Birthing, Nursing and Treating It Yourself in the Old Days

Reminiscence of Ellen Michaud, A Practical Nurse

Interviewer: Jill Boice

Ellen Day was born in 1893 in Carthage, Missouri. Her family moved to Colorado when she was 14 and lived for a time in North Park. It was then a "wild west" sort of place where cowboys coming to town shot their guns in the air for fun. The family soon moved to Ft. Collins where her father worked for a sugar beet factory.

Ellen had wanted to be a nurse since she was a little girl; if her dolls had "headaches" she'd use the usual remedy of tying a cloth around their heads.

Her formal training lasted only a few months at the old hospital on Mathews Street. She'd already graduated from the eighth grade back in Missouri and had a year and a half of high school at the city's original high school on Meldrum Street. When she got sick and had to leave nurses' training, she was as qualified as most to become a practical nurse.

Practical nursing consisted of accompanying a doctor, assisting him in treatment and then often living with the family to help until the sick person was recovered. In the case of a new mother, she'd usually stay about two weeks to help with the family and even to do the housework. During the years when Ellen was nursing and birthing her own children, women were kept in bed for fourteen days after childbirth.

"Nowadays, women get up and march around on the third or fourth day. And some of them get up about the first day!"

Almost all babies were born at home. She could recall only one woman who went to the hospital because she needed to be delivered by a Caesarean operation.

Ellen was 19 when she began nursing. She'd married her first husband Claude McNutt just before she turned 17 and had two children, but most of her nursing career was while she was married to her second husband Felix Michaud. Michaud's mother had fourteen children and another Michaud relative had eighteen children. So big families were the usual in those days. She once helped deliver the tenth baby to a family. She only recalls one mother who was ill for some time after giving birth. "The rest of them seemed to get along just fine."

The mother of ten children said she loved them all. And they were all good to her; the older children helping with the younger ones.

Ellen worked for several doctors and is impressed by the changes in medical care since her days as a nurse. She credited her age of 81 at the time of the interview to the good medical care she had received. In her day, Penicillin had not been invented, but at least there was anesthesia for childbirth. It was her job to administer it by putting a few drops of ether into a cotton pad and holding it over the woman's nose to breathe, all as the doctor directed.

Children got diseases such as whooping cough, measles, mumps, and chicken pox, which are now prevented by vaccinations. "When I was growing up . . . if you got typhoid fever and made it through, you were lucky."

Infant mortality was high; she recalled one mother who lost an eleven months old baby to measles.

Not that there were no treatments; ;home remedies were often used and often worked. Iodine was commonly used for cuts and scrapes; its red color being transferred to the wound. Most people knew how to make a poultice by mixing together something like an egg and salt in a thick mixture, which would be held to the wound with a bandage. This would draw the poison out. She remembered her sister being treated this way after stepping on a nail. On the subject of eggs, she claimed that putting the white of an egg on your face would "get rid of a lot of wrinkles."

Dry mustard mixed with egg white or plain water if you didn't have an egg, made another kind of poultice. This was laid on the chest of a person and covered with two layers of flannel to help a person with a bad cold or even pneumonia. Another "cure" for a cold was to boil sliced onions with sugar to make a sort of cough syrup. It would break up a cough and loosen phlegm in one's lungs and throat. Yet another cold remedy involved mixing camphor, turpentine and pig lard and greasing the chest with that before covering it with the always useful flannel cloth.

Ellen concluded that although such remedies might not work better than today's cures, they "worked as good." (The interviewer in 1974 interjected, "that sounds better than going to a doctor and paying six dollars to get a pill!)

Ellen also remembered that when she was young, children were sent to school with a waxy dab of something called asafetida in a little bag tied around their necks to ward off disease. (According to Webster's, it is the fetid gum resin of various Oriental plants and was a "general prophylactic against disease.") Ellen could remember her grandmother doing this for her and speculated that if it prevented disease it was because "you smelled so bad no one would get close to you!" Then again, all the children wore them so they'd all stink together.

She wasn't sure how broken bones were treated. Her sister had a sore arm for so long that she thought it must have been broken. Their mother simply bound the arm tightly with a strip of cloth, and eventually it healed. Once a neighbor man broke a leg. Two men set it by one man holding it up and the other man pulling it until it was "set," then binding it to a thin board. He never went to a doctor; it healed, although he did limp afterwards.

Another man lost his arm in a threshing machine accident. He got gangrene in the wound and died from it. Before the time of "Band Aids," people made their own bandages of cloth and string. The cloth was hopefully clean, but not usually sterilized. Her mother kept an old sheet in a bag to keep it clean for the purpose of tearing off bandages. "People didn't worry about germs like we do now." When cows were milked, the milk was kept in a breezeway; or if the family had a spring on the property, a little house was built over it and the milk cans set in a trough inside where the cold water would chill them. In either case, she did not recall the cans having lids, only a cloth placed over them.

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