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Medicine in the ‘good old days’

Various medicines were used to ‘treat’ every ailment back in the 1800s. Some even used a contraption similar to a humidifier to breathe in vapors.

Nature’s Oil: Take 5-60 drops for your ailments. Medicine good for humans and horses.

Yes, good for horses and people. And 5-60 drops? That’s quite a range.

That’s just one example of medicine from the 1800s, medicine that men traveling through town would sell to townspeople to cure their ailments. There was also Cardui for women’s issues, Testacoids for men, Hamlin’s Wizard Oil liniment for aches and pains and Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil.

“This was pre-FDA, so they could be whatever you want,” Becker County Historical Society Director Amy Degerstrom said of medicines and the Food and Drug Administration.

That meant ingredients like turpentine, tar oil and lots of alcohol. Burma Vita, for example, had an alcohol content of 68 percent.

No wonder people thought they felt better after taking some medications, but they were rarely cured of any ailments.

The Becker County Historical Society is hosting Hidden History Happy Hour: For Your Health on Friday, June 13, to talk about these medicines and many more. You can learn the history of medicine in Becker County and maybe be a little surprised at what was considered “medicine” back then.

Another contraption used in the 1880s was the bleeder. The small square contraption with a dozen or so blades in it was used to slit people’s skin open and bleed them of their disease.

“They thought it was the best way to purify the blood,” Degerstrom said.

Instead, many times, people would bleed to death. First president George Washington died of being bled, she added.

And there was no regulation on bleeding either, of course.

Outside the barbershops, if the pole had red and white stripes, that meant the barber performed bleeds there.

“There was no regulation on who could do it,” she said.

Besides the crazy nostrums the traveling salesmen sold, a lot of older medicines were also natural. Herbs like fennel, birch bark and cinnamon were used to cure ailments.

Those natural cures also included cocaine, opium and cannabis, Degerstrom said.

“They maybe didn’t cure you, but you felt better,” she said with a laugh.

After the Civil War, badly wounded soldiers were given morphine to control the pain, and in return became addicted to the drug.

So when they came home to their families, many showed the negative side of addiction and became abusive. To cope, the women had their own drug – cocaine. It was considered a nerve tonic.

Invented in the late 19th century, Coca Cola, now a popular soft drink, was first made with cocaine and used as medicine and a substitute to the addictive morphine.

All of the aforementioned drugs were patent drugs during their time. Some people may be surprised as to what went into medicines, but the concept still remains the same today.

“Patent medicines were like over-the-counter drugs now,” Degerstrom said.

For example, diet pills were sold over the counter and used for years before people found out they caused irreversible damage to the heart, bringing death in some cases.

Then came the era of epidemics.

In the 1930s, the state issued signs for people to hang, warning others of typhoid fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, glanders (similar to mumps) and more.

The posters in this area would have the warning printed in both English and Finnish.

Then can sanitariums and infirmaries. Becker County’s infirmary stood where the fairgrounds are today, and once closed, the building became a 4-H building.

Those who became sick were locked away in the infirmaries because doctors weren’t sure what was causing the illness but they realized it was exposure to others with the same symptoms. Many died of dehydration.

Degerstrom said she has found, and will share Friday night, stories of families in Becker County who would lose four to five people in one day to illnesses.

When electricity became available, “modern” medicine was introduced, and along with that came electroshock therapy and insulin shock therapy.

Degerstrom will also touch on the rash of grave robbing during that time. Doctors wanted to study the deceased people to understand the diseases better, but no one would donate their bodies to science at that time.

While there was no regulation on medicine back then, there was little regulation on doctors as well.

Before medical schools were established, many doctors simply apprenticed with other men who served as doctors.

“Medical degrees weren’t required to start a practice,” Degerstrom said.

And back then, doctors made house calls because there were no hospitals and clinics.

In 1881, Dr. Weeks established the first practice in Becker County. He practiced out of his house, which was located where Essentia Health St. Mary’s now sits.

Degerstrom said she thinks medicine, like many things, is part of a cycle. While natural herbs were popular in the 1800s, holistic and natural treatments are popular again.

“When you hear the history of it, it’s not as crazy as we think it is,” she said of medicine. “How are people going to see us in 100 years? Will people look back on us and think, ‘they were nuts?’”

The Hidden History Happy Hour: For Your Health is Friday, June 13, in the museum, with doors opening at 7 p.m., and the program at 7:30.

Tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the door. BCHS members can get $10 tickets at the door as well.

The ticket will not only get you a wealth of information on medicine, it will also get you a free cocktail and food.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.