This is the time of year that parents and teachers dread.
This is the time of year that a classroom turns into an incubator for just about every disease known to mankind. Elementary school, high school, college, all the same. In they come, snot-nosed and germ laden. Should have stayed home but couldn’t or wouldn’t or something or other, so they show up and spread what they’ve got to teachers and students alike.
We try shots, pills, syrups, inhalers, vaporizers, all the modern things that modern people use to fight illnesses that are anything but modern.
This is the sickly season.
Smells remind me of it.
Mentholatum. When I was young, Mamas spread it on kids like it was some sort of magic ointment and the whole classroom smelled like a eucalyptus forest, not that any of us knew what a eucalyptus forest smelled like.
But I guess that is an improvement. Back when my Grandma Minnie was teaching, kids smelling of Mentholatum would have been a blessing. She had to deal with long-johns and asphidity.
Not sure about the spelling. Even the source that gave me this one could not confirm it was right. And like the spelling, no one is sure just what it was.
“Pungent herbs,” is about the best definition I could find. Which herbs? Sources can’t agree, though ginsing seems to have been one of them. Parents would put the stuff in a bag and hang it around a kid’s neck.
Stink, stank, stunk.
It was around 1910. Grandma, single and possessing what passed for a high school education, took a job teaching in a one-room school at Pine Flat, Alabama — north Elmore County.
Now back then country folks felt sickness was brought on by winter chills so parents made sure that their children went into the weather dressed warm. First sign of frost Mama brought out the wool underwear – long-johns — that covered kids from ankle to everywhere. Most children had a couple of pair but unless there was an “accident” they would only change on Saturday, after the weekly bath. The rest of the time – night and day – long-johns were worn.
But many country folks did not have the luxury of a back-up pair, nor did they follow the custom of weekly baths (just another way to get that chill). So the long-johns that went on around first-frost were still on come warming in March.
And if that were not bad enough, there was the asphidity bag.
Just as they believed that chills caused sickness, country folks believed that asphidity could ward off whatever evil humors or miasmas might be floating about on the chilly air. And more often than not those were the same country folks who kept kids in the same long-johns during the winter.
(There is a certain reasoning here that you need to respect. The purpose was to stop sickness before it took hold. Preventive medicine is not a new idea. Besides, if you got sick you were supposed to go to the doctor, which poor folks could not afford, even if there was one handy, which there usually wasn’t. Besides, you only called in a physician when the patient was so bad off that it seemed likely they would die, which they often did, which caused country folk to associate doctors with death – not a relationship to encourage folks to seek professional medical assistance. )
But back to the story.
In Grandma’s class was a little boy I will call Johnny, son of a sharecropping family whose world view was more of the 19th than the 20th century. By October Johnny was long-johned and asphiditied. By Christmas there was a certain air about him. By February, you could tell which way the wind was blowing by which side of Johnny his classmates were standing on.
Finally, Grandma Minnie had had enough.
After one particularly pungent day, she carefully composed a letter to Johnny’s mother.
“Dear Mrs. ——,
The odor of Johnny’s asphidity bag is beginning to bother the
other students. And with the weather warming, this would also be a good time to
change Johnny’s underwear and give him a bath.
Sincerely, Miss. Minnie Edwards
The next day Johnny returned, rank as ever, and handed Grandma Minnie a note from his mother.
Dear Miss Edwards,
I sent Johnny to school to be learnt.
Not to be smelt.
He ain’t no rose.
Sincerely, Mrs. – – –
That was the end of that.
And Johnny, warm and self-quarantined, stayed well. No germ-laden student would approach him.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.