you are here: Column Archives > In History > Caffeine and Opium - for Babies

Caffeine and Opium - for Babies

Caffeine-addled moms and dads got Junior to behave with opium sedatives.

However prominent a role nitrous oxide has played in American leisure, it would be a mistake to ignore other varieties of intoxicants equally embraced by this culture and others. The nineteenth-century America, enamored with varying forms of substance abuse, had its roots in post-Renaissance Europe, where drugs other than alcohol were exciting and novel. Until explorations of Asia and the discovery of the New World, Europeans had no access to opium, barbiturates, cocaine, coffee, tea, tobacco, hallucinogens,[1] or marijuana. Thus, Europeans had to use alcohol for just about every social calling.

Europeans had to make use of alcohol in a variety of ways -- as a social beverage, a before-meals aperitif, a thirst-quenching beverage during meals, an after-dinner, an evening drink, a nightcap, a tranquilizer, a sedative, a religious offering, an anesthetic, a deliriant, and a means of getting drunk.[2]

Blessed with intrepid explorers, however, Europe soon filled its hitherto bare pharmacological cupboard. The early adventurers brought back drugs wherever they found them, and, in a few instances, brought them to places that had none.[3] Columbus brought tobacco back from the New World on his first trip, and caffeine soon followed, along with cocaine, opium, and hallucinogens like peyote.

Not Your Average Joe

Conservatives deemed many of these imports wasteful to the body and mind. For example, Arabian Muslims banned caffeine when it was learned some worshipers were using it to stay awake during lengthy prayer sessions:

The sale of coffee has been forbidden... in several instances persons making use of it... have been severely handled.[4]

Decrees or no, it was an immediate hit. Coffee also made it big in North America, despite occasional stern warnings from killjoys in the medical profession. In the spectacularly titled Morphinism and Narcomanias from Other Drugs, one T. D. Crothers, M.D.[5] tells a few tales of delirium induced by coffee consumption. He also remarks, not unlike analogies to marijuana made by current drug crusaders, that, "Often coffee drinkers, finding the drug to be unpleasant, turn to other narcotics, of which opium and alcohol are the most common."[6] Similarly, in A System of Medicine (1909), edited by the comically degreed Sir T. Clifford Allbutt (K.C.B., M.A., M.D., LL.D., D. Se., F.R.C.P., F.R.S., F.L.S., F.S.A., Regius Professor of Physic [Internal medicine] in the University of Cambridge), some contributors announce their distaste for caffeine:

We have seen several well-marked cases of coffee excess... the sufferer is tremulous, and loses his self-command... the speech may become vague and weak. By miseries such as these, the best years of life may be Spoilt.

What Goes Upper Must Come Downer

Clearly, coffee was the work of the Devil.[7] However, Allbutt and friends follow this judgment up with

... opium is used, rightly or wrongly, in many oriental countries, not as an idle or vicious indulgence but as a reasonable aid in the work of life. A patient of [mine] took [60 milligrams] of opium [every morning]... he persisted in this habit, as being one which gave him no conscious gratification or diversion, but which toned and strengthened him for his deliberations and engagements.

This weakness for opiates in late nineteenth-century England stands out rather starkly. Opiates, such as morphine and heroin, are considered the scourge of 1990s Western drug culture. What made them so attractive and seem so innocuous a hundred years ago?

Opium is the Opiate of the Masses

Pondering this very question, we came across Elia Vallone Chepaitis's Ph.D dissertation during her stint at the University of Connecticut, entitled The Opium of the Children: Domestic Opium and Infant Drugging in Early Victorian England. In it she details many pharmaceutical business practices in Britain's early eighteenth century, including the various names given to opium solutions designed for household use:

Mother's Helper
Infant's Quietness
Atkinson's Preservative
Dalby's Carminative[8]
Soothing Syrup
Godfrey's Cordial

And various corruptions of the above names. As one might surmise, these concoctions of opium were expressly designed for the purpose of quieting unruly children. The England of the Industrial Revolution was not a particularly pleasant place to live and work in, especially for the lower classes. Eighteen-hour workdays were not uncommon. Contraception was virtually unknown. The accidental bearing of a child would prove grossly inconvenient to its mother; so would the extra cost in feeding and lost sleep due to the infant's cries.

Sedation represented a strenuous attempt by parents, nurses, and drug vendors to tamper with nature and make infant care easy. For some upper- and middle-class women, and for working mothers, conception... [did not] suit their social and work habits... the one group who... did not use opium sedatives were Irish workers in England because they traditionally opposed opium preparations... [instead], Irish immigrants administered alcoholic beverages.[9]

The last mixture on the above list, Godfrey's Cordial, was a mixture of opium and treacle, and the amount of each in the mixture was the object of intense speculation in an 1843 report commissioned by Parliament:[10]

It is often left to the apprentice to concoct, or to the chemist's wife. It stands in a great jug on the counter...

Caught With Your Hands in the Opium Jar

The report notes that, while the cordial enjoyed brisk sales and a high turnover, no one actually kept track of the mixture inside the bottle. Opium, being fat-soluble, does not dissolve easily in water. Thus, over time, the opium might become concentrated in the bottom of the jug by falling out of solution, and he who got the last dose in the bottle might be in for a wild ride, especially if he couldn't even crawl on all fours yet. Additionally, the recommended doses for the various treatments were vague statements like "as necessary". Couple these instructions with the knowledge that many of the lower-class families who purchased the cordial were illiterate, and one very quickly imagines scores of ratty, slothful children getting a dollop of sweet-tasting opiate the moment they acted up. To make matters worse, the Godfrey's Cordial bottle was narrow-necked and very distinctive-looking; infants recognized it easily. Chepaitis cites another Parliamentary report that quotes apothecaries as saying,

I have seen little children in the shop put the neck of the bottle in their mouths and bite the cork, so fond are they of the preparation.

Another noted that children old enough to buy bottles for their parents from the store

... could not resist the temptation of drinking it until the whole was consumed before reaching home, so that the mothers were obliged to come for it themselves.[11]

In another Parliamentary report, a seamstress named Mary Colton was able to drug her child for two days a week on 1/96 of her weekly paycheck, which made administering such a cordial economically feasible. For example, a working mother making $20,000 in 1998 dollars would be paying roughly twelve bucks a week to keep her child quiet. The sedated toddler allowed Mary to work her normal job and put food on the table, and he was too zonked to get himself into trouble. As Chepaitis puts it,

Infants were drugged at mid-day when mothers could not leave work to breastfeed them, and again when parents returned home exhausted from work. They were often unable or unwilling to share their little disposable time and their modest domestic haven with an active youngster. Since they could not put the little child out in the street, it was easier to sedate him again than to try to bully him into silence and immobility.

Thus, time constraints brought on by the booming of industry forced generations of children into opium dependency. Sweet-tasting drugs allowed the same children to dose themselves effectively, and bypass the need for parents altogether. Until, that is, the subject of nutrition is approached.

Next week: nipple liniment and baby farms! [Editor's Note: It is one of the great tragedies of modern times that we do not remember why we wrote this line. One presumes there was a great story to come, but it has, alas, been lost in the sands of time.]

Footnotes

  1. We may safely ignore incidences of ergot poisoning due to their unintentional and haphazard nature.
  2. Brecher, 195
  3. Dr. Andrew T. Weil, in an unpublished article: "Every culture throughout history has made use of chemicals to alter consciousness -- except the Eskimos, who had to wait for the white man to bring them alcohol, since they could not grow anything."
  4. Robinson, p. 19-20
  5. Dr. Crothers was also editor of the amusingly billed Journal of Inebriety
  6. Crothers, p. 303-4
  7. High doses of caffeine cause odd behavior in test animals. Rats will bite themselves enough to die from blood loss, prompting Consumers Union to observe, "Some readers may here be moved to protest that the bizarre behavior of rats fed massive doses of caffeine is irrelevant to the problems of human coffee drinkers, who are not very likely to bite themselves to death." We note that caffeine's relatively low lethal dose (~10 grams) may be administered by drinking 70-100 cups of coffee.
  8. "Carminative" is a medical term dating back to medieval bodily humor theory. The idea was that wind grossly distorts the humors in a certain direction, or, as the OED delicately puts it, "Of medicines, etc.: Having the quality of expelling flatulence.[p. 214, Second Edition, 1994]" As for the drug's efficacy, we note that opium is currently used as an antidiarrheal, which does not particularly mesh with its alleged abilities as a degasser.
  9. Chepaitis, p. 16-17
  10. Great Britain, Parliament, Parliamentary Papers, 1843, XV (Reports from Commissioners), "Children's Employment Commission," Q 30, as in Chepaitis, p. 52-3
  11. Chepaitis, p.55

Bibliography

  1. Edward M. Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs: The Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalants, Hallucinogens, and Marijuana - Including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol. Little, Brown and Co., 1972. [Out of Print]
  2. Edward Forbes Robinson. The Early History of Coffee Houses in England. Regan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd, 1893. [Out of Print]
  3. T.D. Crothers. Morphinism and Narcomanias from Other Drugs. W.B. Saunders & Co, 1902. [Out of Print]

 
Discuss this article in our forums

1996-2007 History House Inc.
All Rights Reserved.