More than snake oil: Many frontier medical remedies still in use today
By Jason Wheeler
There are certain images that come to people’s minds when they think of what medicine was like on the frontier.
Liz Jarrett said she thinks about when people would go around with carts and try to sell medicine they made, while Kim Sides said she thinks of herbs and berries.
At the same time, Sherry Miller said she thinks of people dying from things that are simple to take care of in the present day.
“They were not as advanced as we are,” Miller said.
As it turns out, medicine on the frontier involved quite a bit more than a huckster named “Honest John,” peddling snake oil out of a wagon, the product being not much more than diluted alcohol. Sides wasn’t far off either.
“The treatments of medicine back then were a little different than today,” Sharlot Hall Museum volunteer Bi Sallomi said, adding that they consisted of the three premises of “bleed, blister and purge.”
At the far end of the museum’s West Gallery, Sallomi stood with the contents of a typical medicine box that a housewife would have in that era. It was all a part of Sharlot Hall Museum’s Arizona History Adventure, which featured how pioneers treated sickness on the frontier. Some of those remedies included Chamomile tea, ginger and charcoal for upset stomachs and poisonings, lemonberry for a dose of Vitamin C to treat or prevent scurvy, and a plant called Shepherd’s Purse.
They would make a tea out of Shepherd’s Purse for women who were getting ready to deliver a baby because it would stop internal bleeding, Sallomi said.
“After you had a baby, they wanted you to drink the tea so you wouldn’t bleed to death,” she said. “That was a common way to die back then.”
The frontier version of cough syrup was to take equal parts sugar and water, boil it until the sugar was dissolved and add raw onions, Sallomi said. Wild cherry bark and slippery elm were other cough remedies.
For any illness you didn’t know the cure for, there was a book that would show what was needed to take care of almost anything, she said.
You would read up on what to do and hope you had the right ingredients or the right herbs to get rid of whatever it was.
However, while the methods of treatment were different back then, a lot of medicines used on the frontier are still being used today, she said.
“You can apply, actually, the same things they used then to today,” Sallomi said.
For instance, charcoal pills for poisonings or an upset stomach are readily available over the counter; medicines extracted from the Foxglove plant are used for heart conditions, and Echinacea comes from the purple coneflower, she said.
Further, Charles Henry Phillips made his Milk of Magnesia in the late 1800s, and Vicks VapoRub has had the same formula since 1890, Sallomi added.
Bayer also started making aspirin after experimenting with components related to the salicylic acid chemically converted from white willow bark — and the formula has not changed since.