Suffering in Some Strange Heaven: An Introduction to Laudanum

rossetti-golden_head

Illustration for the cover of The Goblin Market. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1862

“– I should much wish, like the Indian Vishna, to float along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotus, and wake once in a million years for a few minutes – just to know that I was going to sleep a million years more.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

While the medicinal properties of opium have been known since prehistoric times, it was 16th century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus who first developed laudanum. He discovered that when mixed with alcohol as opposed to water, opium’s pain-killing properties were heightened. He mixed it with crushed pearls, musk, saffron, and ambergris* and called it laudanum, from the Latin word laudare: to praise.

Now thought of as primarily a Victorian drug, laudanum first reached England in the 1660s when physician Thomas Sydenham developed his own recipe. While Sydenham left out the ambergris, the fundamentals remained the same: alcohol and opium was a potent cure-all and in his Medical Observations Concerning the History and Cure of Acute Diseases (1676), he gave it the praise Paracelsus had predicted a century before. Laudanum took off during the eighteenth century and by the nineteenth, it could be found in almost every home in Britain.

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“Papine,” an opium tincture

Although the recipe was flexible, it remained at heart an uncomplicated but potent combination of alcohol and opium. It was an over the counter drug cheap enough to be used across the social spectrum and simple enough to be brewed at home. Laudanum was used for an endless list of ailments including but not limited to teething, insomnia, anxiety, nerves, hysteria, menstrual cramps, pregnancy pains, mood swings, depression, stomach upset, diarrhea, consumption, cough, heart disease, and cholera.

It was certainly an effective cough suppressant; related opioids such as morphine and codeine are still prescribed for cough today. It was a potent painkiller, induced deep sleep and vivid dreams, produced feelings of euphoria, and was addictive as it was cheap. Not to be limited to medicinal purposes, laudanum was taken recreationally or mixed with other alcohol such as absinthe to stimulate creativity among artists. Some notable fans of the substance include Dickens, Bram Stoker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Elliott, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Rossetti’s wife, model Elizabeth Siddal, who tragically died of a laudanum overdose.

Women tended to be medicated more than men, and many opium-derived medications were known euphemistically as “Woman’s Friend.” Likewise, Godfrey’s Cordial, a mixture of water, treacle, and opium specifically for infants was knows as “Mother’s Friend.”

Charles Kingsley describes opium addiction in Alton Locke (1850) as ‘elevation’, a particular problem of women:

“Oh! ho! ho! — yow goo into druggist’s shop o’ market-day, into Cambridge, and you’ll see the little boxes, doozens and doozens, a’ ready on the counter; and never a ven-man’s wife goo by, but what calls in for her pennord o’ elevation, to last her out the week. Oh! ho! ho! Well, it keeps women-folk quiet, it do; and it’s mortal good agin ago pains.” “But what is it?” “Opium, bor’ alive, opium!”

There were several different laudanum varieties available and they could be made at home. It was dreadfully bitter, so sweeteners like honey and spice were added to improve the flavor. Sydenham’s recipe from 1660 was still in use by the 1890s when it was published in William Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes:

“Sydenham’s Laudanum: This is prepared as follows: opium, 2 ounces; saffron, 1 ounce; bruised cinnamon and bruised cloves, each 1 drachm; sherry wine, 1 pint. Mix and macerate for 15 days and filter. Twenty drops are equal to one grain of opium.”

Dick’s Encyclopedia contains dozens of recipes for homemade laudanum, and even more for other remedies containing opium. As relatively appealing as cinnamon and cloves sound, by the 19th century, laudanum could also be mixed with mercury, ether, chloroform, hashish, or belladonna; if it didn’t kill you, it would make you see some very interesting things.

Whether or not the malady justified the use of such a powerful drug, laudanum and other opium derivatives were used frequently and without a great deal of hesitation. It was a good cough suppressant, kept children quiet, and induced restful sleep. Rhapsodic descriptions of its effects make it sound like magic.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde conveys the horrors and pleasures of an East End opium den in a single paragraph (it isn’t exactly laudanum, but it’s the same active ingredient):

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Opium Smokers in the East End of London. Illustrated London News, 1874.

“As Dorian hurried up its three rickety steps, the heavy odour of opium met him. He heaved a deep breath, and his nostrils quivered with pleasure. When he entered, a young man with smooth yellow hair, who was bending over a lamp lighting a long thin pipe, looked up at him and nodded in a hesitating manner. […] Dorian winced and looked round at the grotesque things that lay in such fantastic postures on the ragged mattresses. The twisted limbs, the gaping mouths, the staring lustreless eyes, fascinated him. He knew in what strange heavens they were suffering, and what dull hells were teaching them the secret of some new joy.”

Strange heavens aside, laudanum was not a friendly substance. In 1889, The Journal of Mental Sciences published what was purported to be an anonymous letter by the wonderful title of Confessions of a Young Lady Laudanum-Drinker which describes at length her experience of addiction:

“It got me into such a state of indifference that I no longer took the least interest in anything, and did nothing all day but loll on the sofa reading novels, falling asleep every now and then, and drinking tea. Occasionally I would take a walk or drive, but not often. Even my music I no longer took much interest in, and would play only when the mood seized me, but felt it too much of a bother to practice. I would get up about ten in the morning, and make a pretence of sewing; a pretty pretence, it took me four months to knit a stocking!

“Worse than all, I got so deceitful, that no one could tell when I was speaking the truth. It was only this last year it was discovered; those living in the house with you are not so apt to notice things, and it was my married sisters who first began to wonder what had come over me. By that time it was a matter of supreme indifference to me what they thought, and even when it was found out, I had become so callous that I didn’t feel the least shame. (…) My memory was getting dreadful; often, in talking to people I knew intimately, I would forget their names and make other absurd mistakes of a similar kind. As my elder sister was away from home, I took a turn at being housekeeper. Mother thinks every girl should know how to manage a house, and she lets each of us do it in our own way, without interfering. Her patience was sorely tried with my way of doing it, as you may imagine; I was constantly losing the keys, or forgetting where I had left them. I forgot to put sugar in puddings, left things to burn, and a hundred other things of the same kind.”

While this anonymous writer did recover, laudanum addiction was difficult to beat. People became tolerant to it quickly, and recovery was more likely to be achieved by tapering doses. Although laudanum was a common cough suppressant, it could work too well by causing shortness of breath and respiratory depression, or keeping the user from breathing at all. It can also inhibit digestion, cause constipation, depression, and itching. It was so potent that it was easy to overdose accidentally as an adult, and many infants and children died from it, as well. Tragically, it was also a common method of suicide.

laudanumWe might not understand the appeal of such a debilitating and ultimately lethal substance, but for most people in the nineteenth century, laudanum must have felt like a godsend. Disease, poverty, and hunger were widespread, and those lucky enough to be employed suffered through long hours in terrible conditions to earn their pittance. Even for the wealthy and well-to-do, Britain was cold, wet, and overrun with discomforts that may necessitate its use. Menstrual cramps, insomnia, anxiety, nerves, cough, stomach upset, cholera, tuberculosis — if one drug could treat them all and that drug happened to be miraculously affordable and so common there was little to no stigma attached to it, there was no reason not to rely on it from time to time.

Laudanum is still in production today, but it is no longer available over the counter. Now referred to almost exclusively as Tincture of Opium, it is listed as a Schedule II substance due to its highly addictive nature and is used for stomach ailments, pain, and to treat infants born to mothers with opioid addiction.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Anonymous. Confessions of a Young Lady Laudanum-Drinker. The Journal of Mental Sciences January 1889

Berridge, Victoria. “Victorian Opium Eating: Responses to Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England,” Victorian Studies, 21(4) 1978.

Dick, William B. Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, Publishers, 1890.

Diniejko, Andrzej. Victorian Drug Use. The Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/science/addiction/addiction2.html

Kingsley, Charles. Alton Locke (1850).

O’Reilly, Edward. Laudanum: A Dose of the Nineteenth Century.

Sydenham, Thomas. Medical Observations Concerning the History and Cure of Acute Diseases (1676)

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

*presumably crushed diamonds would have been too extravagant

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Nineteenth Century Skin Care: Ten Tips from The Ugly Girl Papers

bloom of youth

“Entirely harmless.”

I recently came across a nineteenth century guide to beauty called The Ugly Girl Papers. A collection of articles written by S.D. Powers for Harper’s Bazar in the 1870s, it contains everything from dieting advice (don’t eat) to cures for toothaches (opium and alcohol). There are so many different topics covered in the book’s three hundred pages that we could easily devote dozens of posts to it. This week, we’ll start with skincare.

I’m on vacation this week, so naturally, I want to look my best. I was somewhat dismayed—but unsurprised—the learn that at thirty, I am officially past it.

“The latest authorities in social science assert that woman’s prime of youth is twenty-six, moving the barriers a good ten years ahead from the old standard of the novelist, whose heroines are always in the dew of sixteen. In the very first place, one may boldly say that beauty, or rather fascination, is not a matter of youth, and no woman ought to sigh over her years till she feels the frost creeping into her heart … a high-bred beauty of thirty, if well preserved, may dispute the palm. Women who look their thirties in the face should not lay down the scepter of life, or fancy that its delights for them are over. They are young while they seem young.”

Well, crap. So how do I go about preserving what looks I have left before the frost creeps into my heart? Good skin is crucial: “Nothing is so attractive, so suggestive of purity of mind and excellence of body, as a clear, fine-grained skin. Strong color is not desirable.”

That makes sense. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all blessed with perfect skin. Three generations of women have sworn by Ivory soap and Vaseline for a good complexion, and I use the same brand of face powder my great-grandmother did in the 1930s (Coty). This should be easy, right?

harmless as dew

“Harmless as dew”

Ten Nineteenth Century Tips for a Perfect Complexion

Contract tuberculosis. Wait, what? The author does not recommend doing this, but does admit that people in the early stages of consumption or scrofula have the best skin. “Consumption leaves the skin clear and brilliant, because the morbid matters which usually pass off through the skin are eating away the life in ulcers beneath.”

We may be assured that a similar effect can be achieved by “purifying the blood.” How do we achieve this?

Eat less: Diet and exercise are crucial to maintaining a clear complexion. Okay, I can see that. She tells a story of how she learned to live on very little in the name of achieving good skin:

“When recovering from severe nervous prostration, years ago, the writer found her appetite gone. The least morsel satisfied hunger, and more produced a repugnance she never tried to overcome. She resumed study six hours a day and walked two miles every day from the suburbs to the center of the city, and back again. Breakfast usually was a small saucer of strawberries and one Graham cracker, and was not infrequently dispensed with altogether. Lunch was half an orange—for the burden of eating the other half was not to be thought of; and at six o’clock a handful of cherries formed a plentiful dinner. Once a week she did crave something like beef-steak or soup, and took it.”

I take my health seriously, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to live on nothing more than a handful of fruit and a single graham cracker every day. In case it wasn’t clear the author has a pretty severe eating disorder, she also suggests the next tip…

Purge with Charcoal: One fool-proof way to purify the blood is to use charcoal as a purgative. Not only can you clean your face with it, but your guts as well!

“To clear the complexion, take a teaspoon of charcoal well mixed in water or honey for three nights, then use a simple purgative to remove it from the system. It acts like calomel, with no bad effects, purifying the blood more effectively than anything else. But some simple aperient must not be omitted, or the charcoal will remain in the system, a mass of festering poison, with all the impurities it absorbs.”

That’s right, you should purge with charcoal for three nights in order for this to be effective. If a “mass of festering poison” in your stomach doesn’t sound great, she does point out that it’s better than calomel, or mercury chloride, which was commonly used in medicine and face cream. You can read more about calomel here.

Alternatively, you can…

Use Opium as a Skin Tonic

“The opium found in the stalks of flowering lettuce refines the skin singularly, and may be used clear, instead of the soap which sells so high. Rub the milky juice collected from broken stems of coarse garden lettuce over the face at night, and wash with a solution of ammonia in the morning.”

Yes, you read that right. The opium found in lettuce. What the what? It turns out that she’s not completely off her rocker. The “milky juice” in lettuce stalks is a fluid called Lactacarium, otherwise known as “lettuce opium.” It is a mild sedative and can produce feelings of euphoria. It can also be reduced to a thick substance that can be smoked like opium. It was a drug in the United States in the nineteenth century and seen as a weaker alternative to the real thing.

Learn something new every day.

absolutely harmless

“Absolutely harmless”

Wrap Your Face in Dandelion Leaves…for Six Weeks

“A small dose of taraxacum (dandelion) every other night will assist in refining the skin. But it will be at least six weeks’ work to effect the desired change; and it will be a zealous girl who submits to the discomfort of the mask for that length of time. The result pays. The compress acts like a mild but imperceptible blister, and leaves a new skin, soft as an infant’s.”

So before there was microdermabrasion, you could wrap your face in stinging dandelion leaves for six weeks to raise a giant blister over your face that could be peeled off and voila.

Beat the Heat with Cream of Tartar and Saltpeter

“In the summer the system should be kept cool by bathing at night and morning, and by tart drinks containing cream of tartar. Small quantities of nitre, prescribed by the physician, may be taken by very sanguine persons who suffer with heat.”

Nitre (potassium nitrate), also known as saltpeter, is an ingredient in gun powder.

I’m not sure I should be drinking it.

Avoid Cold

“Be careful, of all things, to avoid a chill. This deadens the skin, paints blue circles round the eyes, and leaves the hands an uncertain color.”

Goodness, I wouldn’t want my hands to be an uncertain color underneath my gloves. My God, what would people think?

Take Arsenic Pills

“Bohemian countesses over thirty may go to arsenic springs, as they were wont to do, for the benefit of their complexions; but the home bath-room is more efficacious than even the minute doses of quicksilver with which the ladies of George the First’s court used to poison themselves—a primitive way of getting at the virtues of the blue-pill.”

Those primitive fools! Fortunately for those who did not have access to arsenic springs, arsenic supplements were available and widely prescribed for weight loss and clear skin. They were absolutely poison, and while they were causing extreme harm to the body, they would also cause the complexion to become pale, transparent, and slightly blue – the next best thing to dying of tuberculosis.

Use Tar as a Face Mask

“Even hunters bear witness to its excellence in leaving the skin fair and innocent. Thus runs the formula, simple enough, in all conscience, yet how few will have the boldness to try it: Mix one spoonful of the best tar in a pint of pure olive or almond oil, by heating the two together in a tin cup set in boiling water. Stir till completely mixed and smooth, putting in more oil if the compound is too thick to run easily. Rub this on the face when going to bed, and lay patches of soft cloth on the cheeks and forehead to keep the tar from rubbing off. The bed linen must be protected by old sheets folded and thrown over the pillows. The odor, when mixed with oil, is not strong enough to be unpleasant—some people fancy its suggestion of aromatic pine breath—and the black, unpleasant mask washes off easily with warm water and soap. The skin comes out, after several applications, soft, moist, and tinted like a baby’s.”

I’m not sure which hunters were using this tar face mask, but the idea of all the men in my family sleeping with tar on their faces is hilarious. It does sound a bit like something that happens to you before you’re covered in feathers. Aaaaaaand now I’m thinking about Poe’s Hopfrog.

Hopefully no one will set fire to you while you have this crap on your face.

Have a Daughter? Guarantee her Future Beauty With Malnutrition!

“Some mothers are so anxious to secure this grace for their daughters that they are kept on the strictest diet from childhood. The most dazzling Parian could not be more beautiful that the cheek of a child I once saw who was kept on oat-meal porridge for this effect. At a boarding-school, I remember, a fashionable mother gave strict injunctions that her daughter should touch nothing but brown bread and syrup. This was hard fare; but the carmine lips and magnolia brow of the young lady were the envy of her schoolmates, who, however, were not courageous enough to attempt such a regime for themselves.”

As nice as it would be to have “carmine lips and a magnolia brow,” eating nothing but bread and syrup is a terrible idea, and even worse if you’re inflicting this diet on a child. In the nineteenth century you might be able to get away with it as a wealthy eccentric, but these days, Child Services would and should be called.

Wow! I hope you have learned as much as I have today. While some of the things suggested in the book have merit and are still used in some capacity in cosmetics today (sulphur and carbolic acid, for example), I have never been so grateful for my soap.

Jessica Cale

Source

Powers, S.D. The Ugly-Girl Papers; or, Hints for the Toilet. Reprinted from “Harper’s Bazar.” New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, Franklin Square. https://archive.org/stream/uglygirlpapersor00powerich#page/v/mode/1up

What is the craziest beauty treatment you’ve heard of? Do you know of any that actually work? Leave your thoughts in the comments to keep the conversation going!