The song discusses a girl known as ‘Poison Ivy’. She is compared to measles, mumps, chickenpox, the common cold, and whooping cough; but is deemed worse, because ‘Poison Ivy, Lord, will make you itch’. According to lyricist Jerry Leiber, "Pure and simple, 'Poison Ivy' is a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease".
The song has been covered by numerous artists such as ‘The Dave Clark Five’: ‘The Rolling Stones’: ‘The Hollies’: ‘Manfred Mann’: ‘Linda McCartney’ and many others.
It is appropriate this morning as I attend hospital for nerve conductive tests on my dislocated shoulder that a recent operation four months ago was unable to make right, that I examine several health remedies of my past. I refer not to the more serious ones but rather to those methods that my mother and her mother and grandmother before her swore by to deal with in the home instead of taking their child to the doctor’s surgery.
This song reminds me of all my mother’s potions that she used to give all her children when we were young and returned home with itchy skin, burning sensations, cuts and all manner of everyday scrapes that children got in the rough and tumble of playing out on the streets, going on adventures in the woods and the meadows, and rolling in the grass and God only knows elsewhere.
‘THE NETTLE REMEDY’ was often used to take away unwanted pain. This was a very clever method that was explained to my mother by a peg-selling Romany in 1936, which used the sophistication of human psychology. It involved ‘tricking the mind by giving it something else to worry about’. My mum would remove the first lot of pain from my mind instantly, by inflicting a greater amount of pain on the body to cope with. She did this by rubbing my bruised and bloodied legs with bunches of stinging nettles. She used to tell me, “Billy, cry as long and as hard as you want to! The louder you cry, the quicker the pain will go!” And do you know what? It always worked! By the time my voice was hoarse with crying, the pain had mysteriously vanished.
‘THE CALAMINE LOTION WIZARD'S POTION' was a remedy to irradicate itching and it was imparted to my mother by a one-eyed butcher from County Cork. Upon hearing of the remedy my mother asked the butcher, “How much do I need to dab on his skin to take away his itches?” The butcher replied, “Don’t dab, woman, just pour the entire bottle all over his body and after rubbing it in thoroughly, let him keep it on overnight before you scrub it off him the following morning”. The words in the song that refers to ‘an ocean of Calamine lotion’ reminds me of these days.
'THE SQUEEZING BLACKHEAD REMEDY' from one’s face was a practice that mothers with the longest and sharpest of fingernails could perform with ease. Indeed, I often felt that my mother performed this task with the pleasure of a smiling sadist lancing a boil or squeezing out the last bit of pus hiding beneath the skin surface of their spotty adolescent child.
A Blackhead (blocked sweat) is a sebaceous duct of skin known medically as an ‘open comedo’. The medical dictionary defines a ‘comedo’ as being a clogged hair follicle (pore) in the skin, whereby Keratin (skin debris) combines with oil to block the follicle. A 'comedo' can be open (Blackhead) or closed by skin (Whitehead) and occur with or without acne. Blackheads are more common in the adolescent during puberty when oil production in the sebaceous glands increases. Oxidation rather than poor hygiene or dirt causes Blackheads to be black. Washing or scrubbing the skin too much could make it worse, by irritating the skin. Touching and picking at comedones might cause irritation and spread infection. They may have been the smallest of things, but they jolly well hurt to excavate from one’s skin.
As my mother squeezed with all her might and her nails buried themselves beneath the base of the Blackhead in my skin surface, she would be humming or singing some Irish song as she excavated the offending skin duct that was embedded deep within my adolescent face. Meanwhile, I would be crying out in pain and anguish.
'THE LANCING OF BOILS REMEDY' was frequently employed during the less hygienic and health conscious period of the 1940s and 1950s. There were two methods that my mum applied to this situation, and it was largely dependent on the size of the boil and the amount of pus it harboured. If the boil was a large one and contained an amount of pus that would fill an egg cup, my mother would get out her special knife from dad’s shed. This was the smallest and sharpest knife in the house which she used exclusively for peeling the skin off potatoes and turnips, slicing through tripe and cutting off the ears and nose of a pig’s head before putting in the cooking pot to simmer on the boil for ten hours or more. She also used this special knife for the lancing of boils of course!
But far, worse was the second method my mother used for dealing with boils. Only the bravest of the brave would take this course of preferred treatment, but if ‘the knife’ was being used elsewhere, alternative means of getting rid of the boil would be required. The method involved a bandage, a large bowl, a boiling kettle of water and a third of a loaf of sliced bread.
Mum would boil up the water as she crumbled the sliced bread into chunky pieces before placing in the bowl. Next, she would pour the boiling hot water over the bread and mush it up with a spoon. Then, using gloves to prevent her own hands getting burnt, she would spread the steaming hot bread poultice on the bandage with a blunt kitchen knife, and before you knew what was coming next, mum would have slapped the red-hot poultice over the boil. As you jumped out of your seat and screamed to high heaven, mum would quickly have wrapped the bandage tight around the area of the boil. One would then have to sleep overnight in the poultice, and in the morning, the bread would be caked to the skin and as hard as cement. After picking off the congealed bread slices, the boil would no longer be there. It would itch terribly of course after it had been scraped off one’s body, but there was always the Calamine Lotion to revert to if the itch was too irksome to tolerate.
'THE CARBOLIC SOAP EXPERIENCE' was something that stayed with one long after first application and use. Each time a child of poorer households washed or bathed, we were made to scrub our hands and body with ‘carbolic soap’. One could always distinguish the poorer child to his better off classmate; not by how clean they were but how cheaply they stank when you stood next door to them. Whenever one used carbolic soap to wash oneself, the stench of the odour would linger until one’s body was covered in muck and grime again. Such an odour remained so strong to the ‘nostrils of shame’ that it was entirely possible to store and reproduce in one’s memory many years after using on one’s skin.
I have often wondered where we would have been without the potions and lotions of the white witches, the peg-selling gipsies, the one-eyed butchers from County Cork and old wives’ recipes? I’m still here though, and although it was 70 years ago when I was last washed and scrubbed with carbolic soap, I swear I can still smell its presence! The one thing thankfully that was never used on me by my mother as a healing agent was ‘poison ivy’.
Love and peace Bill xxx