Saturday, January 14, 2012

Stuffed Up

Head colds are the lowest depths of misery known to man.

In order to avoid getting them, wash your hands frequently, and gargle with saltwater. Should this prove to be belated advice, you can always do what the Victorians did. They were far too busy to let a headcold stop them from building canals and shoveling coal into steam engines and polishing silver and sewing gloves and smelting iron and beating natives and whipping children to let the sniffles stand in the way of progress. They did not have the option of calling in sick. Besides, it was far better to infect your co-workers than your family by staying at home. Well, it was for your family.

Curing a head cold was simple — all it took was a few ingredients found in any household medicine chest: camphor and smelling salts.

Camphor’s strong odor not only repels moths, but it is also a cough suppressant. Produced from Asian coniferous trees, it also found in high concentrations in both lavender and rosemary, which is one reason why they smell so pungent.

Sal Volatile comes from the Latin for volatile salt — in this case, ammonium carbonate, which when exposed to air releases ammonia gas. Anyone who has taken a whiff of bleach can attest that it certainly wakes you up. The gas stimulates the mucus membranes, causing you to breathe faster, hence its use as a smelling salt, used to revive people who have fainted. It used to be produced from the dry distillation of decomposed primate matter such as shaved deer horns (it was also known as Spirit of Hartshorn), and is sometimes still used as a leavening agent in place of baking soda. It can be found in Skoal tobacco.

Combine the two — that is, impregnate the Sal Volatile with the camphor — dissolve it in water, and you have an early version of Vick’s Vapor Rub in liquid form. If it didn’t exactly cure the underlying cold, it sure would make you feel like you’d been drinking jet fuel, keeping you at your plow or press or engine for as long as it took to get the job done.

A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes, Charles Elmé Francatelli, 1852

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