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10 Sep 2020

Morphinomania in the 19th century

Written by Anna Brereton, Visitor Services Manager, Gladstone's Land
An old-fashioned medicine chest, which is open to show the different bottles and packages containing various 'cures'.
The Georgian House medicine chest, 1830
The medicine cabinet from the Georgian House houses a dark part of the UK’s history.

It contains everything from castor oil to chloroform and laudanum, all of which would have been vital components of a 19th-century household medical kit, particularly laudanum. Laudanum was a mixture of opium and high-proof alcohol that would have been taken to cure and ease all manner of symptoms, from diarrhoea to teething pains in children.

In various forms, opium has been used as a painkiller or a sleep aid for thousands of years, and was known to the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. By the early 18th century, opium (in its laudanum form) would have been a staple in every doctor’s bag and every household throughout the UK. It could be bought from a corner shop or a chemist and until 1868 was as easily obtained as tea or coffee.

The more dangerous medicines in this box are labelled ‘poison’, demonstrating that very early on people realised that opium was unsafe. However, it wasn’t until 1916 that opium addiction was recognised as a public health problem.

A simple search of the British Newspaper Archive shows the prevalence of laudanum use in Edinburgh society. Countless poisonings, accidents or attempted suicides are reported in newspapers between 1700 and the early 20th century. The problems were widespread and affected large numbers of the population. Laudanum was cheap and easily accessible, and so was a popular means of suicide, but it was also unregulated and the cause of many accidental overdoses. However, these were not the only dangers. Medical use often turned into habitual use, and many people began to take the drug recreationally. Opium was cheaper that alcohol, and the working classes saw it as an effective hangover cure. By the 1870s and 1880s addiction was so widespread that a new word to describe the phenomenon entered the English language – ‘morphinomania’, named after Morpheus, the Greek God of sleep and dreams – a rather romanticised name for a dreadful addiction.

These issues were so prevalent that by the early 19th century petitions called for the sale of laudanum to be more strictly regulated. However, it wasn’t until the Pharmacy Act of 1868 that any laws were introduced. At this point, opium was classed as dangerous and sales were restricted, but the Act neglected to include any patented tinctures which included opium as an ingredient, so opium was still widely available. Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, for example, was still used to soothe teething pains in children in the UK until the end of the 19th century. Opium continued to be sold over the counter until the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920, and laudanum was a vital part of any home medical kit well into the 20th century.

Poster advertising Mrs Winslow's soothing syrup, showing two small children, one sitting in a highchair with a bowl and spoon, and one asleep in a cot.
Poster advertising Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup (© The British Library Board)

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