Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Something To Cure All Your Ills

When my brother, sister and I were young and we got sick, my mother would give us a dose of Liniment.


According to one source, a liniment was a type of balm to rub on the skin; the name was derived from the Latin linere, which meant to annoint.

As a child growing up in the 1950s and 60s, liniment was a cure-all for whatever you were sick with. If you had a cold, you took a dose of liniment. And by the term 'took a dose' means that we took it internally, rather than rubbing it on our skin. If you had the flu, you took a dose of liniment. If you had a bad stomach-ache, you took a dose of liniment. If you had arthritis, you took a dose of liniment. I don't know if liniment cured a broken arm ~ primarily because none of us ever broke our arms. I would bet, though, that if one of us had broken an arm, we would have been given a dose of liniment.

There were many brands of liniment available in the United States during the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Watkin's was one brand. Porter's was another of them; it was the brand that my mother chose. Rawleigh/McNess was another brand, and one of the few that are still being marketed.

Liniment was the descendant of the infamous circus sideshow snake-oil. And no matter what the brand, all liniments were basically the same.  They all seemed to contain a variety of ingredients, one of which was bound to affect some ailment.


Porter's Liniment contained ether, ammonia, capsicum, camphor, oil of cajeput, cloves, myrrh, galangal, and safrol. The bottle's label notes that the contents were 63% alcohol. As ingredients on any product have historically been listed in order by largest percentage first and proceeding to the least percentage, this would indicate that ether comprised the most of what made Porter's Liniment work, and accounted for the alcohol content. Of the remaining ingredients, the capsicum - the thing that makes pepper hot - would help to cause a fever to break. The camphor, which was employed primarily in external medicines, was readily absorbed through the skin; when taken internally, camphor was a remedy for fatigue. It has been found to alleviate minor heart problems. The oil of cajeput was a pungent oil that came from the leaves of the melaleuca tree; the oil was used externally to reduce inflammation and internally to induce vomiting. The cloves were included to function as a carminative to prevent the formation of, and/or to promote the expulsion of gas. Myrrh was sometimes ingested to 'cure' rheumatism and arthritis, and was believed to relieve circulatory problems. Galangal was a plant related to ginger, and would have been included to function much like ginger as a stimulant and reliever of constipation. The last couple of ingredients would actually have very doubtful benefits, if any, for human beings. Ammonia has no beneficial qualities, and safrol has been found to be a carcinogen. From this list of ingredients it can be seen that a wide variety of ailments might be relieved by the liniment (while threatening to cause a few ailments if abused.

Although the Porter's Liniment bottle did not specifically warn against being taken internally, the list of uses are all related to external ones: sore muscles, cuts, insect bites and so forth. But, as I noted above, my mother gave us doses of the liniment orally. She would mix about 1/4 teaspoon of liniment with one or two teaspoons of sugar and enough warm water to fill a small glass. We would be instructed to drink the mixture down at once ~ no sipping. If you had a sore throat, look out! The liniment would burn the whole way down. But you can believe that after you took the dose of liniment you wouldn't be sick very much longer.

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