My informant, KL, is my mother. Her father was born in Finland and immigrated to the United States as a young adult. When she was younger, her father would heat up pine tar in boiling water and have her breathe in the fumes if she as sick.
Piece of Folklore:
When KL was sick as a child, she remembers her father heating up pine tar in boiling water and having her lean over and breathe in the steam to clear out a head cold. Tar would also sometimes be diluted and rubbed on her and her siblings’ chests for the same effect. She also remembers a saying: ”Jossei viina terva ja sauna auta ni se on kuolemaksi,” which roughly translates to “If vodka, tar, and a sauna cannot cure you, it is likely fatal.*”
*: A slightly different version of this saying is referenced in a Finish journal of social medicine:
Pietilä, Ilkka. “Kontekstuaalinen vaihtelu miesten puheessa terveydestä: yksilöhaastatteluiden ja ryhmäkeskustelujen vertaileva analyysi.” Sosiaalilääketieteellinen aikakauslehti 46.3 (2009).
Tar was believed to have powerful medicinal qualities – everything from treating skin ailments to serving as an antiseptic and antibiotic. It was more or less considered a cure-all, and was often at hand because it was also used for sealing boats. Similar treatments for colds are still in common use across many cultures – breathing in steam is thought to help de-congest the nose, and similar chest rubs are used to relieve coughs.