While I was doing the research for Beyond All Price, a novel about the life of Civil War nurse Nellie M. Chase, I looked in vain for a definitive work on nineteenth-century medicine. Most doctors were civilians before the beginning of the war, and few had more than a couple of months of medical training. They knew nothing about treating war wounds. There were no rules about handling outbreaks of contagious diseases among soldiers who lived in close quarters. Nurses were still a novelty and were expected to do little beyond cooking and cleaning.
Nellie learned her medicine by watching the surgeons attached to her regiment and by trial and error. Like civilian women, she relied on the memory of what her mother and grandmother had done when confronted with a medical emergency. She was often forced to cull her remedies from the little articles used as fillers in local newspapers and periodicals.
Nellie applied many of them to the patients she cared for. In some cases, they actually worked. In others, they were ineffective. A few were dangerous, if not deadly. Blue Mass, for example, was a commonly prescribed pill during the Civil War. Its main ingredient was mercury.
Here are some recommendations for dealing with common household pests. Do not try these at home!
FLEAS: Boil arsenic (say one-teaspoonful) in one quart of water one hour, then bottle it up, and put a little each day in saucers or plates, adding a little sugar, molasses or honey to attract the fleas. This ought to be renewed each day. By boiling arsenic one hour, the water will dissolve one part in 40, while, without this boiling, the quantity dissolved will be only about one part to 600, or 800 parts of water.
FLIES: Flies are driven out of a room by hanging up a bunch of the plantain or fleawort plant, after it has
been dipped in milk.
CRAWLING BUGS: Elderberry leaves laid upon the shelves of a pie-safe or cupboard will also drive away roaches and ants, while the common house fly will not venture in smelling distance of them.
RODENTS: Rats and mice speedily disappear by mixing equal quantities of strong cheese and powdered squills.
MOSQUITOES: Camphor is the most powerful agent to drive away mosquitoes. A camphor bag hung up in an open casement will prove an effectual barrier to their entrance. Camphorated spirit applied as perfume to the face and hands will act as an effectual preventative; but when bitten by them aromatic vinegar is the best antidote.
The annoyance of mosquitoes may be effectually avoided by closing one's chamber and burning some brown sugar on some live coals or shavings. The insects become paralyzed at once.