Did You Know Heroin Suppresses a Cough, and Cocaine Will Ease Your Children’s Toothaches? Of Course, That Isn’t Legal…Anymore!

A day rarely passes when we don’t hear something in the news about illegal drugs, from overdoses and police ‘busts’, to new designer versions. This is common around the world, and these substances have long been illegal and/or highly regulated in most countries.

Would you believe that wasn’t always the case? Can you imagine a time when you may have used morphine to soothe your baby’s teething pain, or cocaine for your child’s toothache? Yes! There was a time, and depending on the substance, some were used as ingredients more recently than you may imagine.

Once upon a time, ingredients we consider illegal drugs, or even poison today, were regular ingredients in products you could buy over the counter. As some of you may have heard before, the original formula for Coca-Cola contained actual cocaine, which is where it got its name. Some people may even doubt it is true. It is true!

Coca-Cola was invented by Dr. John S. Pemberton in Atlanta, Georgia in 1886, and until 1903, contained about 60 mg of Cocaine in each typical serving. Originally advertised as a medicine, Pemberton claimed it was a cure for headaches, weariness, morphine addiction and impotence. This is an advertisement of the earlier versions for Coca-Cola in the late 1800s, and one from 1905, when soda fountains were still very popular in the US. 

It didn’t take long for Coca-Cola to be considered a recreational drink though, one to be enjoyed, rather than taken as medicine. What most people don’t know, is Coca is still an ingredient in Coca-Cola, thought they have a process where they remove all of the ingredients that would have the effects of the drug, cocaine, they still use it as a coca flavor. As it took until the 1940’s to perfect the process of removing those ingredients, it would have had some effect on its drinkers until that time, despite the recipe changing in 1903.

Another soda, still popular today, 7UP, had a secret ingredient as well. Though it didn’t contain cocaine, it did contain Lithium, a drug often used in the treatment of Bipolar disorder, as well as other psychological diagnoses. 7up, originally called, Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda debuted in October 1929, and as one advertisement claimed, could “take the ‘ouch’ out of grouch!

7Up label from 1935 reads:

“Seven times as good: 7UP LITHIATED LEMON SODA

Seven Up Settles the Stomach. For Hospital or home use. The added citrates neutralize free acid, the sugar is inverted…burns clear. 7-Up is more than a mixer… It blends out the harsh features. Dispels hang-overs. Takes the “ouch” out of grouch. Slenderizing. You deserve the original. That’s your assurance.”

As is clear from the information on the label quoted above, though advertised and consumed as a recreational beverage, it was also promoted as having health benefits. While Coca-Cola removed Cocaine in 1903, 7UP contained Lithium in its formula right up to 1950.

While on the subject of ‘recreational’ drinking, let’s talk about Coca-Wine. What? Yes, it is what you may have already guessed, a wine combined with cocaine. Also promoted as having medicinal benefits, that was not the reason for its popularity.

While the most popular brand was developed in 1863 by Angelo Mariani, and named Vin Mariani, there were many brands of Coca-Wine, including one invented by the Same Dr. Pemberton that later developed Coca-Cola. This special cocktail contained 30 grains of cocaine per one ounce of wine. Not only was this legal and available at your regular stores, but Vin Mariani received a medal from Pope Leo XIII, who was rumored to carry a flask with him at all times, as promoted in this 1894 advertisement for Vin Mariani.

All of these drinks were said to have medicinal benefits, but what about the actual medicines one could buy over the counter for themselves and their families? One of the more shocking discoveries for me, was Heroin as a medication for coughs and illnesses such as bronchitis.

German pharmaceutical company, Bayer was the first to manufacture heroin, along with their popular pain-reliever, aspirin. Bayer marketed heroin from 1898 to 1910, thinking it a good replacement for morphine as a cough suppressant. Unfortunately, it turned out heroin was highly addictive, and four times stronger than morphine. As the number of addicts grew out of control, Bayer decided to cease production of the ‘medicine’ in 1913, though the US government wouldn’t make domestic production of the substance illegal until 1924.

 In 1901, one ounce of heroin for your cough cost $4.85 in the US. Apparently, medicine wasn’t cheap in 1901 either, as that was not chump change back then.

Another favorite was opium, used for coughs, as well as all manner of aches and pains for adults, as well as children, and even babies. One such medicine, the popular Stickney & Poor’s Paregoric, was a combination of 46% alcohol and opium, and used for all ages as a ‘cure-all’ for pain and illnesses. The directions on the back even included dosing for a baby as young as five days old:




A substance derived from opium, morphine, was also a popular medicine for pain relief, and was often marketed directly to mothers for their babies teething pain, sleeplessness, crying, etc. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup originated in New York in 1842, and did just that! The advertising made claims such as, “…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.…”

Unfortunately, if a mother relied too heavily on these sort of remedies, their child starved to death, as babies expressed no need for food while on morphine, as it stopped their crying for all reasons.

It makes sense if drinks with cocaine were being promoted as having health benefits, there had to be medicine containing cocaine as well. In America, cocaine was sold over the counter until 1914, and was frequently found in products such as, toothache drops, dandruff remedies and other medicinal tonics. Once again, these medicines were as likely to be used on children, as adults, and often used children in their advertising, as Lloyd Manufacturing did in this March, 1885 advertisement.

In this 1885 advertisement for Allen’s Cocaine Tablets, claims are made it cures hay fever and a list of other ills.

This advertisement from the 1850’s claims Burnett’s Cocaine:

 “…prevents the Hair from falling off. It promotes its healthy and vigorous growth. It is not greasy or sticky. It leaves no disagreeable odor. It softens the hair when hard and dry. It soothes the irritated scalp skin. It affords the richest lustre [shine]. It remains longest in effect. It costs fifty cents for a half pint bottle.”

‘Hair Dressing Cocaine’ was still being used when this advertisement for Burnett’s was published in 1885:

 “It kills Dandruff, promotes the Growth of the Hair, cures Scald Head, and all Irritation of the Scalp”

Marijuana was not to be left off the list of medicines at one time either, as in this medication,  Cosadein, a combination of cannabis, chloroform and codeine, among other ingredients , was available over the counter as a cough remedy.

Though these other ingredients were regulated and/or outlawed in the first half of the 1900’s, chloroform continued to be used in products such as cough medicines, toothpastes, ointments, and other pharmaceuticals until 1976! Kimball White Pine and Tar Cough Syrup actually lists alcohol and chloroform as main ingredients in this advertisement:

Surely, cocaine, heroin, and other substances once available in consumer products, from beverages to medicine, and even topical creams for hair and scalp, may be surprising for most of us. It is likely even more horrifying for most of us to think of babies and children on such drugs, and the unavoidable effects, to include death in some cases. But, I have one more for you. How far would you go in the name of beauty? Would you take poison?

Most of us have seen the many skincare products available for whitening skin or eliminating dark spots on the market today. In Asia, in particular, where a pale complexion is considered to be exotic, many women use whitening products for their skin daily, and avoid the sun through the use of parasols and visors. It seems, this isn’t new, but the secret wasn’t a specific cream at one time, but wafers (pills). The main ingredient? Arsenic! Yes, I said Arsenic. They were called ‘Arsenic Complexion Wafers’, and there were different brands available.

The most popular British version was Dr. McKenzie’s Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers, while the most popular American version were Dr. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Wafers.

Arsenic complexion wafers, claiming to be a cure for all skin conditions and flaws, as well as a whitening agent to keep women fashionably pale, starting in the mid-1800’s, were ingested daily by many, and worked to keep you pale by destroying red blood cells. Though there is some tolerance built up with regular small doses of arsenic, there were still many instances of unhealthy or even scary results. Despite the dangers, the wafers could still be found into the late 1920’s.

As shocking as some of this information is to us in 2014, we must consider the fact that consumers weren’t aware of the dangers or consequences of these substances at the time they were using them as part of their daily product consumption. It is an interesting topic, but more frightening than what must have been happening in the past due to the effects of such drugs or poisons, is the idea that we don’t know an awful lot about the long-term effects of many of the chemicals used in medications and foods we eat every day. If someone were to write this article in the year 2114, what might they be writing about or commenting on as far as our consumer habits and what is available to us right now?

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