Vintage Ads for Heroin, Weed & Other Old-Time Medicines

Cocaine Toothache Drops

Cocaine marketed to relieve toothache
Cocaine marketed to relieve toothache
Marijuana tincture containing cannabis buds and alcohol
Marijuana tincture containing cannabis buds and alcohol | Source

Once Upon a Time, It Was All Legal

When did marijuana, cocaine and other controlled substances move from the corner drug store to the corner drug dealer? Read on for vintage drug ads and facts about the history of drug use and prohibition in the United States.

First, Just a Pinch About the History of Weed

William O'Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor who studied in India, introduced medical marijuana to the US in 1839. Marijuana tinctures like the one shown here were available in pharmacies nationwide by the 1850s. However, efforts to restrict the sale of cannabis began around the same time. In some states the marijuana tinctures had to be labeled as "poisons."

Recreational Use of Pot Takes Off

Across the country, people were finding that cannabis wasn't just for coughs and other ailments. In the 1870s, Mexican soldiers on the west coast popularized the smoking of marijuana cigarettes to relieve pain and for recreation. In the 1880s hundreds of fancy hashish parlors catered to "the better classes" on the east coast and in Chicago.

Twenty-nine states had laws restricting cannabis by 1905. It was still widely available though, so a serious round of anti-marijuana legislation was kicked off in 1906. The Poison Act, which was first enacted in 1907, was amended in 1913 to make possession of "loco-weed" illegal.

Cannabis Cough Syrup

The Cosadein cough remedy combined codeine, cannabis and chloroform with extracts of wild cherry and pine bark.
The Cosadein cough remedy combined codeine, cannabis and chloroform with extracts of wild cherry and pine bark.

Lyrics to La Cucaracha

"La Cucaracha" lyrics from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) refer to marijuana. The "cockroach" is the lowly soldier.
"La Cucaracha" lyrics from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) refer to marijuana. The "cockroach" is the lowly soldier.

Marijuana prohibition efforts spiked again in the 1930s. In the southwestern states, these are said to have been motivated partly by anti-Mexican sentiment as the Great Depression set in. Marijuana was the drug of choice among Mexican laborers working in US agriculture. Other Americans were enjoying alternatives such as alcohol, which had become legal again in 1933.

Fun factoid: A stanza of La Cucaracha from Pancho Villa's era refers to soldiers needing marijuana. The lyrics are translated here.


Cocaine: The Choice of Popes

When my great-grandparents were little kids, cocaine was sold over the counter in the US. Across the pond, Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill were known to get pep from cocaine-laced chewing gum. Even the Pope was a fan.

The sale and distribution of cocaine weren't outlawed in the US until 1914 with the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. Anti-drug advocates had played upon racial tensions again, this time invoking negative stereotypes of African-Americans despite the drug's widespread use across society. However, enforcement was generally lax because the stimulant was so common. Enforcement was stepped up in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act.

An 1890s Coke advertisement featuring the actress Hilda Clark
An 1890s Coke advertisement featuring the actress Hilda Clark

Coca-Cola with a Kick

Coca-Cola was originally sold as a medicine. It contained stimulating extracts from coca leaves and kola nuts. It was available in carbonated form at the pharmacy and as a concentrated syrup. From 1886 until 1903 the formula for Coca-Cola included approximately 9 milligrams of cocaine per serving.

Old Coke ads describe the product as "delightful, palatable and healthful." Its sweetness made it preferable to other cocaine products, especially the not-so-tasty cocaine wines.

How did Coca-Cola change with political pressure? Beginning in 1904 the manufacturer distributed a much less potent product. Coca-Cola became ironically cocaine-free in 1929. Presumably the company boosted Coke's caffeine dose to compensate.

Next up: opium for all ages.

The Pope & Dope

Vin Marian, a cocaine wine, was touted by Pope Leo XIII.
Vin Marian, a cocaine wine, was touted by Pope Leo XIII.

Opium for Newborns

An opium-alcohol blend (Click to enlarge)
An opium-alcohol blend (Click to enlarge)

Opiates in the 19th Century

Along with marijuana and cocaine, opiates (opium, morphine and heroin) were legal in the US until the 20th century. In fact, the Bayer company -- the same people who bring us aspirin -- developed heroin and coined its name.

Heroin was promoted primarily to relieve coughs, pain and diarrhea. It was also used to wean people off morphine and opium. Opiates were even considered a smart way to soothe newborns.

The bottle shown here contained paregoric, an opium-alcohol medication. Check out the dose for babies!

The recommended dosages for Stickney & Poor's opium tincture
The recommended dosages for Stickney & Poor's opium tincture

Heroin by Bayer: "Send for Samples"

Promotional leaflet for Bayer c. 1897
Promotional leaflet for Bayer c. 1897 | Source

Enough Drugs for Now...

Before concluding with a few links, I share a montage from Reefer Madness, the anti-marijuana film made in 1936.

Reefer Madness is the recut version of a church anti-drug film called Tell Your Children. A second producer modified the film to create the Reefer Madness cult classic. The movie itself is a sort of vintage drug ad: It mocks the hysteria surrounding drug prohibition in the US.

Reefer Madness

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Comments 14 comments

Sharicey profile image

Sharicey 4 years ago from Rhode Island

Meth was also used as an antidepressant that they marketed to housewives. Fun article!


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Meth for housewives, hm? They'd probably win a clean-off against the moms on Valium.

I wonder if using the old meth was associated with the same awful effects we see today? Or was it more like drinking a Triple Venti Americano?


Sharicey profile image

Sharicey 4 years ago from Rhode Island

I did a little research and this is what I found to answer your question...

"After World War II, amphetamine was manufactured, sold and prescribed in the United States and much of the world. By the late 1950s and early '60s, it was becoming harder for the medical community to ignore the growing number of professionals-turned-speed-freaks who had become hopelessly hooked on Benzedrine and Dexedrine. Also, it had been discovered that Benzedrine inhalers (intended for use as bronchial dilators) could be cracked open, exposing a piece of paper soaked in Benzedrine that could then be swallowed for a powerful high. This led to increased American government control over amphetamines -- and therefore to Americans making their own amphetamines." - http://science.howstuffworks.com/meth2.htm


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Aha! Eighteen years later, I think I finally understand the REM lyrics "What's the frequency, Kenneth? That's your benzedrine." The song refers to Dan Rather getting assaulted by some nutball who kept asking, "What's the frequency?" I suppose this experience got Dan Rather's heart racing as if he'd taken speed.

Saw this in Wikipedia: "Methamphetamine was dispensed to German soldiers in Nazi Germany as Pervitin, marketed as a multivitamin."

Ooh, this topic inspires lots of new hubs :-).


Sharicey profile image

Sharicey 4 years ago from Rhode Island

Yeah this was definitely an interesting hub I shared with a few people. It interesting to see how things evolved and that they gave meth out to soldiers. With all the the legal drugs floating around everyone must have been high all the time.

If you write any more hubs inspired by this topic I will be sure to check them out.


Theocharis V profile image

Theocharis V 4 years ago from Piraeus, Greece

This is one great hub. Really. Great!


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Thanks for the feedback, Theocharis. Glad you enjoyed it!


jpcmc profile image

jpcmc 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

This is such an interesting hub. Cocaine -laced toothache drops and over the counter cocaine. That must have been a user's dream!


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Thanks for the comment, JPCMC. Not sure about the cocaine tooth drops. Maybe they were like novacaine and just numbed you a bit. But um, maybe some potential for abuse ;-).


charmike4 profile image

charmike4 4 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

Really interesting hub SantaCruz. I needed some time out at work today and came across your hub...it is so interesting. Cheers Michael


SantaCruz profile image

SantaCruz 4 years ago from Santa Cruz, CA Author

Cheers, CharMike. It's fun & enlightening to fit our culture into its historical perspective sometimes.


Jennifer Stone profile image

Jennifer Stone 4 years ago from the Riverbank, England

Interesting and entertaining hub SantaCruz, voted up and shared. Thanks! :-)


SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 3 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

Thanks for the awesome blast from the past. I was aware of most of the facts, but I'd never seen the ads and the movie. And who knew that Bayer made heroin?


maggie mcghee moore 10 months ago

Less crime in those days. No drug cartel. No hoodlums on the street selling bogus shit that may be dangerous. It was all sold by drugstores (wondered how they got their name) and much safer product than today with less addicts and less killing and robbing and less prison overpopulation. Outlawing these these increased mafia and criminal activities.

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