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History of Opium Use in the United States

Updated October 13, 2018 8.0k views15 items

The use of opium in the United States goes all the way back to the Pilgrims, who settled in Plymouth Colony in the 17th century. Physicians who traveled to America likely brought with them a drug known as laudanum, which contained 10% powered opium, to treat common ailments. The history of opium in the US evolved from a medical treatment to a recreational drug. Women were prescribed variants of opium to treat gender-specific issues, while moms fed their children morphine-spiked syrups to rid them of coughs. By the late 19th century, opiates were a habit or addiction for many Americans.

The modern-day opioid epidemic affects thousands of Americans, which got its start in West Virginia. In 2015, 52,000 people died from an opiate overdose in the U.S. It's such a lucrative business that one doctor murdered his wife when she threatened to expose his prescription opioid ring. If the trend continues, it's estimated that nearly 500,000 more will die within the next 10 years.

  • Photo: Albert Matignon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Doctors Prescribed Opiates For "Female Problems"

    In the late 1800s, the majority of opiate users were women. Many women hid their addiction or used opium instead of drinking alcohol. Researchers approximate that in the late-19th century more than 100,000 women heavily used opiates. Doctors treated women's "female problems," which included ailments such as painful menstruation, indigestion, constipation, vaginal itching, and prolapse of the uterus, with opium. The drug was also used in cases of abortion, miscarriage, and for sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea.

    The medical community also prescribed opiates for neurasthenia, otherwise known as "nervous weakness." It included a variety of conditions, such as insomnia, depression, exhaustion, migraines, and hot flashes.

    In 1879, Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, president of the American Gynecological Society, wrote:

    For the relief of pain, the treatment is all summed up in one word, and that is opium. This divine drug overshadows all other anodynes. . . . You can easily educate her to become an opium-eater, and nothing short of this should be aimed at by the medical attendant.

    A medical textbook from 1886 stated, “To women of the higher classes, ennuyee and tormented with neuralgias or the vague pains of hysteria and hypochondriasis, opium brings tranquility and self-forgetfulness.”

  • Morphine Was Used To Soothe Fussy Babies

    In the 1840s, parents used Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to help colicky children. The syrup, however, was actually morphine. A January 9, 1875, advertisement from the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle touted the benefits of the syrup:

    ADVICE TO MOTHERS!—Are you broken in your rest by a sick child suffering with the pain of cutting teeth? Go at once to a chemist and get a bottle of MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP. It will relieve the poor sufferer immediately. It is perfectly harmless and pleasant to taste, it produces natural quiet sleep, by relieving the child from pain, and the little cherub awakes as bright as a button. It soothes the child, it softens the gums, allays all pain, relieves wind, regulates the bowels, and is the best known remedy for dysentery and diarrhoea, whether arising from teething or other causes.

  • Photo: Rembrandt Peale / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Thomas Jefferson And Benjamin Franklin Used Laudanum For Various Ailments

    American historical figures used laudanum as they aged to treat medical problems in the 18th and 19th centuries. Thomas Jefferson had chronic diarrhea, which he treated with laudanum. He had his own supply at home—Monticello's gardens were filled with the poppies. Jefferson even discussed his “habitual” use of the drug in a letter to a friend, writing, “with care and laudanum I may consider myself in what is to be my habitual state.” Diarrhea likely contributed to Jefferson's death at age 83, along with toxemia, uremia, and pneumonia. Benjamin Franklin also used laudanum later in life to control pain induced by kidney stones. He died at age 84 in 1790 from empyem, or a build-up of pus.

  • Photo: Mike Cline / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The St. James Society Launched An Initiative To Mail Free Heroin Samples To Morphine Addicts

    When heroin was created in the late 19th century, one of its uses was to combat morphine addiction. The St. James Society in New York City even mailed free samples of heroin to morphine addicts. An 1898 ad read:

    MORPHINE! Easy home cure, permanent, painless. We will send anyone addicted to OPIUM, MORPHINE, LAUDANUM, or other drug a Trial Treatment Free Of Charge of the most remarkable remedy ever discovered. Containing Great Vital Principle heretofore unknown. Refractory cases solicited. Confidential correspondence invited from all, especially physicians. St. James Society, 1181 Broadway, New York.