18 Medicine Cabinet Essentials: A 1935 Slant

06 Nov

Back in 1935, recommendations for essential items in the home medicine cabinet was, not surprisingly, pretty simple. Though the names of items have changed — as has the death grip that brands now have on the public — with a few additions what might be in your medicine cabinet now is really not so much different than before World War II.

There were 13 must-have home medicine cabinet essentials recommended in a home economics textbook from 1935. I added five to allow for advances in medicine for a total of 18 items that every home medicine cabinet should try to have in stock. Note that this list does NOT include herbal- or plant-based medicines or treatments; those are for a future post but many can be substituted for items listed below.




(Source: ‘Home Living,” by Justin and Rust. 1935)

Alcohol (rubbing): Alcohol was recommended as an antiseptic for wounds and cuts before applying healing creams or lotions. It can also be used as a soothing muscle rub.

Baking soda: Baking soda can be used for anything from an antacid to a fire extinguisher. For the home medicine cabinet, baking soda is indeed great to use as an antacid if you have an acidic stomach, heartburn, gas, or other stomach issues. It’s also great for brushing your teeth, as a natural deodorant, and as a skin softener when dissolved in a warm bath. Baking soda has also been known to treat colds and flu, treat bladder infections, and as a soothing gargle for sore throats.

Boric acid solution: Boric acid solution has mild antifungal and antibacterial properties and as such is used as an antiseptic for abrasions and mild cuts. Boric acid solution can be used in the eyes (a common treatment for pink eye), ears, and skin, and is frequently used for foot fungus issues like athletes foot. It can be purchased in different solution strengths and also in powder form, so consult your pharmacist to be sure you’re buying the correct solution for your desired treatment.

Cascara bark (Rhamnus purshiana): This was a common laxative on its own back in the day, and is still used as a common ingredient in brand-name laxatives and other medications. Fresh bark must be aged for at least a year to be used safely, or baked thoroughly in an oven. But it is safer to use over-the-counter laxatives that contain cascara bark until you learn how to harvest, process, and use your own.

Baking soda, Epsom salt, and salt are as beneficial to the modern medicine cabinet as they were in the 1930s.

Epsom salt: Epsom salt was used as a common bath soak to enhance relaxation, and studies show that soaking in an Epsom salt bath does indeed elevate our levels of magnesium, which helps to increase levels of serotonin in our bodies and help us relax. Epsom salt is also a mild anti-inflammatory, which relieves cramps and other pains. It can also draw out splinters when used as a soak as well.

Iodine (liquid): Iodine is a disinfectant and sterilizer, and is used as a wound cleaner to prevent infection. it can destroy both viruses and bacteria and is immune to the resistance issues present in antibiotics.

Lysol: Lysol was recommended as an astringent and disinfectant and is still used for this purpose today.

Mineral oil: This used to provide the most common relief for constipation as a laxative. However, it has also been used to treat scalp conditions like dandruff, and skin conditions like psoriasis.

Salt: It was used much more frequently for health and medicine, and with good reason. Salt water is a great gargle to help heal sore throats and painful gums. Salt can also help soothe insect stings when applied as a paste, and help to relieve poison ivy or oak when used as a saltwater soak.

Unguentine, a recommended antiseptic ointment in 1935, is still available as a pain and itch reliever.

Unguentine: Unguentine was one of the few branded products available over-the-counter in 1935. It’s an antiseptic ointment and topical pain and itch reliever that is still available today for use on minor burns, cuts, and scrapes.

Vaseline: A petroleum product, Vaseline traditionally was used as a skin protectant during harsh weather, and even killed lice on the scalp when applied in a thick layer, which suffocated the insects. It has also been used as a moisturizer.

Vaseline, carbolated: Carbolated Vaseline was a drawing salve (sometimes called black salve), used to draw out infections and help heal wounds, or draw out small invaders like splinters or bee stingers. It is available today as Watkins Petro-Carbo Salve, and and is still used as a wound healer and preventative against infection.

Zinc oxide ointment: An ointment of zinc oxide relives a variety of minor skin ailments because of its anti-inflammatory properties. It can be used to treat skin issues like minor burns, diaper rash, hemorrhoids and acne. Many over-the-counter skin creams and ointments have zinc oxide as a main ingredient; Calamine lotion’s main ingredient is zinc oxide. Zinc Oxide is also a widely used sun screen.


While many of the medicine cabinet essentials from 1935 are still worth having on-hand, there are some modern additions that some would consider essential for the home medicine cabinet (again, plant- and herbal-based medicine cabinet essentials deserve an article of their own)!

Antibiotic ointment: After cleaning and disinfecting mild wounds, cuts, or scrapes, an antibiotic ointment can help prevent infection.

A pain reliever such as aspirin, or an aspirin-free alternative are modern additions to the home medicine cabinet.

Antihistamines (oral): Having a basic oral antihistamine around can be wonderful for mild insect stings or other allergic reactions that don’t require medical attention. They can help stop an allergic reaction in its tracks by blocking histamine at the receptor site in the central nervous system. There are close to a dozen antihistamines on the market, so ask your pharmacist which one would be best for general, sedation-free use.

Antihistamine cream: The lotion form of the above has the same effect, and is great to relieve intense itching from insect bites or poison ivy or oak.

Decongestants: Decongestants (either pharmaceutical ones or manual ones, such as a neti pot) can feel like a miracle when a cold or allergies clog nasal passages and make basic breathing a chore. If you’re using an over-the-counter decongestant, talk to the pharmacist to make sure you’re selecting one that is appropriate for your symptoms (there are so many available now).

Pain reliever: Whether you are a fan of Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, or plain old aspirin, a basic pain reliever or anti-inflammatory is essential for the temporary relief of headaches and other body pains.

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8 responses to “18 Medicine Cabinet Essentials: A 1935 Slant

  1. narf77

    November 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    I would ditch the antibiotic ointment and would use 3% hydrogen peroxide to treat superficial wounds. Aside from that, your list is enlightening :) Cheers

    • Willis Brown

      December 31, 2012 at 7:00 am

      Dr. Oz just disputed the use of hydrogen peroxide, on tv, yesterday. He stated and demonstrated that this treatment would keep the wound from closing. Program dated: 12/27or28/12 or visit his web.

      • Rural Spin

        December 31, 2012 at 8:08 am

        This article doesn’t include hydrogen peroxide…when I was in high school I learned this (longggg time ago). My teacher put a piece of meat into a test tube and added hydrogen peroxide…POOF! Slightly ground meat. :-)

  2. ria

    November 6, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Great list- thanks!

  3. Joan

    November 7, 2012 at 6:06 am

    I use peroxide and raw honey for many of the things you listed, but this is still a great list.

  4. PJ

    November 16, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Peroxide is no longer used on wounds.. interferes with healing.
    Also could cause an air embolism in deep wounds.
    There is a medical grade honey with antibiotc properties…
    never give honey to babies (kids under 2yrs).

  5. Samantha

    April 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    Bag balm is the antibiotiotic my mother uses. She puts that stuff on EVERYTHING! It’s all natural and after my son had a really bad cut and I insisted on the antibiotic cream she informed me that Bag Balm IS antibiotic and way better for you. I had to google it to be sure and sure enough mother knows best. She SWEARS by it. And after what I have seen it do to so many of lifes skin problems and cuts and scrapes, I can’t help but agree with her.

  6. Oline Wright

    July 26, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    I would not make sure aspirin were a first aide medicine chest staple even if you include other pain relievers as it helps with high blood pressure and heart attacks especially the low dose version.


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