The history of medicine is fascinating reading. When I researched alcohol and drug abuse for Mrs. Black, the ease and availability of what we know as highly addictive medicines at the turn-of-the-century surprised me. Below are some FAQs regarding drug/alcohol usage during the early 1900s.
When a medicine was patented, the owner would be the patent holder and no one else could copy or sell it. To qualify for a patent, the medicine had to be original but with no requirement to prove its effectiveness or quality. A registered product provided the patent holder a distinct name. Examples of legitimate patent medicines during this time and existing today are Listerine, Bayer Aspirin, and Milk of Magnesia.
By the 1900s, after the heyday of patent medicine shows—think “snake oil” and such, many patent medicine contained unlisted amounts of alcohol, cocaine, opium and/or morphine. No government organization existed to test the wild claims of cures on patents medicines.
Laudanum is a tincture of opium containing 10% powder opium or 1% morphine. When discovered and first used—Paracelsus mixed it with pearls and amber—it was considered an amazing cure for a wide range of illnesses including consumption and cholera. Toward the late 18th century, the term laudanum came to be known for the mixture of opium and alcohol. By the turn of the century, laudanum was in common use for a wide range of remedies despite the knowledge of its addictive nature.
Patent medicine producers utilized advertising and made extravagant claims of cures. Since no laws were in place to check quality and labeling, many patent medicines utilized alcohol to make the medicine seem like it was doing something, even if the label listed boldly “no alcohol.” By this time people understood the addictive nature of opium, however they had no idea of the strength in the patent medicines they were buying for themselves or their children. Overdosing and addiction was not uncommon.
Popular thought was to have the alcoholic swap to a safer addiction, such as morphine, or so believed in the 1900s. Morphine was considered to be a better addiction because the person was quieter, was easier on the body and cheaper in cost. Another cure, popular among the well-to-do, was the Water Cure. The Water Cure consisted of using water wherever possible: hot baths, vaporizers, inhaler, douches, enemas, and mineral water drinks. The best part being that the Water Cure was utilized for many different illnesses, so alcoholism or drug addiction could be explained as “nervousness” or “exhaustion.”
Alcohol and opium were cheap and easy to obtain. While the hard laboring immigrants spent their money on alcohol to ease their physical aches and help their loneliness, sex workers favored smoking opium or injecting morphine along with drinking alcohol. Far more subtle was the addiction from the patent medicines. A typical addict was a middle-aged woman of the middle class or higher who started their addiction to ease female complaints, nervousness, and cough. They had the money to buy the medicine, they also had an easy cover in using the medicines.
After such books as in Upton Sinclair’s expose of a Chicago slaughterhouse in The Jungle, and other concerns with food quality, crusaders Dr. Harvey Wiley and Alice Lakey, campaigned to clean up the mislabeling and outright lies advertised on patent medicines and foods. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 primarily banned false or adulterated labeling of food and drugs. The patent medicines that flourished until then, dried up. The addiction rate of middle-aged, middle-class women dropped significantly. Food producers also were required to list ingredients. Some had used toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde, to preserve their foods.
This led to the organization of Food and Drug Administration and further reforms were made. However, it was not until 1914 Harrison Drug Act that morphine, opium, and laudanum were handed to the medical community to prescribe.