“While We are Housebound” — Medical Advice and Remedies

“The proper way to carry an unconscious person” from ‘Ein Freund in Noth,’ New York, 1898

As we eagerly await a vaccine and effective treatments for the COVID-19 virus, it is easy to forget how much has changed in the field of medicine in the last 100–150 years. At a time when there were neither vaccines nor antibiotics, people often had to be their own doctors. This is reflected in the many medical advice books, including several “Rathgeber” in The Max Kade Institute Library,  publications that offer advice for the maintenance of health and the treatment of a multitude of illnesses and injuries. Read the article by Kevin Kurdylo in the Spring 2003 Max Kade Institute Newsletter on “Medical Advice Books for German Americans.” (pages 8 and 9)

Herbal remedies and homeopathy were particularly popular among German Americans. The MKI Library includes volumes such as

  • Herbs in Dr. Chase’s Recept-Buch und Haus-Arzt, oder praktische Lehren für das Volk, 1890

    Gesunder Körper durch Heilkräuter: Winke und Ratschläge über Heilung von Krankheiten. (A Healthy Body Through Medicinal Herbs: Tips and Advice for the healing of diseases), Hammond, IN: Hammond Book, [undated] Co.,

  • and Homöopathischer Familien-Arzt für Familien, Farmer,Reisende, Missionäre, Pioniere,und Laien im Allgemeinen. (Homeopathic Family Physician for Families, Farmers, Travelers, Missionaries, and the General Public)Chicago: Deutsche Homöopathische Central Apotheke, 1887.

German Americans were also interested in American medical advice books, such as the popular Dr. Chase’s Recept-Buch und Haus-Arzt, oder praktische Lehren für das Volk (Dr. Chase’s Receipt Book and Household Physician, or Practical Knowledge for the People, Ann Arbor, Michigan). All three editions were translated into German. Click here for the third edition in German (1890) and here for the English original (1885).

In addition, health advice regularly appeared in German-American papers and magazines. In its August 11, 1880, issue, Der Deutsche Correspondent from Baltimore, for example, suggests that beef extract is a marvelous remedy against malaria, and that sarsaparilla, “a plant from Honduras,” should be used to treat psoriasis and as a “blood cleanser.”  There were also advertisements for miracle medicines, ointments, and treatments that promised to cure anything from arthritis to yellow fever. Check out

  • Dr. J. Conzelman’s Husten Syrup “Nothing is Better, Nothing is Safer against Whooping Cough. Thousends of families, including many in Gasconade County bear witness to the miraculous healing power” (Hermanner Volksblatt, Hermann, MO, January 17, 1919)
  • and St Jacobs Oil: The best remedy against rheumatism, frostbite, gout, back pain, displaced joints, stiff neck, fresh wounds and cuts, neuralgia, toothache, burns, dry skin, and all other pains that require an ointment. Farmers and ranchers will find St. Jacobs Oil to be an unsurpassed remedy for all that ails their livestock. (Freie Presse für Texas, April 22, 1892)

Occasionally, advertisements had the appearance of regular newspaper articles, such as a page-long piece with the title “Ein interessantes Stück Geschichte” (An interesting piece of history), which appeared in Der Deutsche Correspondent on February 17, 1918.  It tells the story of  “old Dr. Peter Farney, who was a child of nature,” who discovered the “perfect mixture of herbs,” which supposedly helped with any ailment and pain imaginable from anemia to torn ligaments. The concoction was sold as Dr. Fornis Alpenkräuter, which was the German-language label for Dr. P. Farney & Sons (Chicago) herbal cure.

Some of the most prominent ads in German-American publications, complete with testimonials and images, were for Perunaa patent medicine that claimed to “provide protection against the ills of winter,” specifically “Grippe,” the flu or “grip.” In the early 20th century, Peruna was one of several patent medicines that were sued for making false claims and engaging in misleading advertising. The “miracle medicine” was found to be mostly water, 28% alcohol, and very few other identifiable ingredients. When Prohibition went into effect, Peruna and similar “medicines” surged in popularity.

Since effective medication was lacking in so many cases, nutrition-based treatments were very popular. German-American cookbooks included entire sections on “Krankenkost” (meals for sick people), such as these examples from the Praktisches Kochbuch für die Deutschen in Amerika, Brumder, Milwaukee, 1899:

  • Dietary plan for people with small pox: Since the patient is losing so much energy during illness, it is recommended to introduce nutritious foods as soon as possible. After the 12th day, when the pox begin to dry and the fever subsides […] the patient should drink beef broth at least once a day. For lunch offer him roasted, white meat (young chicken or veal) with applesauce. […] In the evening serve fish such as trout, pike, or sturgeon. […] However this diet should not last too long, since it will not provide enough energy. After a few days switch to starchy foods, red-meat roasts with gravy, and desserts […], especially chocolate.
  • Dietary plan for people with measles: During the fever phase offer a lot to drink, […] especially fresh, cool, water and acidic liquids […] such as […] a mixture of two ounces vinegar with two pints water and a little sugar. […]. Soothe a throat infection with linden flower tea. […] For lunch, offer low fat smoked ham and bread rinds, for breakfast: milk mixed with water, for supper: milk soup. […] When the rash appears, red wine is the best remedy. Offer it fifteen minutes after meat was served. Adjust the dosage to the age of the patient, but don’t be too cautious.

And check out these recipes from Dr. Chase: 

We hope that you are all well and in no need of any of these remedies. Have a wonderful summer and stay healthy!