There was a time when mothers gave their babies opium, people bought hallucinogens at the local bar, and anxious patriots sent hypodermic needles and cocaine to soldiers as a present. It was called The Great Binge, and it's probably wrong to feel sad that it's over.
Today we have Bayer Aspirin. It relieves headaches. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they had Bayer Heroin. It was most often a cough syrup, though it probably took care of headaches as well. Heroin was not a slang term developed for a drug, but an actual brand name claimed by the drug company. (They have since allowed their proprietary claim on the name to lapse.) This, and many other drugs were used for everyday maladies like dry throats, menstrual cramps, and babies who cried too long. The period between 1870 and 1918 was called The Great Binge — and people shoved everything into their bodies that they could.
Heroin For Morphine Withdrawal
Heroin, believe it or not, was hailed as a wonder substance for its ability to wean addicts off their drug of choice. It was developed by Bayer, when Bayer was primarily called Aktiengesellschaft Farbenfabriken, as a way of treating pain without exposing people to that terribly addictive drug known as morphine. The painkiller was a scourge of the land, turning wounded soldiers into addicts. Bayer & Co. was trying to synthesize, from morphine, the less addictive codeine, and they stumbled on heroin.
Heroin was used for many things, such as cough drops and as a painkiller for menstrual cramps and migraines. And it was used to "cure" addiction to morphine. This non-addictive painkiller was meant to quell the pain of withdrawal from morphine and help morphine addicts kick the habit. Heroin, outside the body, was unquestionably different than morphine. Unfortunately, when heroin crosses the blood-brain barrier, the body metabolizes it to morphine. In fact, heroin gets into the brain quicker, thanks to its particular solubility, than morphine itself. The company had just worked out a way for someone to get a high faster.
Opium for Asthma and Fussy Babies
In 1830, opium use in Britain reached its peak, with 22,000 pounds imported from Turkey every year. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Keats wrote poems while on the stuff. When 24,000 pounds made it to America, customs officials took notice — and imposed a duty on it. While people were declaiming the smoking of opium as recreation, everyone "knew" that medicinal use was a-okay.
Which is why they poured opium down babies' throats. Literally. Stickney and Poor's Pure Paregoric syrup had forty-six percent alcohol, one and three-sixteenth "grains of opium per ounce," and contained a dosage chart that included five-day-old infants. They were to be given five drops of the stuff, which quieted them down. Two-week-olds got eight drops. Five-year-olds got twenty-five drops. An adult got a teaspoon. The only chance a baby had of not being drugged was an adult that liked the teaspoon too much to give any to their child. Another company made opium-filled cough drops, cherry flavored, and advertised it with cherubic children gathering up cherries (the natural ingredient) to put in the bottle.
Opium was also used as a treatment for asthma. Asthma was considered a "seizure" disorder, located mainly in the muscles. Opium was thought to relax the muscles constricting the tubes in the lungs, and allow the sufferer to breathe more easily. All kinds of opium tinctures and vapors were devised to help poor asthmatics. Possibly the stuff worked by drugging them so much that they couldn't participate in any activity that might cause an attack.
Cocaine for Public Speaking and Pope-Approved Wine
But even if opium was given to children, it at least wasn't endorsed by the Pope. Cocaine, it seemed, was the preferred drug of religious leaders everywhere, and it started with Angelo Mariani in 1863. The vintner decided to do something to spice up his wine, looked around for something to really add a kick, and settled on coca leaves. The coca leaves transferred benzoylecgonine and ecgonine methyl ester to the alcohol in the wine, and the three combine to form a powerful psychoactive drug.
Vin Mariani was so popular that it earned a place on the person of two different Popes. Pope Leo VIII and Pope Saint Pius X both carried hip flasks of the wine, and Pope Leo awarded Mariani a Vatican gold medal, something the advertisements for Vin Mariani regularly stressed. The wine became the inspiration for using coca leaves in coca cola. Many energizing beverages with coca leaves were sold. One tonic advised customers to drink a glass after each meal. Children were to drink half a glass.
The Pope's use of coca wine became the inspiration for other religious leaders. Cocaine drops were sold regularly for those who had to do public speaking. Supposedly it was meant to give speakers a smooth and rich speaking voice, but its special ability as an "invigorator" featured prominently in most advertisements. Preachers, with their need to give animated and prolonged sermons, and especially stump preachers that traveled around, were frequent users of these lozenges. Stage actors, singers, and teachers took them as well.
Absinthe Just for Fun
Absinthe was invented by Pierre Ordinaire as a health tonic in the 1700s. It did not catch on, until there was a blight on the vineyards in France. People generally mixed wine with their water in an effort to cut down the massive amount of bacteria in drinking water. When the grape crop failed, and prices for wine went up, people looked for other alcohols to mix into their water. Absinthe, an alcohol distilled with wormwood and flavored with anise, was a cheap way to purify water. Those who used a lot noticed another effect - hallucinations.
Absinthe drinking flowered during La Belle Epoque, when artists and poets and wannabe bohemians started the day with a drink and finished the day with The Green Hour, during which a couple more glasses were polished off before dinner. Most of those artists took inspiration from their visions, brought to them by The Green Fairy during The Green Hour, but exactly how much of that was wishful thinking is debated today. Since absinthe caught on so widely, it often was manufactured by unscrupulous producers, who added poisonous and sometimes hallucinogenic ingredients. Thujone, a chemical in absinthe, is thought by some to cause hallucinations - though evidence for this varies - but for the most part it wasn't concentrated enough to have any effect on the drinkers.
No, the most probable reason why absinthe provoked so much strange behavior and wild visions, was that it had nearly double the alcohol content of whiskey. Absinthe is regularly 110 to 144 proof, and is diluted before anyone drinks it. How much dilution varies with the person, and some absinthe drinkers didn't care for much dilution. Oscar Wilde reportedly saw tulips sprouting from his body as he walked out into the sun after a night of absinthe drinking. Clearly he was not diluting himself (ha).
But then again, it could have been worse. He could have turned to cough drops.
Via How Stuff Works, PBS, NYU, Above Top Secret, Witness This, Drugs.com, and CocaNaturally. Top Image: Pollybar. Heroin and Wine Image: Witness This. Opium Image: Above Top Secret. Absinthe Image: Eric Litton, Pharmacy.vcu.