Cure your ills with brown paper and red flannel

by “The Digger” – October 2010

Published in The Ulster Star – October 15th 2010.

A piece of red flannel still adorns a drawer within a household in the Lisburn area

A piece of red flannel still adorns a drawer within a household in the Lisburn area

I can recall a time when I was in shorts accompanying my mother into Menary’s at Market Square, Lisburn. In those days greetings exchanged between the shop assistant and the customer were usually accompanied by using respective names. Those were the days of customer loyalty and familiarity between customer, shop assistants and owners. The hand written receipts in the shopkeeper’s book and the carbon copy always appeared to have a space in the totalling column for discount. Negotiations over a few pence were always part of the transaction and there as an expectation of discount.

Newly purchased clothing would be carefully folded and a length of brown paper would be taken off a roll situated in the vicinity of the counter. Before you could blink the goods had been wrapped and tied neatly with parcel string. The money and a copy of the receipt would be put into a container, attached to an overhead contraption that whipped away across the heads of customers and staff. This fascinated me. Within a few minutes it returned to the shop assistant at the counter and the change was given to the satisfied customer.

The primary interest of course that day would be the clothing that had been purchased. Nothing was wasted. The brown paper that had enveloped the purchase would be salvaged and put into a drawer where it would be indefinitely stored. Sometimes it would be found lining the bottom of a bedroom drawer, or maybe it would make an appearance when the annual ritual of backing school books was required during the first week of September.

Brown paper had other uses. In Victorian times it was used to provide warmth and insulating during the hard winters. Correspondents to local newspapers in the 1870’s recommended specifically to “poor families” that strong sheets of thick paper be stitched to the rear of ragged quilts. It suggested that pieces of the thick paper could be stitched between the lining and the cloth of a waistcoat. Brown paper was considered to be much better than newspapers. In 1879 it was reported that “King Frost” was a terror to many of the poor in society. To combat the effects of the cold a patented blanket was available, made with strong sheets of brown paper, placed under a layer of wadding.

In the Victorian era remedies for croup were published in the local press. Croup was considered then to be a dangerous disease, common in infants. It was said that onion juice roasted in brown paper and mixed with a double portion of honey would be an immediate remedy for the condition. An article published in 1842 claimed that rheumatic pains had been cured within days when a brown paper jacket was worn next to the skin. It was believed to be an effective relief for a sore throat if it was wound round the neck and chest area.

Vinegar and brown paper was certainly a remedy for poor Jack’s after his accident whilst out fetching a pail of water with Jill!

Members of the older generation in the district to whom I have spoken recall their childhood days when brown paper was applied to the chest area and mustard or similar potions to relieve various ailments. One gentleman informed me that his aunt who suffered from chest complaints would have worn brown paper under her clothing during the months October to April and he could recall the “fistling” sound of the paper as she passed by.

In those days many folk wore red flannel as undergarments. Reports in the Victorian press stated that red flannel was worn close to the skin by the inhabitants of Jersey in order to guard against rheumatism, a prevalent condition found amongst the islanders. Local newspapers of the era regularly advertised the sale of red flannel petticoats and shirts. I have heard many stories around the district recollecting a time when the womenfolk wore red flannel petticoats with elastic waists. One lady told me that of you had a sore arm you would have put red flannel on it.

In April 1872 an investigation took place following the discovery of the body of a female infant child in a stream at Ballycraigy near Antrim. The mother was taken into custody and charged with murder, only to be later given a verdict of not guilty and released. At the time of the discovery the child had been found with red flannel around the neck. A lady, who was a nurse to the child, informed the authorities that when the child had a slight cold she would put some red flannel around the neck. In 1880, during a court case relating to the alleged theft of sheep, a description of the suspect was given. It was noted that this person had been muffled up to the chin and his head bound round with red flannel. It was reported at the time that “it was not uncommon for parties to wear mufflers and red flannel during this inclement season…”

There will be many readers who can relate their own experiences relating to the use of the flannel. Spade work, shovelling, digging and ploughing in all weathers rendered many workers susceptible to maladies such as lumbago. Men who worked in quarries were at particular risk. The farmers and labourers would tie red flannel around their torso and tucked in below their trousers, or have it sewn into their shirts. The flannel had a warming effect. It was often said that red flannel had the same effect as a cure or charm when applied to various ailments. One Victorian book, titled “Consult Me” explains that nothing better can be worn next the skin than a loose red flannel shirt. The looseness allows the material to move on the skin “causing a titillation” which in turn draws the blood to the skin’s surface where it is retained, assisting the wearer in avoiding the cold. The flannel was regarded as a slow conductor of heat. Another similar book from that era recommends that during winter months everyone over the age of forty years and younger persons who are not in robust health should wear flannel clothing. There is also a reminder to the reader that when your flannel petticoat has worn thin it can be turned round, doubling the life span of the garment.

Sometimes the simplest remedies are the best!!!

“The Digger” can be contacted via our Contact page or by contacting the Ulster Star Office.

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