Onions to Cure Fevers

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 70
Occupation: Health Care Worker
Residence: Alton, Illinois
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/28/2020
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Do you know any old remedies for- did your mother impart any useful cures onto you?

Informant: Their cure back then for things were like, if you had a high fever… I would get onions, and she’d [informant’s mother] put onions on my wrists and the bottom of my feet and wrap a white cloth around them. T – because the onion would draw out the fever.

Interviewer: That was the belief?

Informant: Uh-huh.

Interviewer: But it – it worked? Would you try that again today?

Informant: No because it never ended up working.

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: I had to go to the doctor anyway and get a penicillin shot. But no I had to lay there for a week with onions until they found out the fever wouldn’t break so she would call the doctor and I’d go get a penicillin shot and then I’d feel better.

Interviewer: So how long would you go between changing the onions?

Informant: (laughs) Oh you get em changed every day. You get new onions.

Interviewer: Why do you think that was a thing?

Informant: Because they just had a belief that the onion, you know – you know how onions are stingent? And stuff like that? That that would pull – I don’t know why it had to be on your wrists and the bottoms of your feet. I was just a kid, don’t ask me! I just did what I was told! (laughs)

Interviewer: (laughs) True, true.

Background: My informant was born and raised in southern Illinois to very strict Catholic parents. She has strong Irish and Italian heritage. She grew up quite poor, as a family of farm workers with many siblings.

Context: The informant is my grandmother, and has always had a proclivity for telling stories, jokes, and wives tales. This piece was selected out of many from a recording of a long night of telling stories in a comfortable environment.

Thoughts: Though it apparently was not an effective folk belief, this folk remedy for fevers is quite interesting. It was repeatedly ineffective but the informant’s mother continued to try it, possibly to avoid the costs of medicine even if it meant wasting onions. Given that they were poor, I find that to be a very likely reason, along with the possibility that the informant’s mother was just stubborn – or that her ability to believe in things was strong as is reflected in her devout religiousness. The informant said onions are “stingent” which is not a word but which I believe means to have a strong odor. It is possible that the informant said stringent meaning strict, but that wouldn’t make much sense.