Opiates, Alcohol, and Herbs

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“Wilson's Syrup of Tar, Wild Cherry and Horehound,” ca. 1885. While this remedy boasts that it does not include "morphia or opium" it does rely on tar as an ingredient, as well as cherry and horehound. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.  

Patent medicines often had the capacity to help people feel better. "Feeling better” was not necessarily the result of patent medicine’s medicinal properties; but rather related to the fact that many patent medicines were laced with opiate drugs and alcohol. Given the prevalence of these addictive ingredients, it is not surprising that many products were enthusiastically endorsed by their users. Patent medicine drugs were usually created from a mixture of vegetable compound with alcohol, morphine, opium, or cocaine. At this moment in US history, the medical profession did not recognize the dangers or addictive natures of opiates.  As a result, many doctors advocated the use of cocaine and other drugs. Alcohol was included as a “preservative” ingredient; but the alcohol levels found in patent medicine could be as high as sixteen percent—the same alcohol level found in commercially-produced wine.

The prevalence of addictive ingredients combined with the drugs' ready availability helped to create a culture of “self-dosing” or “self-medicating.” Beginning with the Mexican-American War in 1846 and later, during the American Civil War (from 1861 to 1865), the mid-nineteenth century saw an increase in communicable diseases which spread quickly and easily. Two-thirds of the soldiers who died during the Civil War perished due to disease, not battle wounds. Common camp illnesses included typhoid fever, ague fever, pneumonia, scurvy, malaria, tuberculosis, and smallpox. All of these diseases needed treatment or cures, and producers of patent medicines stepped in to provide solutions.