241: Camphor

Camphor is a fragrant substance taken mostly from the camphor laurel (Cinnamomum camphora), found across South Asia. Although it’s often synthetically made today, camphor has been used in folk healing and folk magic, in many diverse preparations, across the world for centuries. I still use camphor and beef tallow on my chest when I have a cold, or let some of the crystals dissolve in boiling water to help open up the sinuses. Here are some Ozark and Appalachian uses of camphor:

From “Ozark Magic and Folklore” by Vance Randolph:

“Charley Cummins, veteran newspaperman of Springfield, Missouri, always called a severe cold a tissic that’s his own spelling. He said the only way to cure such a cold was to apply a poultice of lard, camphor, turpentine, and fried onions.”

“Small boys are sometimes forced to wear little bags of camphor sewed to their shirts, to prevent their catching meningitis or infantile paralysis.”

From “Rockabye Baby: Raising Babies in the Early 1900’s” by Lisa Goss and Melinda Stewart:

“Colds were both annoying and sometimes dangerous to babies. There were a variety of cures. Some mothers found it helpful to apply coal oil and turpentine to the chest and neck area to improve breathing. Flora suggested another cure. ‘They would take onions and roast them in the coals of the fires. Press the juice out and rub it on their chests. Take turpentine, camphor and a little vaseline and mix it together. Then rub that on. They would put a cloth over their chest afterwards. It would be a terrible smell. They would smell like an onion, but that would loosen their cold’…Flora had another cure for colic. ‘Put a tiny bit of camphor in water or milk and give it to them in a spoon. Sometimes they wouldn’t be very old when they got colic and camphor is awfully strong. You would have to give a little baby just a little bit. You would turn them up across your shoulder like burping them, and it wouldn’t be long until they would belch.’”

From “Old Time Cures” compiled by Mary Schmalstig and Mike King:

“Fill a quart jar with cedar twigs and branches, excluding needles. Add a 2 ounce bottle of wintergreen oil, 2 bars of camphor gum and 1 cup salt. Then fill the jar with fuel oil or kerosene. Let set for two or three weeks, shaking it twice a week. Drain the liquid into another jar. Rub on the aching area two or three times a day. This liniment is good for SORE THROAT, ACHING MUSCLES, ARTHRITIS and as a BUG REPELLANT.”

From “Foxfire One: Home Remedies” edited by Eliot Wigginton:

For chest congestion – “Apply a mixture of camphor, mutton tallow, soot, pine tar, turpentine, and lard to chest. Make an onion poultice by roasting an onion, then wrapping it in spun-wool rags and beating it so that the onion juice soaks the rags well. Apply these rags to chest.”

For headache – “Rub camphor and white whiskey on head.”

A salve – “Take one cup of pine resin, about one ounce of camphor-phonique, one cup of mutton tallow, and ten to fifteen balm of Gilead buds. Put it all in a frying pan and heat until liquid. Mash the buds until all the juice is out of them. Strain and put into jars and cover. Makes about a pint.”

From “Home Remedies of the Illinois Ozarks” compiled and edited by Kay Carter and Bonnie Krause

In compound applied to chest for colds – “Take kerosene and turpentine and camphor and possum grease if you have it…take this and warm it and put it on a cloth, put that on your chest.”

Camphor and mustard poultice for colds – “I know when I was a child I had pneumonia and my grandmother partly saved my life. She used mustard poultices on my chest. She mixed camphor with the mustard to keep it from burning. She opened the windows and gave plenty of air.”

In compound for colds – “We used goose grease or possum grease and my father would mix powdered quinine, coal oil, or kerosene and turpentine and camphorated oil and made a thing for our chest or to put around out necks.”

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