Vintage Ads for Heroin, Weed & Other Old-Time Medicines
Cocaine Toothache Drops
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
Lyrics to La Cucaracha
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.
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
Opium for Newborns
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!
Heroin by Bayer: "Send for Samples"
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.