The Situation in 1900

If you are interested in the non-medical use of drugs in this country, the time to go back to is 1900, and in some ways the most important thing I am going to say to you guys I will say first.  That is, that in 1900 there were far more people addicted to drugs in this country than there are today.  Depending upon whose judgment, or whose assessment, you accept, there were between two and five percent of the entire adult population of the United States addicted to drugs in 1900.

     Now, there were two principal causes of this dramatic level of drug addiction at the turn of the century.  The first cause was the use of morphine and its various derivatives in legitimate medical operations.  You know as late as 1900, particularly in areas where medical resources were scarce, it was not at all uncommon for you to say, let's say you would have appendicitis, you would go into the hospital, and you would get morphine as a pain killer during the operation, you would be given morphine further after the operation, and you would come out of the hospital with no appendix but addicted to morphine.

     The use of morphine in battlefield operations during the Civil War was so extensive that, by 1880, so many Union veterans were addicted to morphine that the popular press referred to morphinism as the "soldier's disease".  Now I will say, being from Virginia as I am, that the Confederate veterans didn't have any problems about being addicted to morphine, because the South was too poor to have any, and therefore battlefield operations on the Confederate Army were simply done by chopping off the relevant limb while they drank a little whiskey.  But the Northern troops heavily found themselves, as the result of battlefield operations and the use of morphine, addicted to morphine.

     Now, the other fact that I think that is so interesting about drug addiction at the turn of the century, as opposed to today is who the addicts were, because they were the exact opposite of who you would think most likely to be an addict today.  If I were to ask you in terms of statistical groups who is most likely to be involved with drugs today, you would say a young person, a male, who lives in the city and who may be a minority group member.  That is the exact opposite of who was most likely to be addicted to drugs at the turn of the century.

     In terms of statistical groups, who was most likely to be addicted to drugs at the turn of the century?  A rural living, middle-aged white woman.  The use of morphine in medical operations does not explain the much higher incidence of drug addiction among women.  What does is the second cause of the high level of addiction at the turn of the century -- the growth and development of what we now call the "patent medicine" industry. 

     I think some of you, maybe from watching Westerns on TV if nothing else, are aware that, again, as late as 1900, in areas, particularly rural areas where medical resources were scarce, it was typical for itinerant salesmen, not themselves doctors, to cruise around the countryside offering potions and elixirs of all sorts advertised in the most flamboyant kinds of terms.  "Doctor Smith's Oil, Good for What Ails You", or "Doctor Smith's Oil, Good for Man or Beast."

     Well, what the purveyors of these medicines did not tell their purchasers, was that later, when these patent medicines were tested, many of them proved to be up to fifty percent morphine by volume.

     Now, what that meant, as I have always thought, was the most significant thing about the high morphine content in patent medicines, was it meant they tended to live up to their advertising.  Because no matter what is wrong with you, or your beast, you are going to feel a whole lot better after a couple of slugs of an elixir that is fifty percent morphine.  So there was this tendency to think "Wow! This stuff works." Down you could go to the general store and get more of it and it could be sold to you directly over the counter.

     Now, for reasons that we weren't able to fully research, but for reasons, I think, probably associated with the role of women in rural societies then, patent medicines were much more appealing to women than to men and account for the much higher incidence of drug addiction in 1900 among women than among men.

     If you want to see a relatively current portrayal of a woman addicted to patent medicine you might think of Eugene O'Neil's play "A Long Day's Journey Into Night".  The mother figure there, the one that was played by Katherine Hepburn in the movies, was addicted to patent medicines.

     In any event, the use of morphine in medical operations and the sale of patent medicines accounted for a dramatic level of addiction.  Again, between two and five percent of the entire adult population of the United States was addicted to drugs as late as 1900.

     Now if my first point is that there was a lot more addiction in 1900 than there is today, and that the people who were addicted are quite a different group than the group we would be thinking of today, my next point would be that if you look at drug addiction in 1900, what's the number one way in which it is different than drug addiction today?  Answer: Almost all addiction at the turn of the century was accidental. 

     People became involved with drugs they did not know that they were taking, that they did not know the impact of.  The first point, then, is that there was more drug addiction than there is now and most of it was accidental.


The Pure Food and Drug Act

Table of Contents