Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Potatoes prevent rheumatism

There is a widespread and persistent belief that the carrying of certain plant materials will prevent rheumatism;  for recent examples see potato and horse chestnut, under ‘Material Collected’ on this website.

It seems that the plant most widely used in this way was potato (Solanum tuberosum).  In 2009 a correspondent in Rennes Brittany recorded  a cure passed on from his father, in London about 60 years earlier, which he still used:                                                                                                                          ‘Put a small potato in your pocket and over time it will go soft, develop blisters on its skin and, if you don’t burst these, they will be absorbed and the potato will shrink and go rock hard. The process is supposed to absorb any uric acid in the body, and hence help to control rheumatism.’

In 2014 a 77-year-old woman, living in Vauxhall, London, remembered:      ‘My grandmother lived in Bath …  she was born in the nineteenth century.  She was a widow and had terrible what she called rheumatism. She wore a belt she made herself, like undyed webbing, in two sections in which she put small potatoes.’

This practice was discussed in Notes & Queries in nineteenth century.  In 1868 it was reported that:                                                                                                  ‘A man who belongs to what he would call the educated classes … never-the-less wears a potato in each of his trousers’ pockets as a cure for rheumatism.  As the vegetables diminsh in size, he believes that they are absorbed into his system, and conceives that he is much benefitted thereby.’

According to another N & Q correspondent writing in 1896,  this practice dated as far back as the 1850s, when sailors carried potatoes in their pockets as a remedy for rheumatism

Similarly, in 1896, ‘a clergyman … a graduate of Oxford … used to carry in his trousers pocket, and recommend to others, a potato as a cure for rheumatism’.

A widespread variant of the practice demanded that the potato should be stolen, for example, a Co. Offaly contributor to the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Scheme, 1937-8, noted: ‘a cure for rheumatic pains, sciatica and lumbago, is carry in your pocket a Champion [a widely grown variety of] potato, which you stole from your neighbour’s pit’.

In 1896 a contributor to N & Q, quoted from an almanac published ‘in the last quarter of this century’:  ‘Bathe the parts affected with water in which potatoes have been boiled, as hot as can be borne, just before going to bed; by the next morning the pain will be much relieved, if not removed’.

Image:  ‘Potato carried by Mr Burgess (aet. 74) of Oxford as a cure for rheumatism 1898. d.d. H. Balfour, 1903’, in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford [photograph on hoarding surrounding the Reuben College site, adjacent to the Museum, December 2021].