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Old Fashioned Home Remedies; Health Care “Back Then”

Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress

In the 1940s and 50s, calling the doctor to come out to your house or heading to a hospital could be difficult in rural Virginia. So a lot of parents used old fashioned home remedies to treat their children’s’ ailments.

As part of our occasional oral history series, Robbie Harris has this look back.


Jessica Taylor is an assistant profestor of oral and public history at Virginia Tech. She sat down with people from some of Blacksburg, Virginia's oldest families, from the Prices Fork area. She asked them about what school was like back then, and how did healthcare work in when they were in school.

 “Well, there was always some kind of elixir somewhere and plenty of rest,” Joyce Slusser said.

Palmer Price recalls his parents would "Put a drop of lamp oil on a spoonful of sugar" and swallow it. "Remember that?"

“That was for sore throats,” Slusser chimes in. “And Horehound candy and whiskey. My mother kept a little jar of whiskey and a Horehound candy stick. It was real hard when it went down. If you had a cough, she’d give you a teaspoon full of that and it was awful.” 

 Price  laughs, “I was grown before I figured out you couldn’t go to bed without Vick’s Salve rubbed on your

That got a knowing laugh from the group who came to tell their stories, including Ronnie Alls who recalls, his parents gave him mustard plaster for measles.

 “Far as I know, it was just a rag with mustard all over it and they stuck it right on the back and I have no idea why.” Joyce Slusser remembers those too. “I think there’s more in that than just mustard.” 

 “Yeah, there was.” Says Palmer Price.

No one could recall what it was.

But, Jessica Taylor says,  "Parents from that era strongly supported the latest science about childhood diseases they could not treat at home. Measles and polio vaccines were distributed at schools back then.Wythe County in southwestern Virginia had the worst outbreak per capita in the country."

Slusser remembers “going to the health department in Christiansburg and getting polio shots.

"Was that where everybody went?

Some people nodded yes.

Phyllis Price recalls “standing in line with all those kids in that church. I went to first grade across the street in this brick building and they marched us all over to that that church and we went down in the basement and we went through those lines and they stuck us with polio vaccine."

“Years later," She adds, we went to Blacksburg High School, which they’ve torn down with the Main Street, and got sugar cubes with the polio vaccine. Remember that?”

 And people seemed to know about the idea of 'herd immunity' when it came to infectious diseases going around. “back then we had measles and mumps and chickenpox.” Says Slusser.  “It wasn’t anything for some family to come into your house so their kids could get exposed and it would be over with on purpose."

And again the call and response; "Remember that?"  Followed by uh-huhs and nodding of heads.

"Well, what is this scar that we all have? I mean, every one of us have a scar on our left arm”  from those vacines.

 Childhood vaccinations are a strong memory for a lot of people and parents were determined to get their children protected.

 “They said we’re going here and you’re getting this!”

 And Ronnie Alls remembers the parents’ tag line.  “It’s not gonna hurt!”

That was Joyce Slusser, Palmer Price and Ronnie Alls, and Phyliss Price, reminiscing for the Virginia Tech Oral history project.

VT Stories is a Project at Virginia Tech that’s collected more than 200 oral histories since it began in 2016.

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.