Our Grandparents' Pharmacy - Heroin, Cocaine, Rattlesnake Oil, Electricity

Created on Jul 26, 2017 by Kathy Pinna
Drug overdose deaths in the US are estimated to have been around 59,000 in 2016 and addiction is on the rise. But drug addiction and deaths have always been a part of our history - on the Mayflower, the doctor carried a kit with an early form of laudanum. Cocaine, heroin, opium, alcohol, marijuana . . . our grandparents used all of these to cure their illnesses - often unknowingly. Addiction isn't new: patent medicines weren't usually patented (no one wanted to share the ingredients) - and they weren't regulated, either.

The FDA was formed in 1906 but it was years before true regulation took place. From the 1800's through the 1930's, patent medicines were sold to cure everything from baldness to serious diseases. Some "cures" were harmless sugar water and some were strong drugs. Laudanum, for instance (which included opium, alcohol, and morphine), was used to relieve coughing, diarrhea, and general pain.

Below are just some of the cures used by both doctors and patent medicine sellers for ailments. As you can tell, the same powerful drugs were in almost every medicine:

- Arsenic and mercury to treat syphilis (used until penicillin was discovered in the 1940's!)
- Heroin tablets to relieve asthma symptoms
- Cocaine drops for toothache
- Cocaine as an anesthetic - used by both surgeons and dentists
- Bayer Heroin (the actual name) for coughs, menstrual cramps, and migraines
- Heroin as a cure for morphine addiction
- Opium to calm babies and cure asthma (yes, infants were given this!)

Seeing is believing - take a look at some of these "cures" and where they were sold:

Our Grandparents' Pharmacy - Heroin, Cocaine, Rattlesnake Oil, Electricity

Coke - the "intellectual beverage."

Coca-Cola advertisement

The cocaine (coca) cured "headaches, neuralgia, hysteria, and melancholy".

Nothing like radium to cure a headache!

Radium Emanation Water

Sweet face - dispensing opium? Probably!

Time for medicine

One night cough syrup

One Night Cough Syrup

Contains alcohol, marijuana, chloroform, and opium - taken 3 times a day. That would suppress more than a cough!

Good idea to give the kids cocaine?!

Cocaine Toothache Drops

Stop teething discomfort

Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup

Give 'em morphine!

Opium, marijuana, & chloroform

Dr. J. Collis Browne's Medicine

Cures migraines, diarrhea, and more.


Morphine, codeine - of course they don't cry . . .

Dr. Bull's Cough Syrup

They've passed out!

Oh yes, smoke to ease your asthma!

Cigares de Joy - Cure Asthma

Often taken for "female illnesses"

Dr. Pierce's family medicines

Contained alcohol and opium

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