Cocaine toothache drops were popular with children and with their parents. Not only would the medicine numb the pain, but it could also put the user in a “better” mood.
With the epidemic in recent decades of young people addicted to cocaine in the US, it is jarring to our sensibilities to see ads from the 1800s that target parents themselves to push cocaine on their small children! I’ve seen this ad circulated on the Internet a lot over the past few years, but it is only one of many such vintage ads for patent medicines that can be found on websites. Patent medicines were the “over the counter drugs” of their time back in Victorian America.
Patent medicines are compounds promoted and sold as medical cures that do not work as promoted. “Patent medicine” is a misnomer since in most cases, although products might be trademarked, they are not patented (the patent process requires proof that something new has been discovered). In ancient times, patent medicine was sometimes called nostrum remedium (“our remedy” in Latin).
The promotion of patent medicines was one of the first major products highlighted by the advertising industry, and many advertising and sales techniques were pioneered by patent medicine promoters. Patent medicine advertising often promoted the advantages of exotic ingredients, even though their actual effects came from more prosaic drugs. One group of patent medicines — liniments that allegedly contained snake oil, supposedly a panacea — made snake oil salesman a lasting synonym for a charlatan.
…The phrase “patent medicine” comes from the late 17th century marketing of medical elixirs, when those who found favour with royalty were issued letters patent authorising the use of the royal endorsement in advertising. Few if any of the nostrums were actually patented; chemical patents did not come into use in the United States until 1925. Furthermore, patenting one of these remedies would have meant publicly disclosing its ingredients, which most promoters sought to avoid.
Instead, the compounders of such nostrums used a primitive version of branding to distinguish their products from the crowd of their competitors. Many familiar names from the era live on today in brands such as Luden’s cough drops, Lydia E. Pinkham’s vegetable compound for women, Fletcher’s Castoria … Though sold at high prices, many of these products were made from cheap ingredients. Their composition was well known within the pharmacy trade, and druggists manufactured and sold (for a slightly lower price) medicines of almost identical composition. To protect profits, the branded medicine advertisements emphasized brand names, and urged the public to, “…accept no substitutes.”
There was a thriving business for patent medicines in the 1800s in particular because there really were very few “legitimate” medical treatments for many—if not most—ailments and diseases at the time. And…many if not most such nostrums contained ingredients that did indeed give relief for all sorts of symptoms—because they contained strong narcotic substances. Such as laudanum, a concoction of alcohol and morphine:
Many famous folk of the era were addicted to laudanum and other narcotic drugs, some perhaps because of even starting them in their mother’s lap as infants. Some examples—Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary, English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, and many more. These users often received their first introduction to the drugs via prescription by a doctor, and continued to the point of addiction by buying large amounts of the drug on their own later.
But addiction was widespread in Victorian America. Many average citizens, male and female, ended up in the same state as a result of the use…and ultimate unknowing abuse …of patent medicines. It wasn’t until near the end of the 1800s that the facts about the dangers of “drug addiction” became clearly understood. You can read about this in a fascinating, but disturbing, book I have.
And you can see some of the startling ads from the period for these medicines below. But first, let’s review just what it was that they contained that made them so effective—and addictive. I’ve long had trouble sorting out in my mind the difference between a number of narcotic drugs. I’ll bet that it is true for many readers. So here is a brief summary of terms I’ve compiled:
Narcotic: a drug or other substance affecting mood or behavior and sold for nonmedical purposes, especially an illegal one.
Psychotropic: a type of drug that affects a person’s mental state
Opium: A bitter, yellowish-brown, strongly addictive narcotic drug prepared from the dried juice of unripe pods of the opium poppy and containing alkaloids such as morphine and codeine.
Laudanum: an alcoholic solution containing morphine, prepared from opium and formerly used as a narcotic painkiller.
Morphine: A chemical that can be extracted from opium and used for analgesic (pain-killing) and narcotic purposes.
Codeine: A chemical that can be extracted from opium and used for analgesic and narcotic purposes.
Heroin: a highly addictive analgesic drug derived from morphine, often used illicitly as a narcotic that produces euphoria. It is more powerful than morphine.
Cocaine: a powerful nervous system stimulant, extracted from the leaf of the coca plant native to western South America. Chewing the leaves themselves, as has been done from time immemorial by the natives, does not give enough of a dose of the active ingredient in cocaine to induce addiction and cause the kind of euphoria and other “psychoactive” effects of the extracted drug. “Pure,” highly refined cocaine—like that “sold in the streets” of America—IS powerfully addictive.
In other words, there is a family relationship between opium, morphine, and heroin: The raw material direct from opium poppies is opium. Morphine is one of its constituents, and when extracted out is more powerful than opium. Heroin is synthetically created from and is more powerful than morphine.
Cocaine is a narcotic drug from a totally different source.
With that understanding of the possible “active ingredients” in many Victorian-era patent medicines, have a look at some of the ads. The pictures and text below have been excerpted from the article “Before Prohibition: Images from the pre-prohibition era when many psychotropic substances were legally available in America and Europe” on the website of the Addiction Research Unit of the Department of Psychology of the University at Buffalo, NY.
But first a notice from that website:
Note: Most contemporary pharmaceutical manufacturers and several spice companies produced products containing potent psychoactive compounds like opium. Some of these companies are prominent companies today manufacturing and distributing well-known consumer products. The incorporation of potent psychoactive substances in a company’s product line was common practice during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This was before the deleterious effects of habitual use of these substances was widely recognized.
Paperweight advertisement for C.F. Boehringer & Soehne (Mannheim, Germany), “largest makers in the world of quinine and cocaine.”
Early Coca-Cola syrup label listing ingredients. Even after the cocaine was removed from the coca leaves used to make Coca Cola (c. 1906), the product was still sold for its medicinal effects. Today the company generally refuses to comment on the use of coca leaves in their product.
Yes, the rumors are true. The “coca” in the name of Coca-Cola does stand for coca leaves, the source of cocaine. And yes, as originally concocted in 1885, the coca leaf extract in Coke did still contain a bit of the “active ingredient.” Early on, once the addictive properties of cocaine became widely-known, and a national debate began over banning it, the Coke company figured out a process to remove the cocaine from the extract, as noted on this early label.
They couldn’t just eliminate the coca leaf extract entirely, as that would have left their trademark name—already a wildly popular brand, as seen in the 1890s ad below—in question. How do you have COCA-Cola with no coca?
Then there were the “coca wines.” Yes, wine mixed with cocaine.
Metcalf’s Coca Wine was one of a large number of cocaine-containing wines available on the market. All claimed medicinal effects, although they were undoubtedly consumed for their “recreational” value as well.
Vin Mariani was the leading coca wine. This advertisement features an endorsement from Berthelier, a popular late 19th century actor. The caption immediately below the photograph reads, “Your marvelous Tonic needs certainly no further recommendation as everyone is familiar with it, and no one would be without it. I claim ‘VIN MARIANI’ can have no equal; it will live forever.” The caption also proclaims “over 7,000 written endorsements from prominent physicians in Europe and America” and that the product has had acclaim for 30 years. (From Harper’s Magazine, March, 1894.)
Vin Mariani was so popular it was even served at the Vatican in Rome!
Opium and its Derivatives
Opiate-based formulations were probably even more widely employed than those containing cocaine. Laudanum had been in use for over two centuries, and the isolation of morphine in the early 19th century (c. 1803/1817) and the later development of heroin (c. 1898) were lauded as even more effective remedies.
Modern authors usually suggest that widespread opium use was a major health problem during the 19th century. However, the use of opiates must be kept in proper perspective with other contemporary health problems. Mortality from cholera, malaria, and dysentery was very high, and opiates provided some relief from these illnesses (Opiates remain the most effective treatment for dysentery.). Some authors have suggested that the easy availability of opiate-based medicines saved more lives than it took. As the deleterious effects of chronic opiate use became increasingly recognized during the late 19th century, several factors helped ease the need for opiates: the improvements in sanitation diminished cholera and dysentery, the drainage of swamp lands decreased malaria, and the introduction of acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin; 1899) provided an alternative medicine for moderate pain relief.
This bottle of Stickney and Poor’s paregoric was distributed much like the spices for which the company is better known. McCormick also manufactured and sold paregoric, which is a mixture of opium and alcohol. Doses for infants, children, and adults are given on the bottle. At 46% alcohol, this product is 92 proof which is pretty potent in itself.
Heroin was commercially developed by Bayer Pharmaceutical and was marketed by Bayer and other companies (c. 1900) for several medicinal uses including cough suppression.
This National Vaporizer Vapor-OL (opium) Treatment no. 6 for asthma may have provided a unique method of essentially “smoking” opium. The volatile liquid was placed in a pan that was heated by a small kerosene lamp (see below). Other substances were also used in these early (c. 1890) vaporizers, but this mixture probably ensured plenty of visitors for the spasmodically affected.
Vapo-cresolene lamps were marketed primarily to vaporize creosol-based products for the relief of head and chest congestion. However, they were also used with other products such as the opium-based asthma medicine shown above.
Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was an indispensable aid to mothers and child-care workers. Containing one grain (65 mg) of morphine per fluid ounce, it effectively quieted restless infants and small children. It probably also helped mothers relax after a hard day’s work. The company used various media to promote their product, including recipe books, calendars, and trade cards such as the one shown here from 1887 (A calendar is on the reverse side.).
Shortly after the turn of the century, concern about the addictive properties—and other dangers—of many patent medicines led to a vigorous movement of investigative reporting, public outrage, and eventual governmental intervention in the free-wheeling patent medicine industry, as seen in this 1906 cover of Collier’s magazine.