Romancing History

“Got Anything for the Pain, Doc?”

Collection of Vintage Medicine Bottles, Courtesy of Antique Trader

If you’re a fan of old westerns I’m sure you’ve heard that line before, right? This came to mind the other day when I reached for the Costco sized bottle of generic pain relievers I keep in my kitchen cabinet. I’m blessed to not only have my handy-dandy Ibuprofen, but also Acetaminophen and Naproxen as well. Don’t judge me! If you’re over 50, I’m sure  you have your favorite pain med for whatever ails you as well!

All this got me to thinking about how people treated their aches and pains in the past. It’s not uncommon in an old movie or historical novel to see a patient guzzling whiskey before the doctor begins a painful procedure. Doctors didn’t hand over the bottle to numb the pain, but to calm their patient and make them groggy. Since Aspirin wasn’t available in a commercially marketable form until the late 1890s, how did practicing physicians in the western world treat their patients pain in the 1800s?

Doctors used the same major painkiller that is still one of the most commonly prescribed painkillers in hospitals today–morphine.

Antique Morphine Bottle

Are you surprised? I was. Today we think of this as an extremely potent drug reserved for the severest of pain. It has ten times the potency of Demerol, a synthetic painkiller invented in the 1930s. I recall my husband suffering from back pain, immobile on the hallway floor waiting for the paramedics to come because at 6’2″ and 230 pounds, I was unable to help him into the car to drive him to the emergency room. When the ambulance arrived, morphine was administered and although it didn’t immediately eliminate all of his pain, it would take lumbar surgery to correct that, it did bring him substantial relief.

Named after Morpheus, the Greek God of Dreams, the narcotic was discovered in 1803. Morphine is  part of a larger family of drugs known as Opiates that are all derived from opium, found in the poppy plant. Extracts from poppy plants have been used for medicinal purposes since 4,000 B.C.

After its discovery, morphine was administered orally but the invention of hypodermic needles in 1853 led to intravenously injecting the medication for faster pain relief. Many people are familiar with the use of morphine for treating injured soldiers during the Civil War, but did you know it was also prescribed during childbirth and as a cough suppressant? The medication’s side effects include drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and constipation. The latter making it an effective 19th century remedy for diarrhea and dysentery.

Other opiates became widely available in corner drugstores in cities and towns across America.

Cocaine  Although today it is considered one of the most potent and most dangerous natural stimulants, Spanish missionaries first encountered the use of the drug during religious ceremonies in the Peruvian Andes. The locals were known to chew the leaves of the coca plant to give them “energy and strength.” Native medicine men used its leaves to wrap broken bones, reduce swelling and treat festering wounds. Unable to cultivate the plant in Europe and North America, efforts to import the plant failed too as the leaves spoiled easily during transport. In 1859 German chemist, Albert Niemann, extracted cocaine from the coca leaf but it wasn’t until the 1880s that it started to be popularized in the medical community.

Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who used the drug himself, was the first to broadly promote cocaine as a tonic to cure depression and sexual impotence. In 1884, he published an article entitled “Über Coca,” About Coke, which promoted the “benefits” of cocaine, calling it a “magical” substance.

From the 1850s to the early 1900s, cocaine and opium-laced elixirs, tonics and wines were broadly used by people of all social classes. By 1885, cocaine was sold in corner stores in America in various forms–cigarettes, powder, even injection by needle (heroin was also widely available). In medicine, cocaine was commonly used as a local anesthetic. In 1886, the popularity of the drug got a further boost when John Pemberton included coca leaves as an ingredient in his new soft drink, Coca-Cola. The euphoric and energizing effects on the consumer helped to skyrocket the popularity of Coca-Cola by the turn of the century.

As cocaine use in society increased, its addictive nature became more evident. Public pressure forced the Coca-Cola company to remove the cocaine from the soft drink in 1903 and by 1922, the drug was officially banned.

Laudanum Known as the “Victorian’s favorite drug,” laudanum was sold as Tincture of Opium and used as a common painkiller. The drug was often cheaper than alcohol, making it affordable to all levels of society. Laudanum was a 10 percent solution of opium powder in alcohol, widely used to treat headaches, persistent cough, gout, rheumatism, diarrhea, melancholy and “women’s troubles.” It was even used to quiet crying babies. By the 1800s laudanum was widely available—it could be easily purchased from pubs, grocers, barber shops, tobacconists, pharmacies, and even confectioners.

Many Victorian writers and poets were known to use the drug—Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Lewis Carroll, and Bram Stoker just to name a few. Most famously, the English writer Thomas De Quincey wrote a whole book, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, on his use of opium and related drugs. The book proposed that, unlike alcohol, opium improved the creative powers, an opinion that only served to make the drug more appealing to those searching for artistic and literary inspiration. A number of other writers also played on the perceived glamor of the drug, praising its ability to enhance the imagination.

Laudanum advertisement, Sears catalog circa late 19th century

As more widespread use of the laudanum was observed, it became obvious that the euphoria inducing drug was highly addictive and had some serious side effects including crashing lows, restlessness, lethargy, and sweats. It became clear that the drug needed to be better regulated.

By 1868, the first known restrictions were placed on the narcotic. Now, laudanum could only be sold by registered chemists in England and must be clearly labeled as poison. It wasn’t until 1906 that the U.S. government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring that certain specified drugs–alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and cannabis be accurately labeled with contents and dosage. Previously, many drugs had been sold as patent medicines with secret ingredients or misleading labels. Authorities estimate that sales decreased by one third after labeling was required.

Its hard to imagine sending your child to the drugstore to buy a penny’s worth of candy and some laudanum.

Were you as surprised as I was to learn how readily available narcotics were in the 19th century?






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  1. Wow! This is interesting!

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Melissa! I thought so too. We have such a different perspective on these types of medications today. I can’t imagine giving my baby something with cocaine in it for a tooth ache!

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