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Texas | Columns | "It's All Trew"

Coal oil was useful all-purpose home remedy

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
Recently, while browsing through a stack of books at a garage sale, I found a modern day medical encyclopedia. Priced at $1, the book was a bargain, so I took it home to read.

I was amazed at the number of diseases and maladies listed I had never heard of before.

I was equally amazed at the remedies and cures offered and thought how useful the information would have been during my childhood. Everyone was poor, had little money for medicines or doctors and used home remedies on all but serious illnesses.


For headache, lie down with a cold washrag on your forehead. For binding intestinal problems, mineral oil or castor oil usually provided relief. For internal problems of the opposite nature, take a few spoons full of flour paste.

For croup, coughs, or pneumonia you were treated with Vicks, Mentholatum or camphor. If the problems persisted, add a dash of coal oil to the cough syrup and another dash to the hot cloth being applied to your chest or throat. All surface wounds of any type were soaked in coal oil daily to prevent infection.

My big toe, wounded over 50 years ago by a wayward post hole digger, rested in coal oil each day for weeks. Today, when I trim the toenail, I can still smell a hint of coal oil in the air.

Aunt Ida, who as a little girl in Oklahoma Territory, jumped off the porch onto a rusty nail in a piece of firewood and nearly lost a foot in the process. The doctor finally gave up and told her to go home and soak the wound in coal oil twice a day and pray for healing. The remedy worked.


As I suspected, a detailed search of the book did not show coal oil as a recommended remedy for any malady. I now believe use of the concoction was for purely psychological reasons. The taste and smell was so terrible no one complained again after being dosed.

The story is told of a Dust Bowl-era employee with a drinking problem. When he caught the whooping cough, Grandma Trew cured his cough and his drinking problem with a combination of whiskey, lemon and coal oil, warmed slightly. Again, psychology and the horrible taste might have had significant influence on the cure.

I recall one time after Grandma Trew treated me with a generous dose of coal oil and castor oil, Grandpa Trew mischievously whispered a warning not to pass gas while standing against a hot wood stove.


Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" April 1 , 2004 column

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