Ellen Hawley Roddick

Ellen Hawley Roddick
Orcas Island, Washington, USA
February 13
An author of both nonfiction and novels, I also am a freelance editor of nonfiction and a freelance writer of newsletters and fund-raising letters. I co-author clients' memoirs and, as a public speaker, address such topics as creative business communication and how to write a memoir.


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JUNE 13, 2009 6:02PM

Coca(ine)-Cola and Other Remedies from the Bad Old Days

Rate: 38 Flag

  pills on plate

Once upon a time, Americans didn't fool around with illness. Never mind health plans. Just pop into the druggist. Got a headache? Take an aspirin. Got a cough? Take an aspirin with heroin. Huh, what's that you say? You'd like something in between, instead of going straight from aspirin to heroin? Too bad. Evidently you were out of luck.

My eyes were opened to our nation's druggy past when I received an email this week that pointed me to a Web site featuring advertisements from as long ago as the 19th century, and I discovered that we sure were cheerful about cocaine, heroin, and other family soothers. I knew Coca-Cola’s name reflects the fact that it originally contained cocaine, but I only just learned that it also contained wine and was supposed to cure hysteria and melancholy. I bet it did!

Toothache? For 15 cents, you could pick up cocaine drops from the druggist. If you were feeling plain tuckered out, you could sip wine laced with cocaine and advertised as restoring health and vitality.

Overweight? Try amphetamines marketed to solve the problem. Depressed? Try methamphetamine in, for instance, the theatrically named, “Lady out of the Dark.” (How nice that the copywriter was literate enough to correctly place out, of, and the in lower case, indicating that he knew more about writing English than many people today. Not that I imply we’d be better writers on methamphetamines.)

As another aside, let’s not forget that women were widely believed not to have orgasms, and doctors treated female complaints not only with drugs but also by massaging their patients’ genitals until relief came through a “paroxysm.” But the poor guys suffered strain in their own hands and fingers from applying this highly successful and remunerative treatment so often. And thus was born the vibrator, originally a medical tool.

But to get back to drugs. Another product aimed at housewives leading lives of quiet desperation contained Dexedrine to make life seem worth living. Once these wives hit menopause, they could do themselves and their families a favor by taking barbiturates designed to make them more stable mentally.

Women seemed to need more medicinal support than men. Nursing mothers were urged to depend on tonics from Anheuser-Bush and Pabst that contained alcohol. (The Pabst family sent my first husband and me a luxurious wedding present; I failed to appreciate its connection to nursing mothers.)

People of all genders were encouraged to take Quaaludes for anxiety and, for a cough, Bayer aspirin that contained heroin. An evident Bayer competitor, Smith, claimed the combination of glycerin and heroin in their cough medicine was “scientifically conceived.” Alternatively (or, for all I know, in combination), for coughs our ancestors took a syrup that combined codeine, chloroform and marijuana. For asthma, on the other hand, cigarettes of some sort were recommended for those six and older.

If you were in pain, you could turn to injectable opium, which Panopon Roche claimed was a good alternative to morphine. Children as well as adults were dosed with morphine and heroin for colds, coughs, and congestion. We can well imagine how silent teething babies became when given the recommended morphine.

If your child had to see a doctor and balked at being examined, Abbott encouraged the doc to use a pentobarbital suppository. Both pentobarbital and Phenobarbital were the doctor’s friend in controlling adult patients freaking out for whatever reason. (In the 1960s I knew a physician at a well respected Manhattan hospital who, when he was at home in their Park Avenue apartment, gave his baby Phenobarbital. His wife explained that he worked hard and needed quiet at home.)

But times have changed over the past 150 years, although chloroform was only taken off the open market in 1976. Some drugs enjoyed legally in olden times are today used illegally. Other drugs that once were available freely now require a prescription. We are still taking the drugs our ancestors relied on, but now they're harder to get. And more expensive. Is this  a clear symptom of progress? All I can say for sure is that California could solve its financial problems by legalizing marijuana and that vibrators have come a long way, baby.

Historical ads for products containing drugs: http://www.pharmacytechs.net/blog/old-school-medicine-ads

History of vibrators: http://www.tbd.com/content/article/basic_article.article:::love_life_history_vibrators


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The fact that cocaine and heroin were once legal, and the vast majority of users didn't turn into homicidal maniacs, indicates that the most pernicious effects of these drugs are due to the fact that they are illegal, not to any pharmacological properties of the drugs themselves.

It's no coincidence that we have this incredibly destructive War On Drugs in which the medical establishment is trying to get us all addicted to as many kinds of drugs as possible.

Thanks for the reminder that when it comes to drugs, like most things in life, it's all in how you use them.


Thanks for making me smile with one of your parenthetical Easter eggs for grammarians:

“(How nice that the copywriter was literate enough to correctly place out, of, and the in lower case, indicating that he knew more about writing English than many people today. Not that I imply we’d be better writers on methamphetamines.)”

Yes, “out of the” in “Lady out of the Dark” does look awfully sunken in the middle, but prepositions will be prepositions. Ah, but where do you fall on the controversy about capitalizing longer prepositions in titles (e.g., “Through,” “Between,” “About”)? I suppose Fowler would err on the side of absolute correctness (always lowercase unless at the beginning or end of a title), while Karen Elizabeth Gordon might flow toward capitalizing prepositions longer than four characters. These are totally unverified claims, I confess.

I see I’ve gotten sidetracked here. What I really meant to say is how much Michael and I always appreciate how gracefully you manage to both educate and entertain, as the best teachers tend to do.

Very interesting article.. I had heard about some of these but not all of them. Very interesting to learn about them all.. Great post.
How very interesting, and the poison of alcohol still readily available to all and sundry. I like a vodka and cranberry juice every now and then myself, but it is a drug and will harm your vital organs not to mention what it does to the brain and decision-making process. Just had to get that in there.

Do you know what laudunum is? I read about in the pioneer women's diaries and it seemed like some kind of cure-all that would certainly kill you or your children if taken improperly, and it was taken improperly most of the time.

This was such a good post and it made me think of an article I read once about how truth-in-labeling laws came about. It seems it used to be legal to put plaster in flour, sawdust in cornmeal, and god-knows-what in coffee. Now there's god-knows-what in everything.
Wildly informative. i enjoyed this so much.....makes me wonder about just how hip my great Grandparents really were.....
Oh my god, this makes me cringe, and it also makes me increasingly thankful that I didn't live back then.

I wonder what people a hundred years from now will think of today's medical procedures and treatments?
("Can you believe they actually used to poison cancer patients?")
Paregoric, anyone? and I'm not that old. Best thing for cramps every invented...opium.
I recently saw those old ads and was going to post about them. Fortunately for all of us, you wrote this first. Wonderfully informative and entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

Do you --or does anyone here-- remember being given Paregoric as a child? Tasted like licorice. Is basically opium.
Paregoric... I remember that stuff. Tasted AWFUL. My mother used to give it to me whenever I had a stomache ache. Just a sniff of that stuff made me instantly feel better. Used to think it was some kind of aversion therapy. Now I'm wondering.....
Smelled like black licorace....yes. ick. The other standby (for coughing) was Terpenhydrate (sp?), which I think had codeine in it.
I had to laugh as I was reading this. :) This reminded me when my grandma joked about drinking beer to bring her milk in when she had her kids.

I wonder why we don't go back to some of this stuff, but in lower quantities. LOL
Oh my--cigarettes for asthmatics and Pabst for babies? How have we survived as a species?
Good post, really fun to read and informative.
"doctors treated female complaints not only with drugs but also by massaging their patients’ genitals until relief came through a “paroxysm.” "? Wow- hard to wrap my mind around this one! House calls certainly had a different meaning when the doctor always rang twice!
I have a friend who tried giving advil to her cat (it turned out to be lethal...)
I've always lamented that I couldn't buy cocaine at the drugstore. :) God only knows what I could have accomplished.

Interesting post, Hawley.
Found out laudanum is morphine in alcohol and Paregoric is similar only lower strength. I never had it, but I used to like codeine in cough syrup, but can't have that OTC anymore.
I collect antique bottles and was surprised to learn that mothers in the 1800's routinely gave their babies "laudanum", an opium drink, to get them to sleep. There was even a special glass bottle for administering it to the babies (it's highly collectible, by the way.) All of this makes me wonder how anyone ever lived to old age back then? Or maybe they were healthier than we are because they were all sedated and given frequent genital-massages.
I'll take one of each. Thank you.
If you listen to the side effects of current prescription drugs, I wonder about the supposed progress. It seems that so many people are on a raft of prescription drugs, many of which they become dependent on.
While an a so-called expert on the subject of illegal drugs, these are the illegal drugs I'm an expert on. "What" did I just say?
Laudanum is (or was, in Ben Franklin's day) a mixture of opium and port wine. He used it for his rather severe kidney stone problem.

For those who think this stuff was once legal I have a minor quibble, and I mean minor as in small in today's world, but something that we today have a problem contemplating about yesteryear.

This stuff wasn't legal. It wasn't illegal. The legal establishment of the day didn't consider anything whatsoever about these medications at all. In fact, much of the legal profession were using these treatments themselves as there was no other treatment available. None. This was the best those folks back then could do.

They did not do badly. Back in the day, for example, cigarettes were used to treat asthma. They were indeed. I had an aunt that had asthma and used cigarettes for treatment. She used to smoke them under a blanket and in a closet because she was ashamed of the practice. She was afraid her neighbors would find out. What your article doesn't mention (and I liked this article a great deal!) was that the cigarettes were of the menthol variety. This, in that day, was the only treatment available for asthma.

It doesn't do to look back at our very recent ancestors and consider them primitive and think that our descendants three generation hence will think us primitive but to consider we live right now, just as they in the past and the future will live in their now.
I wish I wrote this - Rated!
As you see I am totally green with envy :-)
Oh, this!

What a lovely and entertaining jaunt down Medicatory Lane.

This is what i want: I want a doctor to listen to my sad tales of emergency surgeries, insomnia, overwork, anxiety, exhaustion, etc., and then write me a scrip for hashish + bonefishing in the flats in the Keys.

"Honey, the Dr. says I gotta go! Where's that little pipe I had back in college?"
Ah, the good old days.
Although it wasn't the focus of your post, your statement that women seemed to need more medicinal support than men can be traced back to the time when women's health and medicine, in particular childbirth and other perfectly normal female bodily functions, went from being dealt with by other women (such as midwives) to being overtaken by the male dominated medical profession. The term "hysterectomy' was coined to describe the removal of the womans sexual organs and was done in an attempt to cure women of hysteria, thought to be caused by their very female-ness. Childbirth was once completely out of the hands of men, women were tended to by women, however with the rise of for-profit medical care in this country, coupled with the sense on the part of male practitioners that being female was in itself a form of pathology, women became targets for "treatment" of multiple phenomena that were not in any way suggestive of disease.
I love what Patrick Hahn said but your last line said it all. Well done, Hawley!
I remember in the early 50's when we had tummy aches we would pop into my cousin's pharmacy and pick up a bottle of paragoric......I agree that if they legalized drugs the budget deficit would be a thing of the past and as in old days...the needy would be helped and and the abusers would abuse. The abusers are going to abuse anyway. Thanks for the memories lol.
Born too late, it seems. Sigh.

For an interesting read try Jacob Sullmans Saying Yes, In Defense of Drugs/ The "war on drugs" is the most failed battle we have ever fought.. Not to mention the wealth our economy could have had all these years. taxes, sales and, heck, lots better art! legalize everything.. and then tax it.
My mother says her doctor advised her to rub beer on our gums when we were teething to quiet us down. This was in the 1950's. My grandfather used to sneak us a little Jack Daniels when we were sick. I still like to sip whisky when I have a cold. It's so soothing . . .
The only results that I got for doing shit for free was: more requests to do shit for free.

What a crock!
Thank you all for your comments. Many of you made me smile. Others broadened my understanding of drugs and society.

The connection between addiction and both legal and illegal drugs is still not well enough understood. But the "war on drugs" is indeed a lucrative and cynical scam, a tragic joke.

That no drugs were illegal until fairly recently was a point I hadn't considered. But does it let the drug companies and the government who approves new drugs off the hook for selling dangerous drugs and making irrational decisions about what is illegal? Morphine can be prescribed but in some states marijuana can't? Oh, come on.

One of my husbands noticed on a map that the farther away from doctors people on the globe live, the longer their average life span. (Not to tar with that brush the many doctors who extend patients' lives.)

Ah, yes, laudanum and paregoric. Reminds me somehow of the time I drank absinthe a friend had smuggled into the country from Paris.

And I, too, knew someone who rubbed a teething baby's gums with bourban or brandy.

The use of drugs in spiritual practice is a good example of how the LSD mantra applies broadly: Mindset, setting, and dosage are key. The example of spiritual practices in India is a welcome example.
The first time I got drunk was at a Passover seder ("drink the fourth cup of wine!") I once drank nearly a whole bottle of Cheracol cough medicine, which contained codeine. As an adult, the MD for whom I worked used to write us prescriptions for "Tincture Opii," the generic nane for Paregoric which, by the way used to be prescribed for diarrhea. It was therapeutic when the patients drove us nuts. Oh, wait, I'm a female. Aha, that explains it!
:D I love to learn new things- this was a fascinating post Hawley!

"One of my husbands noticed on a map that the farther away from doctors people on the globe live, the longer their average life span."
My personal theory on that is that stress kills. Living in a metro area puts stress on many systems.
Very perceptive, Julie. Cities have a higher death rate, and their population requires influx from the countryside.
Not surprising we have so many drug addicts!
Those were the good old days: when the a label said "pain relief" they meant it.

Of course, if you're Canadian you can buy a bottle of aspirin with codeine in it. Codeine, caffeine, and aspirin (or tylenol). A lot more effective relieving back pain after an over energetic yard working session than a tablet of Advil.
My mother gave birth to me in Australia and at that time all the mothers were given Guinness Stout more than once a day to help replenish their systems and bolster their milk production. Lots of B vitamins!

They also kept new mums in the hospital for nearly a week before they sent them home.