Liniment From Mrs. Weber

Well, this certainly would be, uhm, fragrant.

If you’ve got designs of going back in time to be a cook in a 1930s farmhouse, an 1860s chuck wagon (which we talked about in the post for chuck wagon casserole from Winston-Salem, North Carolina), or anything in-between, you’re going to know how to mix together a liniment. Just as barbers were once doctors, cooks were expected to be compounding pharmacists.

As a category, liniments are intended to do two different things. One is to change (usually increase) the friction between a hand and the part of the body it’s rubbing–today, we’d use massage oils to lower the friction or rubbing alcohol to increase the friction. The other is to offer some kind of neuralgic pain relief, which is to say, some kind of topical sensation that tricks nerve endings into sending fewer pulses of pain about an over-worked body part. Today, we’d use a mentholated cream like Icy Hot, in all probability.

So a farm family, for example, might rub each other’s sore back with liniment to increase the massaging effect while offering some topical pain relief. These days most “muscle rub” products smell like one of three things: menthol (because that’s the active ingredient in some), wintergreen (because methyl salicylate is the active ingredient in others), or a sort of nonspecific undertone of chili (because low-dose capsaicin products are available, although it’s not clear that they work). But on the farm or on the trail, the presumption was that the worse a liniment smelled, the harder it worked.

Consider this formulation from the December 3, 1926 edition of The Lima (Ohio) News:

A very good liniment for folk who like to know they’re using a liniment is

Plain U.S. Ammonia Liniment

This was formerly called volatile liniment–a hint that it should be freshly made when needed, as it soon loses its strength on standing.

Three ounces of ammonia water mixed with five ounces of cotton seed oil, olive oil, sweet almond oil or lard oil. Probably lard gives the best results, and if half an ounce of alcohol can be added it will improve the consistence of the liniment. Plain U.S. ammonia liniment is liquid at ordinary temperature, white, opaque, and even with much rubbing you are pretty sure to know it is working.

Ordinary household ammonia may be used to make these liniments; for “stronger ammonia water” use one part household ammonia with two parts water; for “ammonia water” use one part household ammonia with four parts water.

To those on the outside looking into the mysteries of medicine these liniments may not look so good, but from the inside looking out for the health of those on the outside I think they are not so bad.

Most of these things are still used in liniment-type preparations today–even turpentine, in some cases, though maybe not in this concentration. Effective? Mmm, probably, on small areas. Over-use would likely lead to blistering. But remember, the amount of pain something caused topically was considered a sign of its efficacy. Commercial liniments of the late 19th century included brand names like Hornet’s Nest and Barbed Wire.

I think I’ll stick with this:

From a notebook originally from somewhere in the general area of Sterling, Colorado from the 1930s.

This recipe is from the 45th page of the notebook; here’s the page in full (click to enlarge).

Click to expand a longer explanation...

In the words of the seller:
I acquired this book from the great granddaughter of the woman who wrote this book back in a small Nebraska town in the 30’s. She belonged to that generation of rural housewives who worked tirelessly to make ends meet and “keep body and soul together” for their families working the farms.

Later addendum:[A]fter a conversation I had with a friend’s sister who used to live in North Eastern Colorado, given the type of recipes listed we decided it might be from a small town there, i.e., Sterling or Fort Morgan. Also North Platte or Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Even Cheyenne, Wyoming. If you Google a map of Sterling, Colorado and pull back, you will see all these little towns in that tri-state area.

Liniment From Mrs. Weber

Equal parts of each:

  • Raw [linseed?] oil
  • Alcohol
  • Turpentine
  • Ammonia

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