Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Has anyone ever dismissed a home remedy you used with the comment, “Oh, that’s just an old wives’ tale”? The phrase “old wives’ tale” is often used to describe an old cure or piece of wisdom that has been passed down through the generations. The “tales” include treatments for everything from toothaches to toddler misbehavior, and they vary widely in their accuracy.
We have the King James version of the Bible to thank for the wording of the phrase. “But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness” is found in I Timothy 4:7 in the King James Bible, which was first published in 1611.
During the pioneer years of our nation, old wives’ tales were abundant as women passed down detailed theories on how to keep their families healthy. Some of these bits of 19th-century wisdom are backed by science and are honored today. Others merely stand as intriguing glimpses into the past.
Here is a list of some of our favorite old wives’ tales from the 1800s. We make no distinction between fact and fiction, so try them at your own risk.
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- Plant your garden rows in a straight line because God prefers things to be that way.
- Plant your rows in a North to South direction for best results. Also plant seeds in groups of three following this adage – one for the good, one for the crow, and one to grow.
- Plant crops that grow below the ground (such as carrots and potatoes) during a waning moon, and plant crops that grow above the ground (such as corn and tomatoes) during a waxing moon.
- Bury a scrap of iron along with your roses to help them be more fragrant.
Bee Sting and Bug Bite Treatments
- Use a dab of honey to treat a bee sting and a drop of vinegar for a wasp sting.
- Mold a poultice of soap, mustard, and bread to draw out the poison of a sting.
- Other poultice ingredients include mud, tobacco, dandelion, mullein, honey, and baking soda.
- Apply a damp tea bag to a bite or sting to dry the skin and draw out the poison.
- Place a slice of raw potato over the sting or bite for poison removal and pain relief. Or try a slice of raw onion in the same manner.
- Apply a hair mask of mayonnaise to suffocate the lice. Then comb out the insects and their eggs.
- Wash your hair with vinegar to kill lice.
Get Rid of Warts
- Break a dandelion stem in half and apply the milky liquid inside directly to the wart.
- Rub leftover chicken bones on a wart before bed.
- Wash your hands in the early morning dew.
- Rub a dried bean on the wart. Bury the bean in the ground. In the time it takes for the bean to rot, the wart will be gone. Other similar tales describe the same process with using a piece of raw beef or bacon instead of the bean.
- Rub a penny on the wart. If you spend that penny, the wart will return. A similar version involves rubbing the wart with a white rock.
- Place a piece of bacon over the injured area overnight. Remove the bacon and splinter in the morning.
- Pack a poultice of soap and sugar on the splinter and leave it there overnight. Remove the splinter in the morning. Another version uses a poultice of Epsom salt and water.
Cold and Flu Remedies
- Drink a mixture of one tablespoon of honey, one tablespoon of lemon, and one tablespoon of whiskey.
- Sip the juice of raw onion.
- Swallow a tablespoon of honey to relieve a sore throat.
- Put a clove of garlic in both of your socks. As you walk, the garlic juice from the crushed clove will be absorbed into your skin.
- Apply a poultice of dried mustard and warm water to the chest overnight or until it dries.
- Brew tea made with three cups of water and half-cup of star anise. Simmer for 20 minutes with the lid on the kettle. Then inhale the steam before drinking the tea. Repeat up to four times a day.
- Drink raw apple cider vinegar (including the “mother”).
- Put earwax on a cold sore to help it heal faster.
- Collect the first-morning urine of a pregnant cow. Dab it on the pimples and leave it there for 15 minutes before rinsing. Repeat until pimples are gone.
- Another similar version involves rubbing a urine-soaked cloth baby diaper on the pimples.
- Put toothpaste on acne spots to help them clear up faster.
Burns and Rashes
- Soak a washcloth in vinegar and place it on the affected area for three to five minutes.
- Apply the gel from an Aloe Vera plant on the burn.
- Place the cut side of a white potato directly on the burn.
- Apply egg white to a cooking burn.
- Place a slice of tomato on the burned area.
- Soak a cloth in strong tea and apply to a burn or sunburn.
- Make a poultice of mullein leaves to soothe a burn.
- Apply yellow mustard to a burn or make a poultice of dried mustard and vinegar and leave it on overnight.
Sprains, Strains, and Bruises
- Apply witch hazel to aching muscles.
- Make a poultice of Epsom salt and water. Leave it on overnight or until it dries.
- Rub butter on bumps and bruises.
- Mix mint leaves and aspirin with rubbing alcohol and then apply this paste to sore muscles.
Cuts and Scrapes
- Let your dog lick the wound.
- Cover the wound with a spiderweb.
- Break open a puffball mushroom over the cut.
- Press Spanish moss gently into the wound to stop bleeding and promote healing.
- Use Lamb’s ear on the injured area for its antibacterial and antiseptic properties.
- To stop bleeding, press a piece of plain white bread onto the cut.
- Chew up a leaf of plantain and place this poultice on the cut.
- Press a whole clove of garlic against the affected gum and tooth.
- Peel and then chew the bark of a tickle tongue tree to numb the pain.
- Soak feet for in a tub of hot water that has a cup of turpentine mixed into it.
- Make a thick paste of green walnut husks and water. Paint the feet with the mixture and let it dry before rinsing.
- Place walnut leaves in your shoes.
- Soak your feet in warm water mixed with apple cider vinegar and baking soda. Let your feet air dry and then wear clean cotton socks.
- Spray feet with bleach. Leave it on for 20 minutes before rinsing.
- Urinate on your own feet. Then rinse them.
Children and Pregnancy
- Eating bananas will help you conceive a boy.
- Long labor is the sign that the baby will be a boy.
- Too many hot baths can cause infertility in men.
- Eat veggies while pregnant and your baby will like them when he/she is older.
- Heartburn during pregnancy is another sign of a baby boy.
- You can discover an unborn baby’s gender by tying your ring to a string and hanging it over the pregnant woman’s belly. If it swings in a circle, it’s a boy. If it swings back and forth, it’s a girl.
- Taking a bath while pregnant can drown the fetus.
- Apply cornstarch to the baby’s bottom.
- Brown regular flour in a pan or the oven and when it has cooled, apply it to the baby’s bottom.
- Place rolled oats in a sock and place it in a bath of warm water before bathing baby.
- Apply pure lard to baby’s bottom.
A Few Miscellaneous Tips
- An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
- Cows lie down when it’s going to rain.
- Old people can predict rain by feeling it in their bones.
- A full moon makes people behave strangely.
- Spilling salt means you will have bad luck.
- If your ears are ringing, someone is talking about you.
- Don’t cross your eyes or they’ll get stuck that way.
- Newspapers are great for cleaning glass.
- The sharper the blast, the sooner ’tis past. Loud lightning means the storm is moving quickly and will pass sooner.
- If you pull out a gray hair, two will grow in its place.
- Fish is great for your brain.
- A wooden spoon keeps a pot from boiling over.
- Hair of the dog will ease hangover symptoms.
- Rub a walnut on furniture scratches to remove them.
- Eating carrots is good for your vision.
- You’ll catch a cold if you go out in cold weather without a coat.
- Put a slice of bread in your mouth while slicing onions to stop your eyes from watering.
- Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning.
A Few Miscellaneous Treatments
Here are a few other old wives’ tales that didn’t fit into the other categories.
- Feed a cold, starve a fever.
- Apply salted pork to a boil.
- Chew parsley to get rid of garlic breath.
- Place a thin slice of onion under a bandage to help draw out the infection.
- Eat raisins that have been soaked in gin to ease arthritis pain.
- Applying kerosene to the injured area when you step on a nail or shut your fingers in a door can lessen the pain.
- To reduce restless leg syndrome, put a few potatoes in bed with you at night.
- Apply a mixture of raw eggs and milk to a snake bite.
- Chocolate helps relieve premenstrual cramps.
- Store a spare pair of metal scissors in the ice chest. To treat a nosebleed, place the cold metal scissors on the individual’s bare back.
And here is one final note. Have you heard that eating chicken soup is good for what ails you? This familiar old wives’ tale has been corroborated by science.
Hot soup has been used as a cold remedy since at least the 12th century. And, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it really can help open congested sinuses and ease the inflammation associated with the flu and the common cold.
Chicken soup is especially helpful because it contains water and salt, which work together for hydration and for flushing out nasal passages. Scientists have found that eating chicken soup can actually slow down the white blood cell activity that causes inflammation.
So there you have it, nearly 100 old wives’ tales. I’m sure there are many more.
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Some of these treatments and sayings are true, but many of them aren’t. If any of these work for you, leave a comment and tell us about it!
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My Mom believed and used the mixture of honey and whiskey when we were sick with flu or just a cough. I guess it worked , because we never went to Dr like parents take their kids today. Lol
I used to get bronchitis a lot when I was small. I got a heating pad, tea with honey and chicken soup. I never went to the doctor because doctor mom was always on duty. Perhaps because many women work today, they don’t have time for home remedies and need the quick fix?
Aloe Vera on burn helps. Newspaper to clean mirrors also
newspapers and a spray of vinegar (or vinegar and water, not sure) do wonders and I think it helps to keep the mirror or glass from fogging up (like in a bathroom?)
Ruby Ambler says
I remember my Grandparents and my parents saying A LOT of these…and lots of them really do work…great read!
Love the article! Aways been told to stop cough at night put Vicks vapor rub on bottom of feet and cover with socks and you can sleep soundly. Always worked, not sure why but does!:) And the honey for sore throat when your sick is life saver too for temporary relief.
Pam S says
Here In East Tn, the old folks always said to put a paste of crushed-up Mud Dobbers nest and water on a diaper rash. Tried it – it works !!
A wooden spoon placed over a pot works well
Dirt dobbers nest works for a diaper rash
The mayonnaise and vinegar work on head lice
A raw potatoe cut into small pieces work for nausea
My grand mother used to say alot of the things you’ve posted some are true some are just sayings
Thank you for a great article
I was told that because I am a Gibson, and then Married a Gibson, I cold bake bread and cure the whooping cough..
Love this article! I believe a lot of it to be true! My grandparents passed them down and I still use the honey whiskey lemon for myself and the kids when anyone gets sick!
My Grandmother twice, got rid of my wart when I was a kid by touching it with a sewing pin! I had to hide the pin and I was instructed never tell anyone where I hid it. Being the challenging kid I was…I tested it and told someone and the wort came back! So she had to do it again! This time, I never told anyone & it worked!! Lol!
Great article!!! how about posting more? I love these old things! I’ve been trying to write down my grandparents’ and parent’s sayings as I remember, wanted to do before they all passed but never got to it.
PLEASE add a whole lot more! they are priceless!
My dad had a cold years ago, and sore throat, ate two Raw cloves of garlic, and next day felt great,. Cold and sore throat GONE!
kenneth eames says
Here are two old wives tales for all of you lovely people. The first one is; Babies often start with a kiss. The second one is; I would rather be an Old mans darling than a Young mans Slave.
When we first moved to New Mexico I got bit by some sort of but I don’t know what it was but he got some tabboco and chewed it and put it on the bit and it pulled out the poinson of the insect you could see it on the bandage. We have some nasty bugs here that are poisonus. Some will just make you sick and some can kill you if you don’t do something about it.
I meant to say bug. My fingers roam sometimes when I am typing. It comes with being 70 years old. Sorry for the mistake
Denise P says
My grandma always had a small glass eyedropper in the kitchen cupboard. In it was rubbing alcohol with an dissolved aspirin. She would put it on our mosquito bites to stop it from itching. Still carry one in my purse.
Oil of cloves for a toothache. Tastes strong but it works.
Back in Tennessee one time I was told to put a Little pee into my daughter’s ear to clear up a ear infection. I think you know what my answer to that was. NO
I had the end of a stalk embedded in my foot. My Father put a piece of bacon on it and wrapped it up. The next day the bacon had drawn the stalk out enough that I easily removed it with my fingers!
CB Slaughter says
My mother told me “Never put ice on a burn it will drive the heat deeper. Put butter on it to draw the heat out.” The ice is what I go to now.
I’ve tried both and absolutely ice is the way to go . Butter did nothing at all.
Why torture yourself with ice? Just coat the burn with Vaseline or cooking oil and run cold water over it until it calms down. Also, NEVER BURST A BLISTER because the liquid inside protects and heals the burn without leaving a scar. I have used this method for almost 60 years and it works every time.
Tina Henson says
Love this article! Being from the South , I have heard a lot of these sayings. Thanks for sharing
Red skies in the morning, sailors take warning, red skies at night, sailors delight.
I never saw it referencing shepherds. I guess that comes from living on the coast.
In this retired nurse’s opinion, the kerosene and the terps seem unwise chices.
Tammy Sue says
Well you definitely want kerosene or WD-40 on a fin poke from a catfish. Either one will stop the terrible pain and stinging right away and side note WD-40 with ease joint pain and stiffness from arthritis or over use.
If you have a GODLY man in your family see if he can blow the burn out. My husbands grandfather knew how to do that. One day my oldest son got a burn at his great grandparents house and was screaming holey heck. Pa picked him up and put him on his lap and repeated a verse he knew by heart then took his hand at the top of the burn and blew to the bottom of the burn. MY son was able to get off his lap and go back to playing with nary a burn scar on his arm. He could also treat croop the same way. People wondered how my kids stayed so healthy but they wanted The real science of healing not a old wives tale. I didn’t care my kids benefited by having Pa as their great Grandfather.
Toto prevent getting pregnant ,cross your legs when kissing,
Linda F. says
Chicken soup, Vicks, cold on burn, vinegar and water for windows, baking soda and water for upset stomach. All these are my favorites. Believe in most of the old wives tails .
On splinter my grandmother always put pine tar to draw out splinter
My grandmother’s cure for almost anything was a hot toddie, no matter our age…
Onions were my great grandmother and grandmother’s cure for earaches and fever. Boiling onion and placing it in socks. Earache place sock lying down on ear until pain is gone ( used this for my children as well). Fever same thing except rap the socks on wrist and ankles until fever breaks. Yes it stinks but really does work! Did the mustard pack for pneumonia once be very careful with that as it can easily burn your skin but indeed works!
Vicks on your feet with socks for chest congestion per my Nonna