/ 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?

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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.

Thanks for another fascinating collection of household remedies Alfa. The time people must have had to do these jobs, but it was a matter of necessity when incomes were low and many goods were unavailable during wartime rationing. Children grew bigger and their clothes had to be made bigger to fit them. Clothes were always bought over-sized in the first place, of course, and were ultimately passed down and around to other children who could fit them; nowadays we buy new clothes to fit the children.

From a decade later, here are some Home Hints from the News of the World’s Household Guide and Almanac of 1954:

Keep old lipstick containers. Dig the end into a cake of household soap so you have a soap ‘lipstick’. Keep in your handbag and it will make an excellent ladder-stop when you are caught out-of-doors with a ladder in your stocking.

Spirits of salts will remove smoke marks from fireplaces. Protect the hands, as this chemical is dangerous.

After writing labels for parcels, etc., rub over the ink with a candle and then the ink will not run even if it comes in contact with moisture or rain.

To prevent your metal clothes line from marking your washing, paint it with white enamel. [I think the writer must have meant the metal clothes line post.]

John, did things change much in your 1954 Almanac?

I seem to remember my grandmother had a metal clothes line. Would it have been thin wire thread twisted into a sort of thick metal rope?

Well, it is a snapshot of a certain time with pictures of what today’s interior designers gush over as ‘mid-century modern’ furniture. Apart from that, and a bit more cloth in the clothing, I don’t think things had advanced much since the Second World War and rationing. The country was still reeling from the after-effects of the War. The Almanac gave a lot of space to horoscopes and forecasts.There are picture features on fifty years of flight, family knitting, and what we now call ‘up-cycling’ of hand-me-down furniture and household goods. Being a ‘News of the World’ production it was firmly rooted in the day-to-day concerns of conventional and ordinary families. There are forward-looking articles on frozen food, 3-D cinema, holiday camps and inter-planetary flight. There is also a lot of information on football and horse racing.

Some things don’t change: An article on Bank Charges starts Few of the 11 million people in Britain who run bank accounts have much idea how their bank charges are calculated. ” Later it says The legal right of banks to deduct charges without consultation is something which has been questioned many times. The custom is so long-standing that it has become established usage. The opinion has been expressed that provided the amounts are reasonable they are even enforceable at law.

Some of the advertisements are more fascinating than the text. I had forgotten what a big business the rupture truss supply trade was, for 30/- [£1.50] you could have a smart leatherette fireside or television pouffe to squat on, and you could earn money growing mushrooms yielding 5/- to 10/- per pound.

From memory everyone had metal clothes line posts in their yards or back gardens, and in the drying grounds of blocks of flats. The lines were usually rope I think and had to be taken in after the washing was dry so they didn’t shrink or get dirty in the rain [which was full of soot in those days].

I should have added that clothes lines suffered a gradual demise, first because people’s washing hanging in communal drying areas was being interfered with or removed, then as launderettes arrived in most shopping parades traditional laundries [and their bag-wash services] closed, next the twin-tub machine with its very high-speed spin dryer delivered ironing-ready laundry, and finally the modern, reliable, economical and perfectly-performing tumble dryer became the nation’s favourite and sales of clothes pegs plummeted.