Category Archives: Folk medicine

Brown sugar in the bathtub – a treatment for rashes

Main piece:

AW: When I was little, I would get eczema––you have it too, you probably get it from me. Our side of the family has all the allergies, haha. Well, so, my mom, your grandma, would put me in the bathtub with a little block of brown sugar. It’s like, that Chinese brown sugar block that is brown and has a white stripe through the middle. So she would put me in the bathtub and tell me not to eat the brown sugar, and I’d have to sit there and not eat it, and apparently it helped my eczema. I don’t know if it actually did though, haha. But sometimes I would eat it anyways. It was very delicious, of course. That was probably my favorite Chinese medicine that my mom ever gave me. A very fond memory, too.


The informant, AW, is my father. Our family is ethnically from Shanghai and Guangdong, China. This story was collected over a phone call about when I was little.


I agree with AW. When I did this brown sugar treatment when I was little, I also don’t know that it truly yielded any results––I still have eczema to this day and I don’t think brown sugar ever made it any better. My assumption when I was small was that the sweet taste was supposed to distract you from how itchy you were, and I think in that sense, it did work. I think it’s important to realize that, especially when you are that little and you have an ailment that’s not that serious, sometimes it doesn’t take that much to make you feel better. And there’s nothing less valid about that kind of a treatment.

Vapuru. A Hispanic home remedy to cure Sinus Issues

Abstract: Vapuru, also known as Vaseline is the first line of defense whenever someone has a sore throat or a stuffy nose. This petroleum jelly frequently came up in J’s household as a kid especially since he grew up with allergies. His parents always rubbed the jell on his nose when it was stuffy or his throat when he was coughing a lot or had a sore throat. This cream meant for skincare was exploited and used for many other uses that J claims work like a charm and always helped him out. 

Background: JP is a Mexican America from Florida who takes pride in the traditions he’s received from his family as a child and continues to practice them with his children. He believes that his grandparents are the origin of this practice but also notes that a lot of Mexican families may share these same traditions and feels its part of the morals of a Hispanic household. This conversation came up while we were discussing what similarities we’ve experienced when we were younger.


P: Did your family ever use Vaseline for you as a child or even recently to help with your allergies or when you couldn’t sleep at night? 

J: haha yes they did! I always had some issues with coughing or with a stuffy nose so my parents would just say a quick positive saying that basically means feel better today and then rubbed on the nose or on my neck and then I would feel the Vapuru warm-up and then my throat started to feel better. As I got older I learned up Vapuru to buy for myself and I found out the jelly is meant for skincare so it was awkward asking a pharmacist where the petroleum jelly is for curing nose congestion or a sore throat. I guess this magical medicine is only used in a Hispanic household (laughs).


This Vaseline/ Petroleum Jelly is a huge hit in Hispanic families as I also grew up using it when I was sick or had some sinus issues. J mentioned that this method has been around since his parents were young which shows its a growing tradition that’s been around as long as the petroleum jelly’s been produced. The jelly’s alluded powers are what seem to assist these conditions because it clearly wasn’t designed to relieve congestion or throat pain thus the real magic behind this item is the number of times it’s been said the jelly curies these symptoms. The petroleum jelly seems like a fluke but it symbolizes how a conventional item from a market can be turned into a powerful curing substance that’s influenced many Hispanic families.

The Jewish Penicillin

Abstract: The Jewish take on Chicken Soup which is said to be a powerful substance when you’re not feeling well or you’re going through lows in health. This tradition has gone on for a few years but its actual origin is unknown. This remedy isn’t restricted to those of Jewish faith as well as it was mentioned that Christians and protestants use this remedy as well either for illness healing or for the enjoyment of eating soup.

Background: SD is a Jewish-American who attends the university of southern California who’s lived in Arkansas. He’s been living a somewhat Jewish household that holds on to a few of the secrets and traditions celebrated by Orthodox Jews. The Jewish Penicillin is a fancy name to describe chicken soup however this chicken soup apparently has some extra zest which makes it more effective than regular soup. This topic came up while we were discussing some home remedies which our families used to help when we’re ill.  


P: Ok so I told you about my traditional medicine, give me something you’ve relied on. 

S: So its really simple, its just chicken soup but everyone calls it the Jewish penicillin-like when some I knew had back surgery we got the chicken soup and they were excited we brought them Jewish Penicillin. 

P: Is it like part of the religion to use Jewish Penicillin whenever you’re not healthy?

S: This tradition seems to extend outside the Jewish religion because it’s known about by other religions. Like my mom always told me while I’m at college if I’m sick to go and buy some chicken soup from the store before buying medicine. She really believes it’s extremely effective and honestly so do it. 

P: So what’s the twist? What is the traditional way to prepare this Jewish penicillin?

S: The difference is we use a kosher chicken and sometimes people put in matzo balls which is way different than regular chicken soup but I believe the rest of it is pretty similar to regular chicken soup. 


It’s interesting to hear that it was labeled Jewish Penicillin yet everyone was using it as a method to feel better. It seems like the chicken soup was over-exaggerated when it comes to its effects but I feel it not about the soup but the lore behind it. The soup carries with it a lot of history and lore which is where the effects come to play. People for a long period of time have been believing in the idea that the new soup carries a lot of mystical powers and through this belief, the effects of this soup are increased. It is noted as well that this soup also has a second use that is able to heal the mind and restore you to a calmer state. 

S doesn’t know the origins of this Folklore but he believes its outlasted a long period of time at least beyond the life of his grandparents. He mentions that he believes the concept is passed down from each generation so it is a significant remedy that is kept alive by many families of Jewish and non-Jewish generations due to its alluded powers of healing. However, S does make a note that not every group makes it the same and there might be some adaptations to the recipe depending on the religious group. 

Folk Medicine in a time of crisis

The following is a transcribed interview between me and interviewee, MH.

Me: How are you protecting yourself against the coronavirus?

MH: OMG, well I’ve been crushing up garlic and taking it like a shot in the morning with some hot black tea with honey in it to chase it. And all our stores are getting completely wiped out of garlic because everyone is upping the garlic to boost their immune system. Our stores are also getting drained of all our kombuchas because everyone is upping the probiotics. But I thought it was pretty surprising how fast the garlic has been going, it is like never before.

Me: Thanks so much.


Interviewee works for Trader Joe’s, a supermarket chain that has been providing food services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trader Joe’s, along with many other supermarkets have been essential businesses during the pandemic and the community of food service workers have been impacting daily life because they are one of the few who are still working. Further, supermarkets are one of the only in-person businesses still running, where many people will interact. 


This piece of folklore was collected from a quick phone call when interviewee had just gotten off of work. The setting was very casual, as we were just talking to catch up and share some folklore.


Garlic is a well-known and established folk medicine for colds. However, I think it is interesting how popular this remedy has gotten with the coronavirus since there aren’t any known medicines that work for it yet. I think that it is the lack of medicines for the virus that is leading to a large surge in natural medicine and ancient eastern remedies. However, most popularly is simply raw garlic cloves being ingested or eaten. And, even more interestingly, since the interviewee works in a supermarket chain, she says that their stock is diminishing across America. And so, maybe it is possible that all over America, people are desperate and trying anything that may help them fight off this virus. Their first source of medicine seems to be reaching for the tried-and-true garlic cloves. 
For some more history on this remedy, here’s a quick, easy-to-read source with some interesting information on the growth of this remedy:

Folk Medicine- Ichthammol Ointment For Horses

Context: My informant grew up in a farming family in Michigan. Her uncle raised horses and had the philosophy of “if it’s good enough for the animals, it’s good enough for me.” Her family was relatively poor, so there was no sense to them in buying something for people when you already had it for the animals. Running around in the woods and on the farm, splinters were common for her and her siblings. She remembers her mother using the drawing salve for the horses on them and it works flawlessly. To this day, she buys the drawing salve meant for horses to use on her own children.

Text: M: “It’s a drawing salve meant for horses, it’s called ichthammol ointment for horses. But it works just as well on people. So if you have a splinter, you just rub some ichthammol ointment on it and it pops right out. They have ichthammol drawing salves for people too, but they don’t work as well because they’re made to look nice and smell good. The ones for horses might smell gross, but they work better than anything else I’ve tried.”

My Thoughts: This makes a lot of sense to me. There are so many products for animals that work just as well for humans, and they’re usually cheaper because you don’t have to pay for packaging, dyes, or fragrances.

Folk Medicine- Mud for Ant Bites

Context: My informant spent most of her childhood playing outside at her grandmother’s house in the early 2000s. She tells me she remembers there being a lot of ant piles at the house, and it wasn’t unusual for her or another kid to stand in one without realizing. Whenever someone got an ant bite, her grandmother would collect dirt and water from the yard and rub the mud on the bites. She says it would always stop the pain, and they wouldn’t itch after you took the mud off.

Remedy: For ant bites, spread wet mud over the affected area. Let the mud dry for about 30 minutes, then wash off. This soothes pain, itching, and swelling

Thoughts: Soil tends to have a lot of nutrients in it like magnesium, potassium, and other minerals that are good for your skin. Even now, clay face masks are becoming very popular for treating skin ailments. I’m sure it has a lot of healing properties for bug bites. It could very well have been a placebo remedy; putting mud on the bites would distract a child who just stood in an ant pile. Either way, the impact of the remedy seems to be strong, as she says her grandmother still uses this treatment for the children she takes care of.

Stinging Nettle Plant Remedy

Background: The informant is a man in his late 50s. he grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania before moving to upstate New York for college. In his mid 20s, he moved to Southern California and has lived there ever since.

Context: Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the 70s, the informant recalls that the suburbs were relatively remote with forests on either side, where children would often play unsupervised. Because the neighborhood was relatively new, most of the adults living there had not grown up in the neighborhood and were not familiar with the local flora and fauna.

Main Text:

“Along the creek, you could just walk along and there would be, yknow, bushes and things like that. So one of them was stinging nettles, but we called it “Burn Hazel” when I was a kid. So when you brushed against it, it felt like you got poison ivy—you’d get bumps, all of a sudden it was incredibly itchy, but the older kids taught the younger kids…there was another plant called the “Elephant Ear” plant, and I have no idea what this plant was in reality, but it had big leaves. If you took that plant and rubbed it on it, it would cure it. And the parents never knew this, it was passed on from kid to kid, generation to generation.

Thoughts: Perhaps the most interesting part of this remedy is that the informant can identify the irritant plant “Burn Hazel” by its more commonly known name of Stinging Nettle but has had no luck finding out what “Elephant’s Ear” actually is. The other fascinating element about this herbal remedy is that only children seemed to know about it, since most of their parents did not grow up in the neighborhood where this herbal remedy was located. I wonder if children in the neighborhood nowadays know these tips and tricks—the informant says that much of the forest has been destroyed to build more homes, and his family who remained in town and are raising their children there don’t let them go around unsupervised.

Folk Remedies: Sprite

Main Piece:

“My parents had me drink Sprite pretty much anytime I had a headache, chest pain—mostly stomach aches. I remember just drinking Sprite and sleeping more than going to the doctor… growing up. So usually stomach pain or headaches, things like that.”

Background Info: The informant is a close friend of mine in his early 20s. He’s lived in Long Beach, California his entire life and his parents are from St. Louis, Missouri and Brooklyn, New York. He is the youngest of three children.

Context: The informant cannot recall ever drinking Pepto Bismol when he was sick as a child—instead, his parents would give him Sprite to drink when he stayed home from school. He does not know the origin of this treatment but speculates that Sprite was the drink of choice because it’s carbonated. He recalls that his mother never bought soda for the house, so the only time A drank Sprite was at restaurants or when he was feeling ill. He does not drink Sprite when he’s sick now.

Thoughts: This is a pretty familiar folk remedy to me, except the drink of choice in my family was Sprite’s competitor 7 Up. I’ve also heard of alternate drinks, including ginger ale, coke, and other Sprite derivatives. Clearly, the carbonation is common ground between the different drinks, probably out of a rationale that the bubbly liquid has some sort of advantage over flat water or juice. Sprite also has a relatively mild citrus flavor, so it might be easier to get children to stay hydrated by drinking that instead of water. Lastly, soda is something of a special drink—A was not allowed to drink soda, so this might have been his parents’ way of turning something negative (being sick) into a positive experience (drinking something reserved for special occasions). This would also explain why the remedy isn’t practiced much past childhood, the same way that adults don’t ask for people to “kiss their boo-boos” better.

Egg Healing


MV is a 2nd generation Mexican-American from New Mexico. Half of her family is of Japanese-Mexican descent and much of her extended family lives in Mexico. I received this item from her in a video conference call from our respective homes. She knows about this practice from her nana (grandmother) but she has never had it conducted on herself.


MV: When someone gives you the ojo… the lady, this could be your nana, or like anyone really, they could get an egg and rub it all over your body, and then all the bad energy goes in the egg.

JS: What’s the ojo?

MV: The ojo is when someone puts the ojo on you, like… if I gave you the ojo you’d be getting some bad energy. It’s like I bewitched you.

You pray a little bit and then rub it over your body… you do the cross up here (draws a cross on her forehead with her finger) and then just rub the egg over the rest of your body.

And then some people even say if you crack the egg in a glass of water, and like you see a trail, like in the water from the yolk, that’s the bad energy. But some people don’t do that.

JS: So it has to be, like, a special someone?

MV: Yeah usually it’s the brujería person… a bruja, a witch I guess… all nanas are like that.


The association of eggs with luck and goodness has long and deep roots. Venetia Newall provides a sketch of the various uses of eggs in ritual, magic, and belief: cosmological models, magical properties, the notion of resurrection, games and festivals emphasizing fertility and fecundity. (Newall) Her study focusses mainly on egg-lore in an Indo-European context but these significances resonate with our example here. The notion here is that eggs have healing properties, capable of dispelling and absorbing “bad energy.” The association of the egg with rebirth, shedding of old ways, fertility, youth, suggests that here, the egg is valued for its life-giving properties. Brujería likely has a long history that cannot be fully examined here but of note in this example is that the bruja, or intermediary, is always an old female – “all nanas are like that.” There is a kind of magic associated with older females which resonates with the egg as a symbol of fertility, the womb, and a source of life. In this variation, the catholic gesture of signing the cross on one’s body is present with some notable exceptions to the mainstream church’s gesture. The cross is made on the forehead, combined with the secular folk magic of the egg. This is not the gesture sanctioned by the catholic church as an international institution, but a gesture that incorporates elements of both secular, paganistic belief as well as religious reference: it is both Catholicism and Brujería, a mix of Christianity with a folk magic which the Catholic church has historically demonized. This healing practice is thus a way of combining multiple sacred traditions and forming a unique model of spirituality that sets secular magic against and alongside the hegemonic colonial forces of Catholicism.

Newall, Venetia. “Easter Eggs.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 80, No. 315. (Jan. – Mar., 1967), pp. 3-32

Hiccup Remedies


I collected this piece of folk medicine from my mother (LP) during a particularly infuriating bout of the hiccups. She grew up in suburban Colorado in the late 20th century and learned these tricks from her parents. She has “had success with all of them” but wonders “if it is psychosomatic, like you think it’s going to work so it does.”


LP: you’re supposed to drink water like this (mimes drinking water upside-down), drinking from the back of the rim. You can also hold your breath, or eat a spoonful of sugar. And being scared, startled, when someone says BOO!


With no surefire medical consensus on how to deal with hiccups, people have often resorted to folk remedies that sometimes seem farfetched. The hiccups (Synchronous Diaphragmatic Flutter) are a quite harmless and normal biological event. They often happen after eating fast or drinking carbonated beverages and amount to little more than an inconvenience, and since they often pass within minutes, it is not common to seek professional medical help to remedy them. Nevertheless, they are annoying, and we feel like we must do something to address them. In a brief experiment, I tested all the methods my mom mentioned: the upside-down drinking and the sugar had no effect. My mom even sat down to startle me, and while I was indeed startled, I continued to hiccup moments after. Ultimately, holding my breath, after multiple tries, worked to alleviate my hiccups. I believe that my informant’s thought on the matter, that these remedies are mostly forms of placebo, is convincing. All of these different techniques require you to do something unusual, something that takes concentration or stimulates the senses in a startling way. These remedies can distract someone, often to the effect of clearing the hiccups away. Since the remedies that doctors offer are often unsatisfactory, people have created a long list of folk remedies that employ the placebo effect to address this annoyance.