BUT IS IT LIT? // Popular Home Remedies and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans
If you’ve ever wondered around Lancaster Central Market, you’ve probably seen the Amish gifts and decorations stand. One item that has always caught my attention is the collection of paper booklets by A. Monroe Aurand, Jr.
Pennsylvanian German Folklore Society member and private printer, Aurand Jr. has a series of books that take an in-depth look at the customs, habits, and quirks of the PA Germans. Of the few I now own, the one that’s provided the most entertainment is Popular Home Remedies… and here’s why:
1. The book has little to no logical organization (PA Dutch don’t believe in Table of Contents!). After the foreword, there is simply a running list of subheadings that break down different sections of Dutch lore. Topics range from, “Childhood and its Demands on Man”, “Care of the Teeth Known To Ancients”, “We Examine Special Days and Seasons”, “Moon Lore Familiar to all People”, and “Ideas for Getting a Future Husband”. Each of these “chapters” is filled with advice that is at times truly absurd, strangely disgusting, and charmingly kitschy.
2. You absolutely cannot make this stuff up. Trust me, I’ve tried writing my own made-up versions of these superstitions and directive remedies; it doesn’t work. The book is wild. Recognizing and playing off of its own humor and absurdity, Aurand spins many of these yarns into short, punchy one liners. Some examples:
- To Cry: Immediately after birth a child should cry, or be slapped until it does.
- Nursing: To guard against a child being left handed, it must be nursed the first time at the right breast.
- Epilepsy: To cure, swallow the heart of a rattlesnake.
- Corns: Rub a candle on a corpse, then on the corn.
- Freckles: Remove freckles by washing them with water collected from tombstones. If it rains while there is a rainbow, you will get freckles.
- Flowers: If you want nice, large plants, steal the slips. Remember, stolen fruit always has the best taste.
3. This is dark comedy. Many of these remedies and superstitions deal with death. With the brevity, and a tone dripping in ironic wit, Aurand makes death seem as simple and natural as taking a breath: “A child born with teeth will not live long…the open eyes of a corpse are looking for the next to follow.” And he shies not from the vulgar and gory: “If you can arrange to kiss a girl while you secret the heart of a turtle-dove in your mouth, it will act as a love charm…If you dream of milk you will fall violently in love” Also, did I mention there’s an entire chapter on witches?
4. This is one of the least politically correct books I own. Being a cultural artifact (or simply the work of an eccentric, albeit insane, local) Popular Home Remedies and Superstitions not only gets away with contemporary impropriety, but can also leave the reader laughing as much as wincing because of it. I quote here a particularly unfocused rant by our lonely Aurand about the state of women today, (from the chapter “Ideas for Getting a Future Husband”) “Shirt: Years ago a sensible woman wouldn’t think of getting married until she could make a man’s shirt. Today, most young women cannot make a man’s shirt, nor cook a decent meal, unless it comes from a can and needs heating only.”
5. There are no citations (or footnotes) and the short “bibliography” in the back includes as its first entry, a book written by Aurand Jr. himself. This isn’t to say that anyone should go looking to take any of this information as true, or even myth; one should instead open the book and read some entries at random to a group of friends at a party, as this will be pure entertainment (and surely positive for the health of all).