/ Food & Drink, Home & Energy, Money

Are Old Wives’ Tales relevant in the modern world?

Old Wives’ Tales are handed down through the generations. But do they bear any relevance to modern life? Which? Conversation community member Ian explores the truth behind these tales.

What do hairy babies, pennies and carrots have in common? Not much, you might think, but each is a component of the ever-popular Old Wives’ Tales.

Which of us hasn’t been told something by a grandparent or great grandparent which we may well have believed as children, but which might also have been little more than a saying passed down the generations?

‘Eat your carrots as they help you see in the dark’ or ’having heartburn during pregnancy will mean a hairy baby’

These are but two of the countless fragments of folklore, and we often dismiss them as outmoded and irrelevant sayings. But what if they’re not?

Fact or fiction?

Although we live in a society which often turns to science for solutions to everything, from cleaning wine-stained carpets to treating colds, what we often forget is that science has been using many of the ideas behind the sayings to develop modern solutions.

Aspirin, for instance, was developed from those who chewed willow bark as an analgesic and – interestingly – having heartburn during pregnancy could increase your chance of having a hairy baby, as a Johns Hopkins team who set out to disprove the adage discovered – to their surprise.

But one crucial factor about these old sayings is that some of them not only work rather well, but they can save us a lot of money.

Instead of paying for an armoury of chemicals, simply using bicarbonate of soda, lemon juice, newspaper and vinegar can make the kitchen, bathroom and windows sparkle as well as removing stubborn stains from dishes and sinks.

A penny for your thoughts

So what remedies do you know? Snippets passed down from grandparents perhaps, or old sayings you can barely remember but that might have an application today.

Can an apple a day keep the doctor away? Perhaps you routinely use ideas from your parents to clean tricky items, such as suede or brass, or perhaps you know a sure-fire method for cleaning windows that costs next to nothing. If you have an idea, share it below and perhaps we can all start saving money.

This is a guest post by Ian, a regular community member on Which? Conversation. All opinions are Ian’s own, not necessarily those of Which? We chose Ian’s idea from the ‘Your ideas’ section on the website, make sure you share your ideas too.



Man-made chemical concepts inadequately tested?


Exactly diesel thats why I am against GMO and “food ” which is more chemical than nourishment. Forget all the scientific talk just get down to basics or “brass tacks ” as they say up north . How did we develop our immune syndrome of our white cells attacking viruses ,germs etc . 10,000 .s of years of eating something dying from it or being very ill passing that onto our children who over 1000.s of years had their DNA modified to cope with food that made previous generations very ill . How do scientists expect the human race to ingest chemicals that have only been out for a VERY short time in relation to human evolution and not have long term side -effects . ?? any answers ?


DT – I doubt that some of the traditional ways of preserving food would be allowed if they were introduced today. Carcinogenic nitrosamines are produced in meat treated with nitrites, particularly when cooked. I learned about this when I was a student in the early 70s. Traditionally smoked food will contain a cocktail of carcinogens.

As the authors of the study on emulsifiers say, more research is needed, but it seems likely that their use in food products might have to be restricted in future.

It might be easier to deal with problems with newer food ingredients than those caused by traditional foods and processing. 🙁

I’m not sure if I can remember what bacon tastes like.


I would have thought smoking food like meat or fish as a way of preservation would go back thousands of years.

And bacon tastes wonderful !!! 🙂


That’s my point, Alfa. I think we need to periodically review the safety of all food, irrespective of whether it is the latest processed concoction or something that has been around for years. A lot of modern ‘smoked’ food just flavoured. It might not be authentic but could be safer.


It seems a pity to completely deprive oneself of all processed foods. The key is, and reverting back to the subject topic and old wives tales, “a little bit of what you fancy does you good”. In other words, moderation in all things. I rarely eat bacon but do on occasion treat myself to a BLT sandwich.

Wavechange, many thanks for providing the FSA link re allergies. I have registered with them and I am now receiving regular updates.


Another look into yesteryear:
From 1001 Household Hints (1940’s?) – Kitchen, Cooking, Baking, etc. Part 2
If onions are peeled upwards from the roots they will affect the eyes very little.

Put one or two small potatoes, washed and dried but not peeled in the breadpan to keep your bread moist and fresh.

If potatoes have boiled into the water let them cool. Put into a clean teacloth, squeeze out the water, and you will be left with excellent floury potatoes.

Pour boiling water over your carrots and then plunge them into cold water. The skins will fall away, and carrots will be ready for cooking.

Dry the green type of celery in the oven, rub it down to a powder and place in a jar. Use for flavouring soups and stews.

Try mashed parsnips as a sandwich filling. It’s delicious! The addition of a little mace, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice makes the mixture almost oysterish.

After peeling onions rub your hands at once with a piece of raw potato. Unpleasant smell will vanish.

Parsley can be kept almost indefinitely, and will preserve its fresh green colour if you wash stem, and lightly dry by shaking gently in a clean towel. Pack tightly in glass jars between layers of salt.

Simple foods like carrots, potatoes, and oatmeal are first-class health protectors. Don’t over-cook them.

To prevent cheese going mouldy it should be wrapped in a cloth wrung out in vinegar.

Eggs can be beaten more rapidly if a pinch of cream of tartar is beaten with them.

Hard food should find a place in every household. Stale bread baked into rusks in a slow oven can be served with dripping. Warming and excellent for the teeth.

Immediately you pour out milk, porridge, etc., from the saucepan replace the lid. The steam loosens the milk or porridge clinging inside, and makes for easier cleaning.

Stand your milk bottle in a bowl of cold water to which you have added a tablespoonful of salt and one of washing soda. This will keep milk from going sour.

To keep milk from turning sour in hot weather put a small piece of horseradish into it in the morning.

Do not throw away burnt milk. Mix a little cocoa and cornflour and make a chocolate blancmange. The burnt taste will not be noticed.

Instead of using all milk for your milk puddings now that milk is so scarce, try adding 25% water and, in addition, one tablespoonful of shredded suet. The result is a lovely creamy pudding, and the addition of water is unnoticed.

A little dripping and a good-sized potato grated into the flour will solve the suet problem when making steamed puddings. These will make them as light as can be.

Put thick sour milk in pan, and heat slowly till the curd and whey separate. Pour into a muslin bag, and drip for several hours. Then beat up with a teaspoonful of butter or margarine and pepper and salt. This is a tasty sandwich spread.

Put stale bread and scones in milk and place them in a hot oven for a few minutes. This makes them like new again.

Put an ordinary pie chimney in the pan when boiling milk, the milk will boil up the chimney and not over the pan.


Another look into yesteryear:
From 1001 Household Hints (1940’s?) – Wardrobe, Footwear

Crushed rock sulphur is odourless, but placed among garments in the wardrobe will keep moths away.

Fine sandpaper is excellent for cleaning light-coloured felt hats. Just rub lightly over the whole surface of the hat.

Stitch a strip of blotting paper between the ribbon and your hat to absorb the moisture and keep the ribbon clean.

Epsom salts will keep moths away. Tie up in little muslin bags and place in cupboards, wardrobes, and drawers.

Rub the leaky spots of your raincoat with beeswax and then iron through brown paper to make it quite rainproof again.

Before putting away children’s print dresses for the winter unpick the hems and iron flat. They will be much easier to lengthen and will show no ugly ridge.

Vinegar and ink mixed will clean a black bowler or lady’s black felt hat equal to new. Rub well in with a piece of silky rag.

If your child’s felt hat has become too small, make several slits in the felt below the ribbon to get the required size.

To restore old brown shoes, wash them with a mixture of milk and turpentine in equal quantities.

When house slippers start to wear, cut soles the same size and shape from left-over linoleum and glue firmly on to the old soles. This will give them a new lease of life. Allow soles to get perfectly dry before use.

When the soles of your Wellingtons wear thin, fit a pair of half galoshes over them and give them another lease of life.

Good inner soles for footwear may be cut out of thin asbestos board.

Renew the shabby toes and heels of old brown shoes by giving two or three coatings of iodine. Polish as usual when dry.

Badly stained brown shoes can be improved in appearance by rubbing with a piece of flannel dipped in turpentine. Dry overnight and polish with white shoe cream.

Scratches on patent leather shoes make them look dowdy. Paint over with colourless nail varnish. They will look like new.

When jumpers and pullovers show signs of wear at the elbows, darn the hole carefully on the inside. Then remove both sleeves and change them over. This will mean that the darn is on the inside of the sleeve, and will not show at all.

Darn your silk stockings before beginning to wear them. When they do wear it will be the “darn” that will wear and the darn can be picked out and the place darned again.