1800s make '60s look tame
July 24, 2005 - chicagotribune.com
Mothers gave babies morphine, and narcotics were sold by Sears
WHEATON -- Kline Creek Farm docent Harriet Mitchell held up a brown glass bottle in the farmhouse's 1890s kitchen during a recent tour in Wheaton.
"This may have been used to bottle homemade beer or wine, but it probably started out as a container for laudanum or cocaine," she said.
"Nobody had any trouble getting drugs back then," Mitchell said. "You could get them at the drugstore along with your tooth powder and liniment. Sears sold them in its catalog. Mothers gave them to their children the way we give our children vitamins, and for the same reason--they thought it was good for them."
The drugs were legal and recommended by most doctors and pharmacists, she said.
In the average 19th Century Midwestern household, men smoked cigars, chewed tobacco and drank beer by the pail, Mitchell said. Drinking was considered unladylike, so women commonly used opium to dull menstrual cramps and muscle aches.
Cocaine mixed with sugar syrup served as a pick-me-up in the middle of an 18-hour workday, while morphine helped quiet teething babies.
As a result, many area farmers grew up addicted to narcotics, which only fed the booming trade in tonics, patent medicines and neighborhood saloons. Even a Women's Christian Temperance Union campaign against taverns in Turner Junction--now West Chicago--in the 1870s failed to make a dent in the widespread drug use that residents considered part of everyday life.
"People who indulged too much were frowned on as being of weak character, but it was like social drinkers condemning a serious drunk," said Kline Creek Farm program coordinator Pat Walton.
"My grandmother lived on a farm, and she said she had neighbors who drugged their kids so they could get the chores done," recalled Dawn Wloch of Hoffman Estates, a house tour participant.
Narcotics often took the place of medical care because they were cheaper and more readily available, said nurse Tanya Scott of Chicago. "They didn't have a lot of medicine back then. A lot of the diseases we think of as routine were fatal, and people didn't always have access to a doctor or hospital. They mostly used drugs as painkillers, not to get high."
The use of narcotics was eventually banned by legislation, including the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914.
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