Scents and memory

I was cleaning something the other morning, using a light solvent. The shape of the bottle reminded me of another bottle, one that contained a distinctive medicinal fluid that to me is one of the classic scents of summer. The solvent bottle is brown. The other bottle was green.

Campho-phenique™. The miracle liquid applied to mosquito bites, scratches, lumps and bumps acquired on Houston’s long summer days and evenings. Sib and I spent a lot of time outdoors in my grandparents’ and aunt’s enormous yards. That being Houston, and summer, Texas-sized mosquitoes frequented the yards, no matter how much people emptied out standing water. When it rains every day almost, water accumulates.

As you can guess from the name, Campho-phenique™ (pronounced “Camfo-fin-i-que” by my Cajun grandfather) had lots of camphor in it. You know when the bottle had been opened. The stuff has been around for a while, first invented in the 1860s, patented and sold in 1884, and them sold on the non-hospital market since 1944. My grandparents and aunt swore by it for mosquito bites and scratches. It certainly inspired the use of mosquito spray to keep from getting the cure applied to one’s hide! As you would expect, camphor in alcohol stung, probably still stings.

The glass bottle had a little metal screw cap, just like the solvent I was using. I think the medicinal bottle had a slightly longer neck, or it might not have. Green glass, little screw cap, strong smell . . . I remember them very well, even though I haven’t used the stuff in decades.

One whiff of camphor takes me back to the house in Houston, hot, sticky days without air conditioning, the occasional hurricane, and summer. Mosquitoes, ant-lions, the smell of dog-food from the big sacks in the garbage cans in the breezeway between house and garage, dust in the garage (no car ever fit in there around Papa’s boxes, work-benches, and the like), getting fussed at to stay away from the castor tree . . . Summer.


17 thoughts on “Scents and memory

  1. Dear Lord, why would anybody in their right mind plant *castor*?
    (I ask that as someone who has used datura to “discourage” rabbits from raiding my garden.)
    That is some scary bleep.
    Our home remedy for skeeter bites was toothpaste. It worked fairly well, and the side effect of looking like an idiot kept the number of complaints down.

    • I’ve seen castor plants as decorative landscaping in the older parts of Detroit. Freaks me out every time

  2. Castor was a nice ornamental, once upon a time, also when castor oil was pressed and used. Then people put 1 and 1 together, and it’s been discouraged ever since.

    I recall isopropyl alcohol used to cool bad sunburns. I had a lot of those.

    • I recall one summer in New Orleans. Dad’s boss had a pool party for his team and I spent most of the day in the pool. It was a cloudy day and my usual caution about sunburn didn’t kick in. This was pre-sunscreen and by the end of the day my geneticly pale back was the color of a freshly boiled lobster. Mom put vinegar on it, surprisingly I didn’t blister and after a day I could put a shirt on without wincing. Could have done without smelling like a salad however.

      • Anything to “take the heat out of the burn” used to be common. I’ve heard of vinegar being used, also buttermilk for really bad burns.

      • I can vouch for apple cider vinegar on sunburns.

        I can’t tan, I can burn, and apple cider vinegar keeps the skin on and minimizes blisters, even if I don’t get to tan. I’ve had lines where you can tell where I put the vinegar soaked cloth, because on one side it’s a blister, and the other, it’s a not-so-painful red expanse.

  3. Ah, the smell of Campho-phenique!

    For me, it’s the smell of cold sores– my family gets them around the nose, very easily. Those silly little tubes were an awesome advancement.

  4. TXRed, in your foray into the physical sciences, were you introduced to the firkin-fortnight-furlong system of units? Something just reminded me of it and I wondered how deep you need to be immersed in the field to encounter it. Or the nuclear physics unit called the barn?

    • ERk, yes. That showed up on several high school physics tests. “Convert furlongs per fortnight to meters per second,” how I love thee. NOT. I brushed up against the barn later in college, but never had it on a test.

  5. Ah yes, the ‘smell’ of childhood. Growing up in Louisiana, I was ‘intimately’ familiar with the #%&)(#@ mosquitoes…

    • Having spent half my life in Northern Midwest/Great Plains, all I can say is The Dratted things need their own runways

  6. I just checked on the web. It appears that liquid and gel Campho-phenique are still available. I’d believed that all phenol-based meds had been withdrawn. Guess not.

  7. At summer camp in Maine the evocative smell was Old Time Woodsman’s Fly Dope, a compound of tar extracts and other stinky stuff. It was (and I think still is) the only effective repellant for black flies, the little daytime-biting flies that proliferate in the northern woods every spring. That stuff is *intense* and definitely takes some adjusting to. (Some would question why anyone would bother to get used to it.)

  8. For me, in addition to the smell of lip balm, camphor reminds me of drying up the mares at weaning time. I think it worked by soothing the feel of the swollen udders.

  9. Mercurochrome was the solution of choice for bumps/scratches/skeeters when I grew up in the 60s in southern Indiana. Haven’t thought of it in many years. Appears it was FDA’d in the US in 1998, per Wikipedia.

Comments are closed.