Daddy Has Sore Back

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, December 8, 1913:  Had to help Daddy with his work today. He has a sore back and can’t do much.


Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:


Oh dear, I hope your father isn’t in too much misery.  A backache can be so, so painful.

You must have a soft spot in your heart for your father when he’s ill. You generally refer to him as Pa, but I see that today you called him Daddy.


Often when I start researching a post, I’m amazed by how much information I find. Today isn’t one of those days.

I thought that it would be easy to find information in hundred-year-old books about how treat backaches—but I found very little.

I got a 1913 book out of the library called When to Send for the Doctor and What to do Before the Doctor Comes. It had information about sore throats, fevers, sick stomachs, and bowel troubles—but nothing about backaches.

I then pulled out a 1911 book called Personal Hygiene and Physical Training for Women  –even though it was her father and not her mother with the backache—because it has lots of great health care information. And, I again came up short. Nothing about backaches–just some information about posture, rounded shoulders, and curvature of the spine.

Finally, I got out my copy of The Compendium of Every Day Wants (1908). It didn’t have detailed information, but I finally found some liniments and ointments for “lame back.” For example, here are directions for making a liniment that could be used to “bath” the sore area:

Mix 1/3 pound of cayenne pepper with 1 pint of pure alcohol.

Today, there are lots of books with detailed information about treating backaches. I can’t figure out why I couldn’t find much in the hundred-year-old books. I’ll have to dig around some more, and if I learn more about old-time backache treatments I’ll tell you about them in a future post.

44 thoughts on “Daddy Has Sore Back

  1. I’m sure it was difficult on men in those days when they had pains of any sort – so much manual work to be done. Glad Grandma could give him a hand!

  2. 1/3 lb Cayenne, I must have that sitting around somewhere…a pint of alcohol…I’ll be taking that orally! As usual a facinating post. Interesting that there would be a book for personal hygiene and training; those 2 topics seem so random and unconnected.

    1. Somehow the information in the personal hygiene and training book reminds me of how the same teacher taught gym and health when I was in high school. The book frames the information in a similar way.

  3. I always do enjoy stopping by and reading this old journal and your thoughts. How many years does the diary continue? Can you continue to blog into your old(er) age? 🙂

    1. The diary ends in December 1914. It began in January 1911, so I’m almost three-quarters of the way through it. Sometimes I’m absolutely amazed how quickly the years have flown.

  4. I have a copy of The Cottage Physician 1893-1895 from my mothers family articles. For pains in the back: If weakness be the cause, cold bathing, the shower bath, and squeezing a sponge repeatedly down the back, together with vigorous rubbing with a rough towel, will be found efficacious. Rest, in a recumbent or semi-recumbent position, will also alleviate the pain and contribute to its removal.

  5. That’s interesting about not finding info on backaches. Maybe they weren’t a common complaint, although I’m sure more people had them back then due to the backbreaking work they had to do each day.

  6. I always felt bad when the farmers in my family were they under the weather–they just had to soldier on and get to the barn. The cows couldn’t wait.

    1. We’re both fortunate to have our grandmothers; diaries. One thing that I’ve discovered when reading my grandmother’s diary is that I get more out of it if I only read a little bit at a time. All of the minor events tend to blur together when I read a lot–but the small details pop out at me when I only read a little. .

  7. Oh my that back treatment could really irritate sensitive skin. Have you considered researching what kind of herbal treatments or folk remedies may have been used? As farm people your Grandmother’s family might have had familiarity with such remedies.

    Although written in the late 1920s-early 1930s Jethro Koss’ “Back to Eden” contains many older herbal treatments that were in use in the early 20th century. Kloss himself came into contact with them in the early 20th century as he began to seek treatments for the ailments that he experienced during living and working in a big city. Some of the treatments he writes about were documented in the diary of a housewife in an earlier period.

    1. I didn’t realize that I was going to have difficulty finding information for this post, so I didn’t get started researching it as early as I should have. It would be interesting to learn more about folk remedies and herbal treatments. The Koss book sounds good, I’ll have to look for it.

  8. Living in a farming community that has not changed a whole lot in the past 100 years (except for using powered tools), they porbably did not stop doing tasks because of a sore back. They just hurt more until they could not move. Of course, this generally develops into degenerative disc disease (slipped discs). Regarding the cayenne pepper mix, this would have been rubbed onto the sore area to relieve muscle pain/spasms. Modern day rubs from the drug store which contain capsaicin, which is ground chili pepper, work the same way. This generates a chemical reaction with the skin, stimulating dialation of capilaries and blood flow. Most people experience this as warms, which generally feels more comfortable than achy muscles. Increased blood flow also brings in more healing nutrients and helps flush out toxins that can result in pain. Cayanne pepper probably had a similair affect. Many home remedies had a good basis for use from years of experience… or were just a cover for alcohol.

    1. Thanks for the wonderful information. I didn’t have a clue that an ingredient in modern day rubs is really ground chili pepper. Interesting. . .

  9. I know you are a talented researcher. Most likely they didn’t use the term “sore back” but if you came across lumbago, it might be the answer. Also there was always talk about mustard plasters in those times. Bed rest was surely the cure for all ails.

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