19th-C narcomania for kids

23 May

The contemporary hype about Ritalin-drugged kiddies went out the window when I went to an exhibition in the foyer of UQ’s Fryer Library just now. Called The Archaology of Victorian Childhood, it features an exhibit on the raft of opium-laced patent medicines marketed specifically to Victorian infants.

According to the exhibit, Australian coroner’s reports from the 1800s consistently named opiate-based infant ‘preservatives’ and soothing syrups as a cause of the death of small children. For example, a ten-month old Brisbane boy called John Cope died of narcotic poisoning in 1884 after being spoon-fed Steedman’s Teething Powder, bought from a chemsit in Fortitude Valley.

Here is a list of opium-based patent medicines available over the counter in Brisbane in 1900, all marketed with suitably evocative names and pastel-sweet domestic imagery:

  • Atkinson’s Royal Infant Preservative, Bonnington’s Irish Moss, Kay’s Essence of Linseed, and Moulton’s Pain Paint (active ingredients chloroform and morphine);
  • Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral (morphine);
  • Ayer’s Sarsaparilla Mixture, Chamberlain’s Cough Remedy, Godfrey’s Cordial, Perry Davis’ Painkiller, Powell’s Balsam of Aniseed, Steedman’s Teething Powder (opium); and
  • Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup (opium alkaloids).
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7 Responses to “19th-C narcomania for kids”

  1. Lidian 28 May 2008 at 1:35 am #

    Good heavens, Mrs. Winslow was everywhere! There was a real Mrs. Winslow, the MIL of the New England manufacturer I believe – I have a Mrs. Winslow’s almanac from the 1860s. That stuff was just lethal.

  2. Dr Pete 4 June 2008 at 5:19 pm #

    Indeed, at the time, these newly isolated alkaloids seemed to be the miracle cures for whatever ailed ya’ (or at least give you that impression). While opium and its synthetic derivative morphine were popular cocaine was also emerging as an excellent topical anaesthetic and….uh….”brain tonic”. Some examples of products below:
    http://wings.buffalo.edu/aru/preprohibition.htm
    My choice is the cocaine wine, combining two of my favorite pastimes is one, convenient, elixir. Relief for the whole family.
    I also enjoy the Bayer advertisements for the newly synthesised “Heroin” (alongside the “Aspirin”); a cough suppressant for children and an asthma reliever, apparently.

  3. Melissa Bellanta 4 June 2008 at 10:50 pm #

    Cocaine wine. Had heard of the Bayer Heroin, but not that convenient elixir, as you put it. Ouch.

  4. Noel Sprenger 18 June 2008 at 4:31 am #

    The particular part of the display referred to was “opiate-based patent medicines for children” and was devised by Barbara Rowland and Noel Sprenger of UQ’s School of Social Science. It will be part of Noel Sprenger’s PhD thesis entitled,HEALTH APPROPRIATION: A Comparative Study of Patent Medicines and Orthodox Medical practice in Queensland, 1859-1907.

  5. Melissa Bellanta 18 June 2008 at 4:41 am #

    Many thanks, Noel. It’s a great exhibit: have returned a no. of timese to it… When is your thesis likely to be available to read?

  6. Noel Sprenger 18 June 2008 at 6:45 am #

    Hi Melissa, my PhD commenced 1st Jan. this year, so about probably some time in 2011. I will publish parts under separate headings at this time.

  7. Roger Powell 1 May 2010 at 11:31 pm #

    Mellisa,
    Can you tell me more about this product – my Great great grandfather was the inventor in 1840’s

    “Powell’s Balsam of Aniseed”

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