Drug Abuse at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
The things I find most fascinating about researching turn-of-the-century America are the parallels between life then and life now. Drug abuse is an interesting comparison. You may be shocked to discover that a higher percentage of Americans were drug addicts in 1900 than in 2010. As much as 5% of the adult population of the U.S. was addicted to drugs (versus about 5% of the adult population using illegal drugs today, which includes the use of non-addictive drugs.)
Why? One reason is the use of morphine. Going back for decades, it was the standard painkiller for virtually all medical procedures. In fact, by the 1880’s morphine addiction was known as the “soldier’s disease,” because of its prevalent use by Union doctors in the Civil War. (Since the South didn’t have the money to purchase morphine, Confederate veterans didn’t have the problem.)
Secondly, drugs were legal. All of them. You could go into a pharmacy and order up yourself some heroin, morphine, cocaine, etc., and so long as you didn’t look like an addict, they would sell it to you over the counter.
So who was your typical drug addict? Today we think of young males, right? In 1900 the typical drug addicts were older women, often living in rural areas. Why? Patent medicines. The companies producing these medicines were not required to disclose their contents until 1906, which is when the tide began to turn in the battle against addiction.
The names of a few of the many patent medicines containing opium (as much as 50% of the mix!) were:
Mother’s Helper – A few slugs of that stuff would no doubt calm both mother and child. And that’s why people got hooked. Most addiction in those days was accidental. The users didn’t even know they were taking opium—or morphine—or heroin—or cocaine—or some combination of them. What they did know was that when they took the medicine they felt better. (Probably a lot better.)