Where Romance and History Meet - www.heartsthroughhistory.com/

Monday, February 7, 2011


Laudanum Bottle
would have a cork
in the top
Laudanum is a very old drug, but use became widespread during the Victorian era. Some authors suggest that use was a major health problem. Certainly many notable people of the time were addicted: Lord Byron, Percy Blythe Shelley, John Keats, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, William Taylor Coleridge, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (as well as his character Sherlock Holmes) are only a few. I confess I’m more than a little surprised that Charles Dickens appears on the list. Before we judge, however, we have to understand the times.

Look in your medicine cabinet. If yours is like mine, you stock pain relievers for headaches and arthritis, coughs, Immodium, allergies, and gas relief. In the 1800’s, mortality from cholera, malaria, and dysentery was very high. Now we only have to take an Immodium tablet or something similar, but diarrhea actually killed huge numbers of people while they suffered terrible cramping. Even if laudanum couldn’t cure them, it eased their pain.

New Rx's
decrease death
Tuberculosis was a problem, made worse by living conditions and hard work necessary for life in those times. Think of the furor when there’s an outbreak of e-coli, but that must have been commonplace in Victorian times and hardly newsworthy.

It’s hard to realize just how deadly these diseases were because we have sanitation that has diminished cholera and dysentery. The drainage of swamp lands decreased malaria, a disease one of my ancestors contracted from living in the Brazos River Valley near Waco, Texas in the 1880’s. Introduction of aspirin in 1899 provided an alternative medication for pain relief. Along with antibiotics, modern pharmaceuticals have diminished the severity of all those diseases.

A century ago, a
sick woman would
have taken
I wouldn’t feel comfortable providing the recipe I discovered for making laudanum, but it was 10% opium and 90% alcohol and usually flavored with cinnamon and sometimes also saffran. Not only was it available over the counter, it was recommended by doctors for everything from menstrual cramps to tuberculosis. It was much cheaper than any other form of pain killer, and that made it attractive to those in the lower economic classes. By no means was laudanum used only by the poor. Wealthy women even used it to achieve a coveted pallid complexion, and even infants were spoon fed laudanum. Only later did people realize that laudanum use was habit forming and demanded greater and greater doses to provide relief.

eliminate formerly
fatal diseases
In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act required that certain specified drugs--alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and cannabis--be accurately labeled with contents and dosage. Previously, many drugs had been sold as patent medicines with secret ingredients or misleading labels. Authorities estimate that sales decreased by one third after labeling was required. The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 restricted the manufacture and distribution of opiates, including laudanum, and coca derivatives in the United States. Not until the middle of the 20th century did the U.S. government limit the use of opiates. In 1970, the U.S. adopted the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, which regulated opium tincture (laudanum) as a Schedule II substance and placed tighter controls on the drug.
Caroline Clemmons writes romance and adventures—although her earliest made up adventures featured her saving the West with Roy Rogers. Her career has included stay-at-home mom (her favorite job), newspaper reporter and featured columnist, assistant to the managing editor of a psychology journal, and bookkeeper. She and her husband live in rural North Central Texas with a menagerie of rescued pets. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with family, reading, travel, browsing antique malls and estate sales, and genealogy/family history. Her latest contemporary and historical romance releases include THE TEXAN’S IRISH BRIDE, OUT OF THE BLUE, SNOWFIRES, SAVE YOUR HEART FOR ME to be released March 10th, and the upcoming HOME SWEET TEXAS HOME. Read about her at http://www.carolineclemmons.com/ and http://carolineclemmons.blogspot.com/. She loves to hear from readers at caroline@carolineclemmons.com


Caroline Clemmons said...

Sorry the old post was up earlier. This really is today's post.

Anonymous said...

Laudanum was dispensed in drops and not spoonfuls-- though DEQuincy might have graduated to spoon sized doses. Opium was , as you say in everything. I really have a hard time accepting that they gave it to infants for teething discomfort. The fact that the formula was mostly wine should have made people hesitate .

Debby Lee said...

Hi Caroline, very interesting information. It must have taken a fair amount of research, I'm impressed. My historicals are set in the 1800's and this is good info for my stories. Looking forward to reading more, thanks a bunch,Debby Lee

Wendy Quest said...

That was an interesting article - I had no idea people became addicted to the stuff. That explains some of Poe's poems...

Caroline Clemmons said...

Anonymous, as people's addiction grew, they did require teaspoonfuls.

Debby Lee, I did the research for my current book but now I have it for any future books where it fits.

Wendy, LOL on some of Poe's poems. Isn't that the truth! I'm still surprised at Dickens, though. Maybe some of the darker scenes in his books were written when he needed another dose. LOL

Renee said...

Caroline, I have used laudanum in my stories before but hadn't a clue what it was made of. I knew there was a problem with addiction, I just had no idea why.

Emma said...

I sometimes wonder what will happen 100 years from now when someone looks back at our medicine cabinets and says "They took that!" This was a great little piece and I appreciate the historical perspective. I am now remembering all the 'home' remedies I was brought up on. Some worked, some didn't and the rest run the gamut from 'OK' to 'Are you deranged!' It is a miracle we all survive!

Black Irish said...

Most of the people you list there were NOT addicted to laudanum. DeQuincy and Coleridge most def had dope problems, but the rest of those people were either very occasional users or had only tried it/used it for an illness a handful of times. That's one of the seductions of history- to assign salacious or sordid habits (drug and otherwise) to historical figures to sexy-up their biographies.

Poe used laudanum very rarely, and apparently, exclusively or almost exclusively for medical relief. A doctor, who was actually antagonistic toward Poe, no friend at all, but nonetheless knew him well, testified that he never once saw any evidence of any opiate abuse, and would have been aware if Poe had been using. He drank, but most likely wasn't an alcoholic. In fact, Poe was the member of a TEMPERANCE GROUP! when he died. All that noise of his drunkenness and dope fiending was postmortem slander by Griswold- an a**hole who HATED Poe. It's unfortunate it keeps getting perpetuated as historical fact.

Black Irish said...

For the sake of Poe's memory (and defense against a probable haunting), that stuff should be checked out before publication.

Black Irish said...

ANDDDD.... Conan Doyle was NOT a laudanum junkie! He probably experimented, but there is absolutely not evidence from anywhere that he was strung out on opium tincture.

He had Holmes use drugs in two or three of his stories, but Holmes seemed to prefer cocaine rather than morphine (although Holmes did use morphine occasionally, according to Watson). However, after Sign of Four, Holmes is virtually never mentioned doing drugs and was therefore not an addict. Or at least not a practicing addict. To assign addiction to Sir Conan Doyle because he wrote about drug use is untrue and unfair though. If every artist who ever mentioned drugs in fiction was a junky, I don't think much would ever get written.

Black Irish said...

Sorry to keep going on about this, I'm not trying to be a jerk! But it sullies their memories; not that drug use or abuse should necessarily sully anyone's memory. The world is less understanding than it should be. But if famous figures of today were openly accused of being addicts, they (appropriately) sue for slander. Not everyone is Rush Limbaugh.

Black Irish said...

I'm a writer and I've been reading these posts in amazement: 'I have used laudanum in my stories but never knew what it was made of'? How on earth can people write like that?
If you don't know what's in a drug o how it works, how on earth can you use it in a story!!
I don't know how many times I've read fiction by people that have these incredibly ridiculous portrayals of drug use and abuse. Knowledge gleaned entirely from silly pop-culture misunderstanding, sensationalized propaganda, misinformed fiction or a poor grasp of historical reality. Seriously people, just do some research. With the internet this stuff is incredibly easy to find! Even if you haven't read these people's works, their biographies, etc.
It's an insult to fiction and history. Two abstract entities I love and am deeply indebted to. And they both deserve better treatment!

Black Irish said...

And I'm not sure an LOL after accusing (incorrectly) Arthur Conan Doyle of composing darker scenes in books because he was in the midst of drug withdrawals is entirely appropriate. Addiction and libel aren't super funny. Not to me at least.

Anonymous said...

I grow opium poppies and have an antique recipe for laudanum.
There is nothing better to sit down and relax with some.........
The fact is that nicotine causes far more damage than laudanum would ever, it is just that it is not readily available and we are told that it is bad and no one knows better.
It is a nice, relaxing, numbing feeling with a nice warm euphoric feeling - VERY recommendable.
Ps : Very true on giving one a lovely pallid complexion.
Also for the black Irish guy, there is evidence (not speculation) that laudanum was used by ALL those people. (In stages, granted).
If you have ever used Laudanum, then you will understand,however it is obvious you do not understand it fully.

Lumiere de Sang said...

He never said it wasn't used by them, but that most of them weren't addicted to it.

Anonymous said...

I mostly agree with Black Irish. I am surprised to see this kind of writing and research from a professional. It could have been written by a fifth grader with internet access. Please, historical writers do your research, or hire a consultant. Nothing turns me off a story more than obvious lack of effort like that.

Joseph Scally said...

You speak authoritatively on these matters without presenting credentials that would make us accept your facts over another's.

Karmatthelake said...

They use to put it in whiskey and trade it to the Sioux Indians and other tribes and it was quite addictive for this Nation of Americans!! Read The Heart of Everything That is by; Druey not Clavin New York Bestseller

Jason Rude said...

Which is why you were instructed to Google it for yourself, find your own tangible if it means something to you.

anonymous said...

While I understand your apprehension, you should be aware that there exists Morphine in mother's breast milk, albeit a very small %. Plus, they were working with what was available (to them) at the time.