A picture can be worth a thousand words–as you can see.

I think I’d trust these old time elixers, tonics, and anodynes any day over the crap medicines they sell these days!!!!


Before Prohibition:
Images from the preprohibition era when many psychotropic substances
were legally available in America and Europe

Many of the substances prohibited today were legally available in the past. This small exposition contains samples of the many psychoactive medicines widely available during the late-19th century through the mid-20th century. Some of the pictures are oversized to improve legibility. Additional photographs are available for some products in the author’s private collection. For a quick comparison with current drug regulations, see Drug Schedules.


Note: Most contemporary pharmaceutical manufacturers and several spice companies produced products containing potent psychoactive compounds like opium. Some of these companies are prominent companies today manufacturing and distributing well-known consumer products. The incorporation of potent psychoactive substances in a company’s product line was common practice during the 19th and early 20th centuries.


The prohibition of psychoactive substances has evolved gradually in the United States and in Europe. The opium-containing preparation laudanum had been widely available since the 18th century. Morphine, cocaine, and even heroin were seen as miracle cures when they were first discovered. During the mid to late 19th century, many manufacturers proudly proclaimed that their products contained cocaine or opium. A few, like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for infants which contained morphine, were more guarded in divulging their principal ingredients. By the beginning of the 20th century, problems with habitual use of cocaine and opiates was becoming increasingly apparent. This led to the removal of these substances from some products (e.g., Coca Cola) and to the introduction of the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) in the United States which required the listing of ingredients on product labels. Nonetheless, standard narcotic remedies like paregoric remained readily available into the early 20th century, and Benzedrine inhalers were marketed without prescription until the early 1950s. Codeine wasn’t removed from most over-the-counter cough suppressants until the early 1980s.

Cocaine-Containing Products

There were three types of medicines often containing cocaine–topical anesthetics such as toothache powders, catarrh medicines for relieving head and chest congestion, and medicinal (probably also recreational) cocaine-containing wines advocated for their numerous beneficial effects.

Paperweight advertisement for C.F. Boehringer & Soehne (Mannheim, Germany), “largest makers in the world of quinine and cocaine.” This chemical manufacturer was proud of its leading position in the world’s cocaine market.

Early Coca-Cola syrup label listing ingredients. Even after the cocaine was removed from the coca leaves used to make Coca Cola (c. 1906), the product was still sold for its medicinal effects. Today the company generally refuses to comment on the use of coca leaves in their product.

Cocaine-containing topical anesthetics

Cocaine is an effective local anesthetic, and some of the earliest uses of cocaine was for its local anesthetic properties. Today, other compounds such as lidocaine and procaine are the medically preferred local anesthetics. These compounds do not produce the mood-elevating and euphorigenic “side effects” that can occur with cocaine.

Cocaine toothache drops were popular with children and with their parents. Not only would the medicine numb the pain, but it could also put the user in a “better” mood.

Cocaine-containing throat lozenges, “indispensable for singers, teachers, and orators.” In addition to quieting a sore throat, these lozenges undoubtedly provided the “pick-me-up” to keep these professionals performing at their peak. This box of lozenges is from a Belgium pharmacy (c. 1900). Local pharmacies often bought their drugs in bulk and packaged them for consumers under their own labels.


Cocaine-containing wines

There were many companies competing in the lucrative coca-wine market. Vin Mariani is the most recognized and perhaps the most popular at the time, but many other brands were produced in the United States and abroad.

Metcalf’s Coca Wine was one of a large number of cocaine-containing wines available on the market. All claimed medicinal effects, although they were undoubtedly consumed for their “recreational” value as well.

Vin Mariani was the leading coca wine. This advertisement features an endorsement from Berthelier, a popular late 19th century actor. The caption immediately below the photograph reads, “Your marvelous Tonic needs certainly no further recommendation as everyone is familiar with it, and no one would be without it. I claim ‘VIN MARIANI’ can have no equal; it will live forever.” The caption also proclaims “over 7,000 written endorsements from prominent physicians in Europe and America” and that the product has had acclaim for 30 years. (From Harper’s Magazine, March, 1894.)

In addition to endorsements from celebrities, physicians, and scientists, Pope Leo XIII also endorsed the popular product for its beneficial effects.

This coca wine was made by the Maltine Manufacturing Company (New York). The dosage indicated on the back of the bottle reads: “A wine glass full with, or immediately after, meals. Children in proportion.” Malt extract was taken for its health-promoting effects and alcohol was considered by many to have medicinal effects. It’s not surprising to see the ‘virtues’ of these three “medicines” combined into a single product.

In addition to curing the usual ailments coca wine was claimed to remedy, Bullard & Shedd’s brand of coca wine claimed to be effective in curing sea sickness. It was also promoted to cure the “opium or alcohol habit.”

Burnett’s Cocoaine (c. 1880) contained coconut oil not cocaine as its primary ingredient. Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of products containing cocaine and their association with “modern medicine,” some manufacturers developed similarly sounding proprietary names. Burnett’s Cocoaine bottles are bought and sold by many modern collectors who mistakenly believe the product contained cocaine. They must be similarly confused about the nature of “cocoa” and “coca” products. (“Cocoanut” is also a variant spelling of “coconut,” and hence the aptly named product.)

Opiate-Containing Products

Opiate-based formulations were probably even more widely employed than those containing cocaine. Laudanum had been in use for over two centuries, and the isolation of morphine in the early 19th century (c. 1803/1817) and the later development of heroin (c. 1898) were lauded as even more effective remedies.

Modern authors usually suggest that widespread opium use was a major health problem during the 19th century. However, the use of opiates must be kept in proper perspective with other contemporary health problems. Mortality from cholera, malaria, and dysentery was very high, and opiates provided some relief from these illnesses (Opiates remain the most effective treatment for dysentery.). Some authors have suggested that the easy availability of opiate-based medicines saved more lives than it took. As the deleterious effects of chronic opiate use became increasingly recognized during the late 19th century, several factors helped ease the need for opiates: the improvements in sanitation diminished cholera and dysentery, the drainage of swamp lands decreased malaria, and the introduction of acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin; 1899) provided an alternative medicine for moderate pain relief.

This bottle of Stickney and Poor’s paregoric was distributed much like the spices for which the company is better known. McCormick also manufactured and sold paregoric, which is a mixture of opium and alcohol. Doses for infants, children, and adults are given on the bottle. At 46% alcohol, this product is 92 proof which is pretty potent in itself.


Heroin was commercially developed by Bayer Pharmaceutical and was marketed by Bayer and other companies (c. 1900) for several medicinal uses including cough suppression.

This magazine advertisement is for Glyco-Heroin manufactured by Martin H. Smith Company (New York). Heroin was widely used not only as an analgesic but also as a remedy for asthma, coughs, and pneumonia. Mixing heroin with glycerin (and often adding sugar or spices) made the bitter-tasting opiate more palatable for oral consumption. (From International Medical Magazine, January, 1902.)


These Heroin tablets manufactured by The Fraser Tablet Company were marketed for the relief of asthma.


This National Vaporizer Vapor-OL (opium) Treatment no. 6 for asthma may have provided a unique method of essentially “smoking” opium. The volatile liquid was placed in a pan that was heated by a small kerosene lamp (see below). Other substances were also used in these early (c. 1890) vaporizers, but this mixture probably ensured plenty of visitors for the spasmodically affected.

Vapo-cresolene lamps were marketed primarily to vaporize creosol-based products for the relief of head and chest congestion. However, they were also used with other products such as the opium-based asthma medicine shown above.

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was an indispensable aid to mothers and child-care workers. Containing one grain (65 mg) of morphine per fluid ounce, it effectively quieted restless infants and small children. It probably also helped mothers relax after a hard day’s work. The company used various media to promote their product, including recipe books, calendars, and trade cards such as the one shown here from 1887 (A calendar is on the reverse side.).

Although not required to list ingredients until the Pure Food and Drug Act was introduced in 1906, products containing opium and other narcotics were required to pay a special tax on each bottle of “medicine” and to signify that the tax was paid by sealing the unopened bottle with a tax stamp. Note the irony of portraying a child on the narcotic tax stamp used with Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup (c. 1900). (Domestically sold alcoholic beverages and tobacco products still require a tax stamp.)

Opium smoking was another common method of administering opium. Although often associated with the Chinese, opium smoking was much more widespread and especially popular with some affluent occidentals. Various media, such as this postcard from San Francisco (c. 1900), encouraged the popular stereotype. In addition to the “recreational” effects produced by smoked opium, certain medicinal effects were also produced. These effects were similar to those produced by Glyco-heroin, paregoric, and other opiate-containing medications. (cf. Vapo-OL [opium] Treatment no. 6 for asthma illustrated above.)


Students at the University of Heidelburg take a break from their studies while smoking opium (c. 1900). I suppose it makes the accordion music even more enjoyable.

Amphetamine-Containing Products

Amphetamine was synthesized too late to have the widespread applications enjoyed decades earlier by cocaine and the opiates. It was, however, marketed in products commonly used to relieve head congestion and asthma. Amphetamine continued to be employed as a popular prescription diet-aid into the 1970s.

Benzedrine (racemic amphetamine) inhalers were available over-the-counter until the early 1950s. Some airlines even gave them out to passengers to minimize discomfort when the plane was landing and taking off. The Smith, Kline, and French advertisement proudly proclaims that over 10 million Benzedrine inhalers had been shipped by 1938, only 7 years after the product’s introduction. This may have even outpaced McDonald’s hamburger sales during their early expansion (Remember the “over x million hamburgers sold” signs on the golden arches?).

On-board service menu from an early Pan American World Airways Flight (c. 1950). Note the Benzedrine Inhalers listed under Service Items along with Kleenex and other items provided free to make your flight more pleasant.

Common Formulations
for early psychoactive medicines

For some products, such as coca wine, the formulations varied considerably across manufacturers. Other products also showed variations (e.g. alcohol content for paregoric ranged between 18% and 46%), but USP standardization later ensured consistent formulations among chemists and commercial manufacturers. Because opium is a natural product, early formulations using opium would have a variable opiate content, depending on growing and refining conditions (generally, opium contained 6 to 12% morphine). Later opium formulations were more consistent as chemical assays ensured more consistent opiate content.


Some Early Medicines with Psychoactive Ingredients
coca wine 30 grains Erythroxylum coca per ounce of wine
laudanum 45% alcohol with 45.6 grains opium (2.964 grams) per fluid ounce
(equivalent to around 296 mg morphine per ounce)
Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup 1 grain (65 mg) morphine per fluid ounce
paregoric camphorated 46% alcohol with 1.8 grains opium (117 mg) per fluid ounce (equivalent to around 11.7 mg morphine)
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© 1999-2001 Addiction Research Unit/University at Buffalo
This page was last revised 20 September 2001 22:43 EDT.
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