The Best Medicine


Our Daily Correspondent


“He just simply couldn‘t stop it / He never knew when it was coming”: Winsor McCay‘s Little Sammy Sneeze, 1905.

If you’re not sick, you soon will be, and all the hand sanitizer in the world won’t save you. Everyone is a potential foe; no one wants to admit it. This morning on the subway, everyone was coughing and sneezing with varying degrees of discretion. The only people who seemed at all comfortable were two Japanese tourists wearing paper surgical masks. Well, maybe also the old man with a roll of toilet paper hanging around his neck on a loop of string. I envied all of them. 

All you can do is read Mark Twain. He wrote “How to Cure a Cold” for the Golden Era shortly after arriving in San Francisco in September 1863. Twain may never have actually said the famous thing about a San Francisco summer being the coldest winter he’d ever known, but the Bay Area fog was presumably enough to aggravate a lingering head cold—well, that or a nineteenth-century cross-country train ride. According to a series of humorous letters to the editor Twain sent in to the Call and the Enterprise around this period, he’d had the cold—and an ensuing bout of bronchitis—for at least a month when he wrote this piece chronicling various home remedies. 

The first time I began to sneeze, a friend told me to go and bathe my feet in hot water and go to bed.

I did so.

Shortly afterward, another friend advised me to get up and take a cold shower-bath. 
I did that also.

Within the hour, another friend assured me that it was policy to “feed a cold and starve a fever.”

I had both.

I thought it best to fill myself up for the cold, and then keep dark and let the fever starve a while.

In a case of this kind, I seldom do things by halves; I ate pretty heartily; I conferred my custom upon a stranger who had just opened his restaurant that morning; he waited near me in respectful silence until I had finished feeding my cold, when he inquired if the people about Virginia were much afflicted with colds?

I told him I thought they were.

He then went out and took in his sign.

I started down toward the office, and on the way encountered another bosom friend, who told me that a quart of salt water, taken warm, would come as near curing a cold as anything in the world.

I hardly thought I had room for it, but I tried it anyhow.

The result was surprising; I must have vomited three-quarters of an hour; I believe I threw up my immortal soul.

Now, as I am giving my experience only for the benefit of those who are troubled with the distemper I am writing about, I feel that they will see the propriety of my cautioning them against following such portions of it as proved inefficient with me – and acting upon this conviction, I warn them against warm salt water.

It may be a good enough remedy, but I think it is too severe. If I had another cold in the head, and there was no course left me but to take either an earthquake or a quart of warm salt water, I would cheerfully take my chances on the earthquake.

The whole text is available here. And while the cures Twain details may sound highly dubious, take a look in your own medicine cabinet: at this time of year, most of us have enough tinctures, neti pots, supplements, and balms to furnish a small-time medicine show. (Since I just spent the better part of a month’s rent on some cold-pressed concoction containing echinacea, green tea, and an unpleasant note of oregano, I’ll withhold my own judgments.)

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review and the Daily’s correspondent.