Dr. McMunn’s Elixir of Opium was listed in the American Journal of Pharmacy in 1846 as a cold infusion of opium and wine. Until it was banned in 1905, opium was cheaper than beer or gin (in 1868, the price per pound of Turkish opium was $11, or about $171 in today’s value), and just as easy to obtain. You could buy opium in grocery stores, by mail order, and over the counter at pharmacies. An 1883-to-1885 survey of Iowa showed its two million residents had access to 3,000 stores that sold opium. Women used opiates more than men. Of 1,313 opiate users surveyed in Michigan in 1878, 61.2% were women. Another survey in 1880 in Chicago found that 169 of 235 users were women (71%); one-third of this group were prostitutes.
Parents gave opium to fussy babies; Karl Marx mentions in Capital the working class’ habit of dosing children with opiates. Something called Godfrey’s Cordial–a blend of opium, molasses, and sassafras–was popular in England, as was its competitor, Street’s Infants’ Quietness, which “quieted” many infants through death by overdose. The enormous number of bottles produced for opium attests to its widespread use. In a single year, 1859, the Folembray Glass Works in France produced eighty million opium bottles.
The most famous opium addict was probably Thomas DeQuincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater. DeQuincey suffered from what he called “chronic passion of anxiety”, though he first took opium for stomach pain. DeQuincey described his opium high as “preternatural paroxysms of intermitting power” and acclaimed its marvelous agency on the mind. DeQuincey took opium in liquid form, as laudanum, concocted in the sixteenth century by the physician, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastis Bombastus von Hohenheim, otherwise known as Paracelsus, who wrote, “I possess a secret remedy which I call laudanum and which is superior to all other heroic remedies.” Etymologically, laudanum means something to be praised, and praised this drug was. DeQuincey wrote, “Here is a panacea for all human woes. Here was the secret of happiness . . . happiness might now be bought for a penny.” Wilkie Collins, author of the first British detective novels, wrote in 1864, “Drops, you are a darling! If I love nothing else, I love you!”
DeQuincey was unapologetic about his fifty-year habit. He wrote:
“Guilt, therefore, I do not acknowledge: and, if I did, it is possible that I might still resolve on the present act of confession, in consideration of the service which I may thereby render to a whole class of opium-eaters. But who are they? Reader, I am sorry to say, a very numerous class indeed . . . for instance, as the eloquent and benevolent ____________, the late dean of ____________; Lord ____________; Mr. ____________, the philosopher; a late under-secretary of state (who described to me the sensation which first drive him to the use of opium, in the very same words as the dean of , viz. “That he felt as though rats were gnawing and abrading the coats of his stomach”); Mr.____________; and many others, hardly less known, who it would be tedious to mention.”
Besides DeQuincey, famous opium users include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Baudelaire, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was an incurable insomniac. His famous poem Kubla Khan was written during an opium high. Mary Todd Lincoln took laudanum for insomnia, and French composer, Hector Berlioz set an opium trip to music in his 1830 orchestral work, Symphonie fantastique. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allen Poe took opium. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.) ate opium regularly, and even recommended its use in Meditations. Some historians think opium is what made Marcus Aurelius so famously “stoic.”
In an effort to find a blend of opium that was not so addictive, English pharmacist, C.R. Alder Wright, formulated a derivative called diacetylmorphin, which by 1895 was sold commercially by the German company, Bayer, of aspirin fame. Their new drug, called Heroin for its heroic ability to cure, was the best-selling drug brand of its time.
Sources: Booth, Martin. Opium: A History. Simon & Schuster, 1996; Brecher, Edward M. Licit and Illicit Drugs: The Consumer Union Report. Little Brown, 1973; de Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Penguin Books, 1971:Fairthorne, R.F. “Some Facts Concerning the Morphia and Opium Trade in the United States.” American Journal of Pharmacy. Dec. 1880; Hogshire, Jim. Opium for the Masses. Feral House. 2009; Fort Stanwix National Monument. U.S. Department of the Interior. Rome, NY. www.hartgen.com/FOST/archeo_medicine.htm and (www.nps.gov/fost/index.htm);VictorianTruth. (http://victoriantruth.blogspot.com).