Friday, February 15, 2013

Quackery, self medication and reckless advertising in the gaslight era

[1] PFDA Commemorative Stamps.
by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra
Things are seldom what they seem;
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Lard and soap we eat for cheese;
Butter is but axle-grease.
[2] Neuralgine Advertisement.
When considering the dreadful state of sanitation and the commonplace adulteration of foodstuffs in Nineteenth-Century North America, coupled with a vast medical ignorance, it is a wonder that anyone survived to adulthood. That they did is a testament to the hardy constitutions of our forebears. Nevertheless, survival came at a painful cost. Visitors from abroad noted that Americans seemed a sickly lot – sallow, dyspeptic and plagued by a variety of health disorders. The heyday for patent medicines, ranging from worthless to downright toxic, coincided with the first boom in the advertising industry. Early advertisements were barebones items in unrelieved columns of newspaper typography. But by the mid-Nineteenth Century, advertisers had an arsenal of color lithographs, “trade cards,” newspapers, magazines, “medicine shows” and other venues to catch the eyes of potential customers. On the plus side, many dedicated healers used a variety of beneficial minerals and plants to treat patients, notably quinine, foxglove and iodine. The potential market for miracle cures was so vast that an army of quacks and charlatans emerged to profit from the demand.

[3] London Morning Post, May 16, 1777.
Before passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, there was no government oversight of the thousands of quack patent nostrums peddled by showmen, grocers, reputable pharmacists and medical practitioners. Likewise, legal penalties for peddling bread whitened with plaster, vegetables brightened with verdigris, “swill” milk from diseased cows, spoiled beef and other toxic groceries, were sporadic and local. Saloonkeepers sold stale beer and camphene-laced “whiskey.” Cosmetics contained Arsenic and Belladonna. Even in “clean and wholesome” rural areas, people drew water from wells contaminated by runoff from pigpens and chicken runs, and contracted “summer complaint” from spoiled food simmering on the back burners of wood-fired stoves. Lack of refrigeration caused people to preserve meats in salt and nitrites. Shellfish were consumed raw. Many existed on a diet consisting of “hog, hominy and corn whiskey” from earliest childhood. The steady exodus from rural to urban areas led to overcrowding and stress as the tempo of city life quickened. The term “Neurasthenia” was coined to describe the enervation and debility brought on by these unrelenting pressures.

[4] Holloway’s Ointment Pot.
With this in mind, it is easy to understand why most Americans turned to narcotics and alcohol to ease the very real pain of their lives. This had nothing at all to do with recreational drug use – people in all walks of life and of all degrees of morality suffered the agonies of aching teeth, neuralgia, rheumatism, digestive problems and aching joints, not to mention cancer, tuberculosis and STDs. Medical literature at the time made little distinction between palliative and curative treatments. If the pain disappeared, the patient was “cured” – for the time being. The so-called "placebo effect" also played an important role. A harmless preparation of soft wax and perfume, sold as “Holloway's Ointment,” was essentially a moisturizer, yet thousands valued it as a cure-all for skin problems. People who faced the horrors of surgery, either without anesthesia or exposed to the dangers and wracking aftereffects of Chloroform and Ether, suffered not only post-surgical pain, but also serious infection and fever. Opiates, such as Morphine, were hailed as a blessing to humankind, allowing enough freedom from pain to let convalescents sleep and heal. Various derivatives of the Opium poppy have been used successfully in healing for thousands of years.

[5] Snake Oil Advertisement.
Residents of South America’s Andes Mountains were accustomed to chewing on Coca leaves to overcome the fatigue of hard labor at high altitudes. In low concentrations, the active ingredient – Cocaine – acted as a mild stimulant. In Asia, people chewed the Areca or “Betel” nut for the same reason. Only when chemists refined and concentrated substances like Opium and Cocaine did their toxic and addictive properties become hazardous to health and society. Ironically, the “impurities” in these drugs were thought to be habit-forming and injurious, thus “purifying” them would make them safer and more beneficial! Sigmund Freud and many colleagues advocated Cocaine as a “brain food.”

[6] Cocaine Toothache Drops.
Unfortunately, since narcotics attach directly to the brain’s chemical receptors at the molecular level, causing both the release of natural Dopamine, (and physical changes in the brain itself,) the overuse of concentrated opiates in a legitimate medical setting can prove just as addictive as frivolous recreational drug taking. During the Civil War, thousands of wounded soldiers found themselves in the grip of drug addiction. By 1868, there were perhaps 100,000 addicts in the U.S.; one Ohio physician claimed that drug addicts outnumbered alcoholics in his town!

[7] Dr. J. H. McLean’s Cordial.
The available over-the-counter remedies of the day compounded the problem (pun intended), hooking additional thousands through “soothing syrups” to calm teething babies, “toothache drops,” “cough suppressors,” “appetite stimulators,” “nerve tonics,” liniments “to be taken internally or externally: good for man or beast.” Besides a few harmless herbs, perfumes and coloring, many of these contained Opium, Cocaine, Laudanum or Morphine, dissolved in a base of 30 to 40% alcohol. Because these nostrums were cheap and readily available, people could take them for years without having to go through withdrawal. However, the ailments that prompted them to begin taking palliative drugs usually proved fatal in the long run, without proper treatment.

[8] Parker’s Tonic 1882.
Narcotics were so commonplace that little or no social stigma attached itself to various habits, with the exception of those associated with suspect minority groups. Swallowing pills of Opium or chewing Hashish in one’s drawing room was perfectly fine – frequenting “Heathen Chinee” opium dens was taboo. Cocaine soon became linked with black longshoremen in New Orleans, and Cannabis (Marijuana) with Mexican migrant workers – groups beyond the pale of polite society. The development of the hypodermic needle ratcheted the narcotics problem up several notches and dropped “mainlining” addicts down many degrees in public opinion. Sherlock Holmes and his “seven per cent solution” of cocaine was the last of the popular drug-addicted literary heroes.

[9] Heroin Cough Sedative.
It is amusing – and somewhat frightening – to reflect that major policy decisions were made by people stoned on drugs. The craze for gothic horror and phantasmagoria that pervades Victorian literature may be partly explained by the opiate haze in which many artists and writers lived. Thomas de Quincey, the English Opium eater,” and FitzHugh Ludlow, the American “Hasheesh” eater, brought experimental and recreational doping into the literary mainstream. The humor magazine Vanity Fair advertised a Hashish candy during 1862, no doubt inspired by Ludlow’s writings. This confection was marketed by the “Gunjah Wallah” Company, (i.e.: “Ganja Man!”) Similar ads appeared in Harper’s Weekly.

[10] FitzHugh Ludlow.
Quack nostrums to treat STDs, on the other hand, were always considered disreputable, and merely advertising them for sale in a publication was grounds for losing one’s second-class bulk postal license and prosecution under various obscenity codes. Publisher Frank Leslie narrowly avoided prosecution by reformer Anthony Comstock for certain ads in his mildly racy Day’s Doings in 1870. Somehow, Richard Kyle Fox’s National Police Gazette got away with running similar ads for many years, coupled with ads for “manhood restorers,” male enlargement preparations, male and female contraceptives (sold as “rubber goods,) abortifacients, such as Pennyroyal, and other “female regulators.” The Police Gazette also reveled in illustrations of “swell actresses” and their Opium-smoking orgies, and Cocaine-maddened maniacs on the rampage, despite advertising products that contained these drugs.

[11] Vanity Fair 1862.
Narcotic substances even found their way into soda-fountain treats. Atlanta’s John Stith “Doc” Pemberton formulated Coca-Cola to assist him with his own Morphine habit, contracted following his wounding in the Civil War. His intent was to create a non-alcoholic version of French Coca Wine. Compounded of the stimulants Cocaine and African Kola nuts, plus Damiana – a reputed aphrodisiac – and his famed secret flavoring syrup in carbonated water, Coke was only available at drugstores. It first appeared in bottles in 1894, and was referred to as “dope” for many years, until the Cocaine, Damiana and Kola nuts were removed from the brew. Only then would it become the beloved global “pause that refreshes,” spread by American G.I.s in World War II.

[12] The Day’s Doings, April 23, 1870.
Although it is in many ways more addictive than Heroin (marketed as a cough syrup by the respected Bayer Pharmaceutical Co.) Tobacco has somehow avoided being classified as either a food or a drug, and its processing and additives have remained mostly unregulated. The Nineteenth Century seems to have been fueled by its own “five basic food groups”: Fat, Sugar, Salt, Alcohol and Tobacco. Tobacco was chewed, snuffed and smoked almost everywhere. Its use became a rite of passage for boys and the mark of the “he-man,” with the exception of cigarettes. “Coffin Nails” were regarded as effeminate. They also were sometimes laced with Opium or Coca extract and linked with decadence. Alcohol, although consumed in prodigious quantities, because it was safer than water, was treated with more ambivalence. Social drinking was fine – public intoxication was not. The various “temperance” (i.e.: abstention) movements gained power throughout the Nineteenth Century and eventually pushed through the Volstead Act that amended the U.S. Constitution and imposed national Prohibition. Ironically, many patent medicines still sold over the counter, contained alcohol. A trip to the pharmacy soon replaced a visit to the saloon between 1920 and 1933.

[13] The Day’s Doings, August 17, 1870.
To overcome the stigma of boozing in public, an ingenious Philadelphia manufacturer marketed “vinous rubber grapes” in the 1880s, filled with one’s tipple of choice. A “grape” could be popped into the mouth discreetly, bitten to release the beverage within, and daintily removed under a hanky. These were a boon to alcoholic theatergoers who couldn’t wait until the intermission for their next shot, much as Nicotine patches ease long air trips for today’s ostracized smokers.

[14] The Day’s Doings, April 23, 1870.
These unabashed advertisements from long-vanished magazines evoke a far different state of mind than the current absolutist attitudes of the “war on drugs.” Despite their seeming optimistic exuberance, the manufacturers and pitchmen knew full well that they were marketing harmful, toxic products that deluded purchasers who only sought relief from illness and pain. They prove the old adage that “if it seems too good to be true, it’s probably not true.”

[15] The Day’s Doings, April 23, 1870.
For further reading

— Otto L. Bettman, ‘The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible’ (New York: Random House, 1974).
— Barbara Hodgson, ‘Opium; A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon’ (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999).
— Barbara Hodgson, ‘In The Arms of Morpheus; The Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine and Patent Medicines’ (Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2001).

[16] Police Gazette, December 17, 1881.
[17] Police Gazette, December 10, 1881.
[18] Police Gazette, December 10, 1881.
[19] Police Gazette, March 5, 1898.
[20] Police Gazette, March 5, 1898.
[21] Police Gazette, 1898.
[22] Police Gazette, 1898.
[23] Coca Cola Syrup.
[24] J.G. Dill’s Best Cut Plug.
[25] Allen & Ginter Old Planter.
[26] Cocarettes Advertisement.
[27] Bull Durham Label.
[28] Vinous Rubber Grape Co. Advertisement.
[29] Malt Whisky Advertisement.

1 comment:

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