Camphor Folk Remedy

Cultural Background:

My informant was born in 1915 in New York City, to immigrant parents—her mother was an Austrian-Jewish immigrant, and her father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant. Describing her childhood, she states that “at that time, New York City had a density that was closer—or more—than that of China. There were so many people jammed together in these old tenement houses—you had a whole floor of people in your apartment, who shared one bathroom. None of them even had windows, except on skylights, or looking out on someone else’s tenement window. So, it was just a very crowded condition. For the most part, people got along very well because they all came more or less from the same place, they were all poor, but, you know, though you didn’t have much, you didn’t think of yourself as poor. . . . Life was spent on the street because the apartments were crowded, dark, and very uninviting. So, we used to spend our time on the street playing hopscotch, jump rope. The little boys were always playing ball in the street. Everything was street-oriented. . . .

“I remember going to school. At that time, I only spoke Yiddish at home, and my mother took me to the teacher, and the teacher said, when did she come from Europe? And my mother said very indignantly, ‘she was born here!’ I’m a citizen! And, I was speaking only Yiddish at home, but I did not struggle with English; I caught onto it very quickly. The classrooms were so crowded that they didn’t have enough seats for everybody. But everybody there was hungry to get educated, and at that time, of course, the emphasis on higher education was only for the boys. Everybody wanted their sons to be doctors or accountants or lawyers. But the girls would wind up being in the factories at sewing machines. The highest honor was to be a teacher. In two years you could become a teacher, and then you would be one of the elite.”

Camphor folk remedy:

“During the flu epidemic, when there was a lot of flu and bronchitis, my mother would give us each a pouch of camphor to wear around our necks, to keep us from getting sick. And it worked—we never got sick.”

My informant does not know for how long this practice has been employed. By today, the medicinal value of camphor has been accepted by the scientific community—“The principal use of camphor is as an antitussive agent to reduce coughs” (see link below), although there are also other uses, such as to relieve itching. Camphor is a great example of a folk remedy that has become accepted by scientists, gaining a place in the medical canon and among prescription products.