Isolation: Then and Now

Now that winter is here and we face the new COVID-19-related need for more social isolation, a slice of Alberta History from Norah L. Lewis’ article Goose Grease and Turpentine may provide some perspective on our notion of hardship. 

Lewis reviewed the women’s pages of farm and ranch newspapers and magazines spanning 1900 to 1920 where she discovered “a vital peer and generational support network to women living on the homesteads and ranches of the Canadian northwest.”   

This early equivalent of the internet was vital for many reasons. Lewis reports that many settlers were previously urban dwellers unfamiliar with farm-related dangers and dependent upon neighbours, family members close by and urban services. These pioneers took the risk, so that they could own property and make a better life for future generations. 

The Dominion Survey (1876), a government led initiative, inadvertently imposed physical distancing on our brave forbears. At least initially, Canadian farm homes were placed further apart than anywhere in the world (MacDougal, 1913 in Lewis). Physical distance and bad roads made scarce, costly emergency medical services and drugs impractical.  Subsequently,

In their home treatments shared with others in rural newspapers, women used those materials readily available– the contents of their cupboards, pantries and gardens.  The effectiveness of the recipes offered is open to discussion, but women believed it was better to fail than watch a [family member] die. 

Home RemedyAilments
Turpentine Taken internally for urinary complaints, respiratory congestion
Applied externally for pain or rheumatism or wounds
VinegarInternal use: emetic (poisoning, foreign objects swallowed), cleansing wounds
Kerosene (coal oil)Mixed with other substances and taken internally for colds and chest congestion
SaltDissolved or heated: emetic, compress for sprains, sore areas and chilblains
Mustard/PepperStimulants, poultices for infections
Nutmeg/GingerFlatulence, nausea, and vomiting
Animal fats including goose grease, skunk oil, Medium for (mustard/pepper) plasters and poultices for infections, respiratory congestion; liniment for muscle strains.
Source: Extracted from Lewis, N.L. (2015) Goose Grease and Turpentine. 

How do the realities of such frontier medicine and marginal incomes compare to a couple more of weeks of isolation in centrally heated houses with electric lights, stoves that don’t require a woodpile, indoor plumbing, TV, the internet, online shopping for groceries and prescriptions, fax machines, Zoom,  911, modern medicine and STARS Air Ambulance?