but they worked.

Did certain home remedies come from particular countries? Can they be linked to immigration? Or are they more representative of the time period and not of specific cultures? But what about, as mentioned earlier, some of those various now illegal substances? Were they actually being used? And were there concerns around them?

This joke from the 17 June 1913 Lethbridge Herald highlights some of the issues regarding what was being used in medicine. Keep in mind, though, that these issues were not just related to 1906-1913 and paregoric was available over-the-counter in the States until the 1970s.

The First Born

Young Father: “I am amazed, shocked, my dear, to hear you say you intend to give the baby some paregoric. Don’t you know paregoric is opium, and opium stops the growth, enfeebles the constitution, weakens the brain, destroys the nerves, and produces rickets, marasinus, consumption, insanity, and death?”

Young Mother: “Horrors! I never heard a word about that. I won’t give the little darling a drop – no, indeed. But something must be done to stop his yelling. You carry him awhile.”

Father (after an hour’s steady stamping with the squalling infant): “Where in thunder is that paregoric?”

Should medicine (the type of information provided here) be part of the 1906-1913 exhibit? Does it warrant becoming a theme in the exhibit?