County of Brant Public Library Digital Collections
How are You Keeping? by Mel Robertson, from The Burford Times
Robertson, Mel, Author
Media Type
Item Type
From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mel Robertson wrote many articles for the Burford Advance and Burford Times on the history of Burford Township. This clipping contains the article "How are You Keeping?" which discusses peoples' attitudes towards health and medical treatments in the early 1900s. The article may not have been republished.

Newspaper clippings donated by Liz (Robertson) Brown; reprinted with permission from The Burford Times.
Date of Original
May 9, 1990
Local identifier
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.0834 Longitude: -80.49968
Provided by Liz Brown
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Protected by copyright: Uses other than research or private study require the permission of the rightsholder(s). Responsibility for obtaining permissions and for any use rests exclusively with the user.
Copyright Date
Copyright Holder
The Burford Times
Recommended Citation
Robertson, Mel. (1990, May 9). How are You Keeping?. Burford, Ontario: The Burford Times.
County of Brant Public Library
Agency street/mail address:
County of Brant Public Library (Paris Branch)
12 William Street
Paris, ON
N3L 1K7 | @brantlibrary
Full Text


How Are You Keeping? By Mel Robertson

The latter part of the 20th Century has become a time of great health consciousness. Almost every day health scientists report new discoveries and newspapers feature frightening and expensive treatments. On every side we see news items about people who are worried because their belly-buttons are not properly centred or that their ears are not cosmetically located. With equal frequency loudmouthed "experts" warn us that if we eat five tons of something every day we will either get cancer or become rooted to the earth. In the midst of all this fear-mongering, fancy "buzz words" and exotic treatments, have you ever wondered how our forebears managed to cope with the ills that "besat" (or is it "beset" or "besot") them?

In any discussion of our forebears' attitude toward health it is easy to fall into the trap of viewing things from the vantage point of modern facilities, modern science and modern thinking. It must be remembered that settlers did not enjoy the advantages of computers, fax machines, diagnostic facilities, telephone, radio and the Readers Digest. The lack of such facilities on the Burford Plain 150 years ago meant that people had to rely on their own native medical knowledge without professional help. Doctors were widely spaced, hard to summon and poorly educated and only in extreme cases did people seek their assistance.

In addition to the above we must consider the different attitudes towards health that prevailed in pioneer communities. For example, pain was thought to be part of growing up and children were expected to endure days and nights of severe tooth-ache without flinching. Tooth-ache was expected to be "suffered-out" with only the occasional application of a bag of ginger to the offending tooth. In extreme cases when a child's crying kept parents awake, a distant dentist might be sought or someone would dust off an old pair of pilers and pull the tooth. Even dentists could not be relied upon to treat a tooth problem properly and I can recall an incident in the 1920s when a Brantford dentist solved a tooth problem I had by breaking off the tooth with a not-too-clean finger that smelled of cheap cigars.

Another strange attitude that prevailed was that "you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die." This belief led to all sorts of problems such as the terrible cholera epidemics that devastated the Burford

area every summer from 1833 to 1866. The disease was attributed to loose morals, failure to attend church, low social standing and intemperance rather than to open cesspools and polluted drinking water. The casual attitude toward dirt and infection can be illustrated by a story told by the late Ruth Neff who was a local mid-wife and practical nurse in the early 1900s. Miss Neff told my mothei of an occasion when she was attending a birth at the home of a well-known and socially prominent farmer in about 1910. She said that shortly after the child was born the doctor permitted the farmer to climb on the side of the bed to congratulate his wife. When Miss Neff complained about the fact that his boots were covered with manure the doctor said that she was 'too fussy". Stories of a similar nature are not uncommon.

From the above I do not suggest, or imply, that Burford area people were ignorant, or dirty. Their attitude was no different from that which prevailed everywhere at the time. The fact that this attitude was wrong can be proved by the long lists of deaths that occurred among babies and young mothers at the time. Anyone checking the death registers of any old local church will be saddened by the lists of summer deaths and notes such as "baby dead and mother dying".

For the lack of medical facilities people had to rely on home remedies and whereas I do not recommend any of those mentioned in this article I record them as historical facts. Many go back to the mists of history and range through mystic dances to spells, charms, herbology and simple surgery. For example, the mediaeval treatment for battle wounds was a handful of spider webs from a manure pile. This applied a primitive form of penicillin and, at the risk of tetanus, stopped bleeding. Early people eased pain with the scrapings of willow baak thus administering a form of aspirin. We may laugh at these early treatments but it is interesting to note that scientists are perusing such old books as "Gerard's Herbal" for possible clues for medical research such as the suggestion that violets may contain an anti-cancer ingredient.

Most rural settlers had to depend on local herbalists for medical assistance and almost every area had someone who was familiar with the use of herbs and other available commodities. In the early 1800s one of my great-grandmothers, Eliza Petit, was a well-known herbalist in both Burford and Windham townships.

She collected and preserved herbs and was apt to be called at any time, day or night, to treat someone who was feeling "poorly. My grandmother used to recall how she would accompany her mother to the woods each Fall to collect herbs. These were labelled and hung to dry in a summer-kitchen attic. She also told of midnight knocks at the door, how her mother would inquire about the symptoms of the illness, how she would put herbs in a little hand-bag and how she would set out through the fields to some distant cabin.

The use of home remedies continued until recent times and I can recall being treated as a child with concoctions that included goose-grease, turpentine, coal-oil, camphor, polk-root,tfinger, salt-petre, senna, laudenum and (although it was never mentioned) probably whiskey. These things were not administered in one great dollop but in various combinations such as a drop of coal-oil on a lump of sugar for something or other. If these home remedies did me any good I cannot say other than to point out that my continued existence either testifies or their curative power, or my physical resistance.

In the early days the favourite recommendation for a concoction was that it was "good for man and beast" and even as late as Nov. 25th, 1909 the Burford "Advance" advertised "Spohn's Distemper Cure" as a treatment for "brood mares, colts, stallions, dogs and sheep" and as a cure for "La grippe, colds and coughs" in people. Other purveyors of "Cures" made considerable mileage from advertising that if their goop did not cure the blind staggers in horses and "quinzy" in people it was an ideal cleaner for silk hats.

In the absence of professional assistance many people kept note-books full of home cures and health advice. One such person was Edward Parneli who lived north of Burford in pioneer times. Mr. Parneli was one of the Township's most remarkable citizens. A very intelligent and public-spirited man, Mr. Parneli kept diaries that Mrs. June Durham, a descendant permitted me to see a few years ago.

Edward Parneli was born at Niagara-on-the-Lake in the 1820s. When he came to the Burford area he settled on Concession 4 Lot 3 and almost immediately became involved in improving local education. He became atrusteefor Union School No. 5 where he insisted on proper education for all children and the employment of the best teachers that could be found. In this he encountered considerable opposition since education beyond simple sums and bare reading ability, was considered to be a frill that most people did not need and could not afford. Indeed there was formidable official opposition to better education for ordinary people. Snobs such as Governor Simcoe and Bishop Strachan advocated free education for the children of families they felt to be "upper class" but considered that all other "classes" should pay for their own education. This stand was motivated by the belief that if the "lower classes" began to think for themselves there would be rebellion against the privileges enjoyed by the ruling class. Simcoe felt that the ideal situation would be a country inhabited by sturdy, semi-literate people who would work hard and do what they were told by the educated "upper" class. Edward Parneli opposed this idea and became one of the chief advocates of the present school system.

The Parneli family became one of Bur-ford Township's leading families and by 1880 the following Parnells were listed in the Brant County Gazetteer - E.N. Parneli, Burford Concession 3, Lot 4; George Parneli, Falkland Concession 1, Lot 1; L Parneli, Burford Concession 3, Lot 4. The Parneli family owned the woods two miles north of Burford and when the Burford Boy Scout Troop was organized in 1910 Lewis Parneli gave the Scouts permission to use his woods as a camping place and records show that he attended their woodland "patrols" at his bush and instructed them in woodcraft and nature study. He also assisted them in building a rough hut to use as a headquarters for their woodland work. In the 1920s I can recall the kindness shown by Mr. Parneli in encouraging children to cut Christmas trees in his woods and in showing them the best trees to cut.

Edward Parneli, like Wm. Yates of

Hatchley, was a very observant man who kept track of many things and recorded them in note books. These included weather observations, election returns, fence viewers' reports, foreign news, humorous anecdotes about famous people, school teachers' salaries, the romantic encounters of his horses and cattle and the results thereof, home remedies, recipes and health advice. Some of this information was recorded seriously and some humorously. For the purpose of this article I will confine my observations to Mr. Parnell's notes involving health.

Chief among Mr. Parnell's notes were his rules for health. They were:

"A. Go to bed at the same time each night.

"B. Get up as soon as you wake.

"C. Eat plain food.

"D. Filter and boil all drinking water.

"E. Exercise in open air.

"F. In malarious districts do your walking in the middle of the day.

"G. Keep yourfeet comfortable and well rested.

"H. Wear woollen clothing all year


"I. Don't worry, it interferes with the action of the stomach.

"J. Have an interesting occupation in vigorous old age to keep the brain active. Rest means rust."

Most of these rules are applicable today and some deserve particular attention when applied to the time in which they were recorded. For example, Rule D. about filtering and boiling all drinking water, recognized the fact that the recurring cholera epidemics were not due to poor church attendance but to something everyone used, namely, drinking water. Mr. Parneli recognized that polluted drinking water was the chief cause of cholera infection. Rule F. is also interesting for the-"History of Brant County of 1883 warned of "considerable febrile malaria on farms in the central and western parts of Burford Township" and of the danger of "noxious" gases that rose from the swamps in that area. In preparing this rule Mr. Parneli recognized the possibility of malaria being borne by mosquitoes or "noxious" swamp gas. He felt that neither would be around in the middle of the day and thus urged people to do their walking then. Rule A. about going to bed at the same time each night has been a recommendation of a recent scientific study into the problem of daytime fatigue and sleepiness.

In noting Mr. Parnell's sensible rules for health it may be interesting to note some of the "Rules for Health" that were being advocated by the so-called "Doctor books" of the mid-1880s. For example:

"A. Windows should never be open at night.

"B. Never sleep in a room on the north side of the house.

"C. Never hang clothes in a bedroom to dry.

"D. Never spit on a bedroom floor.

"E. Never sleep on a low bed as pernicious and mephitic air lies within one foot of the floor.

"F. Never leave an unwashed cuspidor in a bedroom.

"G. Never take a hot bath before going to bed unless you feel cheerful afterwards."

Some of these so-called rules merit observation. Rule A, for example, was a throw-back to superstitious times when it was thought that evil spirits flew about at night and would try to enter bedrooms to have sexual relationships with sleeping people. Rule B was sensible as rooms on the north side of a house were apt to be damp for lack of exposure to sunlight. The same rule applied to drying clothes in bedrooms. Rules D and F about spitting on bedroom floors and keeping unwashed cuspidors in bedrooms seem unimaginable in modern times when it would be unthinkable that any such conditions could exist. Rule E about sleeping on low beds and the existence of "a pernicious and mephitic stratum of air within one foot of the floor" was necessary for in pre-bathroom days most people used chamber-pots and if they were not emptied daily would produce the unhealthy "stratum of air" the rule referred to. Rule G about not taking a bath before going to bed unless you felt cheerful afterwards creates all sorts of laughable situations and serious social problems (continued on page 9)

(continued from page 8)

for grumpy folks.

Among Mr. Parnell's observations about health were a number of warnings against drinking. These were grouped under the heading 'JDo men know what villainous stuff they drink" and include recipes for various types of "drink". Mr. Parnell seems to have recorded these with a sense of humour and dread. One recipe is for "Whiskey Compound" which called for 70 parts whiskey, 25 parts turpentine and three parts water. Another included 40 gallons of whiskey, 30 gallons of water, five gallons of tincture of quick pepper and two ounces of dither. Yet another skull-raiser included gin, mustard seed, garlic and horse radish. Last but not least was a recipe for "lager beer" which included a note saying that if the beer was not drinkable it could be used to clean ladies' black silk dresses. This ranked with a multi-purpose recipe for curing sores in people and horses that Mr. Parnell described as the best waterproofing application for boots he had ever used.

Of a less humourous nature was a barbaric treatment to cure "The Rising of the Lights." Since the word "lights" means lungs this would appear to have been a cure for indigestion. It consisted of removing the top from a shot-gun shell and swallowing the contents, lead pelets.powder and all. The results of this stupid remedy could be fatal and Mr. Parneil mentioned the danger involved. However, in spite of the danger, when this treatment was mentioned in the prestigious British magazine, "Country Life" a few years ago as a very dangerous thing people wrote from many parts of the world to say they had been using it for years. One can only speculate on how many deaths it had caused.

One of the concerns of local people during Mr. Parnell's time was the risk of snake bite for the Massasauga rattle snake flourished, and there are also references to "water moccasin" snakes. It was the general belief that whiskey was the best cure. This was, of course, the worst possible treatment as whiskey increases the blood flow and thus spreads the poison. Mr. Parnell recognized this fact and roundly condemned the use of whiskey. He did not recommend any cure but suggested that -the application of onions, tobacco or salt externally and sweet oil internally might be of some help. His advice in the absence of professional assistance, was that these things "may help but cannot do harm." It is not known if any of Mr. Parnell's recommended cures were effective but there is a reference in the dubious "history of Brant" of 1883 which reflects the general ignorance of the time on snake bites. In this, one local zealot rejoiced in the elimination of the Massasauga rattlesnake not for the fact that danger had been removed but for the hope that it would reduce the consumption of whiskey.

Another cause for fear in pioneer times was that of rabies. Little was known about it, and fear was increased when the Governor-General the Duke of Richmond contracted the disease from a pet fox and died a horrible death, leaving 14 children. The medical profession had no answer to the problem and the final treatment for rabid people was to smother them between feather beds. Mr. Parnell recognized the danger and, in the absence of any professional advice, was determined to record any possible treatments he could find with the hope that some might lead to an effective cure. He discarded all suggestions involving mysticism and concentrated on the use of available material such as salt. etc. He realized that a certain amount of guesswork was involved but added his usual advice "May do good but cannot do harm". Parneli's advice may seem simple and unscientific in 1990 but it is obvious that he was trying to cut through the real bunkum and present suggestions that people with more scientific training might be able to use.

One of the most unusual remedies recorded by Mr. Parnell was a cure for cancer which involved the use of chloride

of zinc, blood-root, wheat flour and other things applied to a piece of muslin. He claimed to have seen this treatment in use and described how the "cancer" was "burned away to the colour of an old shoe sole" and that it came away and never returned. It would be interesting to know just what was cured by this treatment as obviously it wasn't cancer, which, in its various forms continues to defy science. Educated people may be amused by Mr. ParnelKs claim for a cancer cure and for his presumption in recording it. However, they must remember that medical science had little more to offer at the time.

Other remedies recorded by Mr. Parnell include treatments for dandruff and baldness, recipes for growing a moustache and "forcing the beard." There is even one for increasing the saleability of a horse. If a prospective buywg-wanted a white spot on a horse's face Mr. Parnell recommended binding a pickled mackerel to the spot for three or four days. This does not sound like a permanent solution but rather like one of the many tricks used in pioneer horse-trading. It was certainly not a "Man or Beast" treatment for whereas beauty-conscious women of the time took small doses of arsenic to make their skin pale it is doubtful if the smell of a superannuated mackerel would attract many admirers.

One pioneer practice that Mr. Parnell was particularly cautious about was the widespread use of laudenum, chloroform and carbolic acid. Most pioneer families kept quantities of these substances and used them for many things such as lulling a crying baby with laudenum, easing toothache with chloroform or curing warts and cleaning floors with carbolic acid. Many dangerous uses are recorded. One Burford family used laudenum regularly as a "fun narcotic" while a Burford woman was alleged to have killed her husband by rendering him unconscious with laudenum and chloroform and then killing him by pouring carbolic acid down his throat. Deaths of babies through overdoses of laudenum were not uncommon.

In reading pioneer diaries such as those of Mr. Parnell we are bound to wonder about the effectiveness of the remedies. Some were very effective and are still in use today under multi-syllable scientific names. However a general question arises about the claimed cures ascribed to others. Did they cure things or didn't they? The answer is that they did and they didn't. For example, if a person was bitten by a dog during the "dog days" of summer it was assumed that the dog was "mad" or rabid and the remedies for hydrophobia were applied. If the person did not become rabid it was assumed that cures worked. However, it is possible that the dog was not rabid but merely out-of-sorts or annoyed. Similarly it was assumed that any snake capable of administering a bite was venomous and anti-snake bite remedies were applied. If there were not bad effects it was assumed that the anti-snake-bite remedy worked. People failed to realize that several of our large non-venomous snakes can inflict a bite similar to that of an animal and that tetanus can result form such a bite. The anti-snake-bite remedies might have reduced the possibility of infection but it would be erroneous to assume that they were effective against real snake venom. Similar incorrect conclusions could have been reached about other pioneer remedies but, generally speaking, there was considerable wisdom in much of the information recorded by Mr. Parnell.

So how do compilations of early medical remedies such as those of Mr. Parnell, stand in light of other pioneer medical knowledge of the time? It would seem that they served as an authority for what might be done and not what must be done. Mr. Parnell realized that he had no professional training and thus did not clutter up his diaries with extravagant claims for the use of 'Liquid Air" as a cure-all as was done in the so-called "Doctor Books" of the day. He merely stands as an intelligent listener and recorder and should be recognized in history as such.

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How are You Keeping? by Mel Robertson, from The Burford Times

From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mel Robertson wrote many articles for the Burford Advance and Burford Times on the history of Burford Township. This clipping contains the article "How are You Keeping?" which discusses peoples' attitudes towards health and medical treatments in the early 1900s. The article may not have been republished.

Newspaper clippings donated by Liz (Robertson) Brown; reprinted with permission from The Burford Times.