However prominent a role nitrous oxide played in earlier episodes, it would be a mistake to ignore other varieties of intoxicants equally embraced by this culture and others. The nineteenth-century America enamored with varying forms of substance abuse had its roots in post-Renaissance Europe, where drugs other than alcohol were exciting and novel. Until explorations of Asia and the discovery of the New World, Europeans had no access to opium, barbiturates, cocaine, coffee, tea, tobacco, hallucinogens , or marijuana. Thus, Europeans had to use alcohol for just about every social calling.
Blessed with intrepid explorers, however, Europe soon
filled its hitherto bare pharmacological cupboard. The early adventurers brought back
drugs wherever they found them, and, in a few instances, brought them to places that had
none. Columbus brought tobacco back from the New World
on his first trip, and caffeine soon followed, along with cocaine, opium, and
hallucinogens like peyote.
Decrees or no, it was an immediate hit. Coffee also made it big in North America, despite occasional stern warnings from killjoys in the medical profession. In the spectacularly titled Morphinism and Narcomanias from Other Drugs, one T.D.Crothers, M.D. tells a few tales of delirium induced by coffee consumption. He also remarks, not unlike analogies to marijuana made by current drug crusaders, that, "Often coffee drinkers, finding the drug to be unpleasant, turn to other narcotics, of which opium and alcohol are the most common." Similarly, in A System of Medicine (1909), edited by the comically degreed Sir T. Clifford Allbutt (K.C.B., M.A., M.D., LL.D., D. Se., F.R.C.P., F.R.S., F.L.S., F.S.A., Regius Professor of Physic [Internal medicine] in the University of Cambridge), some contributors announce their distaste for caffeine:
Clearly, coffee was the work of the Devil . However, Allbutt and friends follow this judgment up with
This weakness for opiates in late nineteenth-century
England stands out rather starkly. Opiates, such as morphine and heroin, are considered
the scourge of 1990s Western drug culture. What made them so attractive and seem so
innocuous a hundred years ago?
And various corruptions of the above names. As one might surmise, these concoctions of opium were expressly designed for the purpose of quieting unruly children. The England of the Industrial Revolution was not a particularly pleasant place to live and work in, especially for the lower classes. Eighteen-hour workdays were not uncommon. Contraception was virtually unknown. The accidental bearing of a child would prove grossly inconvenient to its mother; so would the extra cost in feeding and lost sleep due to the infant's cries.
The last mixture on the above list, Godfrey's Cordial, was a mixture of opium and treacle, and the amount of each in the mixture was the object of intense speculation in an 1843 report commissioned by Parliament :
The report notes that, while the cordial enjoyed brisk sales and a high turnover, no one actually kept track of the mixture inside the bottle. Opium, being fat-soluble, does not dissolve easily in water. Thus, over time, the opium might become concentrated in the bottom of the jug by falling out of solution, and he who got the last dose in the bottle might be in for a wild ride, especially if he couldn't even crawl on all fours yet. Additionally, the recommended doses for the various treatments were vague statements like "as necessary". Couple these instructions with the knowledge that many of the lower-class families who purchased the cordial were illiterate, and one very quickly imagines scores of ratty, slothful children getting a dollop of sweet-tasting opiate the moment they acted up. To make matters worse, the Godfrey's Cordial bottle was narrow-necked and very distinctive-looking; infants recognized it easily. Chepaitis cites another Parliamentary report that quotes apothecaries as saying,
Another noted that children old enough to buy bottles from their parents from the store
In another Parliamentary report, a seamstress named Mary Colton was able to drug her child for two days a week on 1/96 of her weekly paycheck, which made administering such a cordial economically feasible. For example, a working mother making $20,000 in 1998 dollars would be paying roughly twelve bucks a week to keep her child quiet. The sedated toddler allowed Mary to work her normal job and put food on the table, and he was too zonked to get himself into trouble. As Chepaitis puts it,
Thus, time constraints brought on by the booming of industry forced generations of children into opium dependency. Sweet-tasting drugs allowed the same children to dose themselves effectively, and bypass the need for parents altogether. Until, that is, the subject of nutrition is approached.
Next week: nipple liniment and baby farms!