Living With The Rheumatism Blues

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 3, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Ever since I’ve had a little arthritis in my left knee, I have had a tendency to discuss and share home remedies with other folks my age having similar problems. Although most of the “remedies” don’t help much, it’s comforting to share complaints.

          It struck me, the last time I shared commiseration with a friend, how similar this was to the way my parents and grandparents commiserated about what they called “rheumatism,” when they were my age. That was in the 1940’s before the term “arthritis” was widely used by the populace, and “rheumatism” meant the same thing as what we call “arthritis” today. It usually didn’t mean “rheumatoid arthritis.”

          Although the term “arthritis” was first used in Europe by the medical profession in 1859, many “doctors” on the Texas frontier were still practicing “Indian” Medicine. It seems the term “rheumatism” was first used in 1688 during the time the “Humour Theory” of medicine was still in existence in England. This theory of four or more “humours” (or fluids) flowing through the body, with too little or too much “humour” causing medical problems, Shakespeare believed also determined an individual’s personality.

          For example, Hamlet had too much black bile, so he was “melancholic,” Claudius, too much yellow bile (or choler), so he was “choleric” (prone to anger), and too much phlegm made a person “phlegmatic.” The theory continued beyond Shakespeare’s lifetime, and in the 1690’s, rheumatism was first diagnosed in people, and it was believed the condition was caused by too much “rheum” in the body. The standard procedure for treating excess humours was to bleed the person by using leeches.

          Even on the 19th century frontiers of Texas, nobody believed in the Humour Theory any more. One of the books I read about Texas in the 1800’s said two kinds of medicine were practiced on the frontier, — one was Conventional (based on the medical knowledge of the time) and the other was “Indian” (herbal) Medicine; most folks preferred Indian Medicine.

          By the 1940’s, when folks in small, rural Texas towns were complaining about their “rheumatism,” there seemed to still be a distrust of Conventional Medicine, though it had come a long way since the 1800’s. No doubt the reason that traveling Medicine Shows were still very popular! They certainly came to Dime Box every year, and the whole town turned out for them. On a wagon stage, the shows would present comedy acts, music (usually guitar and vocalist), and sometimes magic acts or circus type performances.

          The Medicine Shows didn’t charge admission; they made their money by selling an array of “patented medicines” (though they usually weren’t patented). Each Show had a tonic, like Hadacol, which was the most famous of the tonics in the 1940’s. The Shows coming to Dime Box didn’t sell Hadacol, but had their own specially made tonics, which were believed to make you healthy. The other “medicine” sold was liniment, and that was thought by most to not only help with strains and muscle aches, but also with rheumatism. Just rub it on your rheumatism and you were good to go! My grandfather always bought more than one bottle of liniment.

          Rheumatism was such a widely expressed complaint among the populace in those days that there were even songs written about the condition. The only one I remember, and actually played on the piano and tried to sing, was “I’ve Got the Rheumatism Blues.” Even though this was a Blues song, it seemed rather lighthearted. There must not have been a rheumatism polka, or surely I would have learned it. In those days, old folks would have danced the polka even if they had rheumatism; they handled pain better than my generation does.

          The era of Medicine Shows ended when television became so widespread just about everyone had a TV set. The early television shows reminded me of those delightful Medicine Shows that came to Dime Box, but I can’t remember whether they sold tonics and liniments or not. At least one of the positive things about suffering from arthritis is being reminded of the pleasant way my parents and grandparents dealt with their “rheumatism.”


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.

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