Did Everyone Use Opium?
Did everyone in this country use opium on a regular basis between the Revolution and the Civil War? More than two decades of work in the history of drug policy has convinced me that they did. The evidence comes in bits and pieces, but it adds up to a convincing picture. The story can be told in four words: water, teeth, wombs, and pain.
Water-borne intestinal diseases were pandemic, and frequently epidemic, in the entire world until the connection between these diseases, sewage, and water supply became apparent after the London cholera epidemic in the 1840s; and they still are in the developing world today. Public water supply may be the greatest lifesaver in the history of public health. Until then, opium, a very potent anti-diarrheic, was the only treatment for these diseases. Thomas Jefferson, long troubled by intestinal “fluxes”, took liberal doses of laudanum to combat them during the last years of his life. At least one Union commander during the Civil War even personally observed each of his soldiers take a required daily dose of opium as a prophylactic against dysentery each morning.
George Washington’s false teeth are the stuff of legend and John Adams had lost all but four of his teeth by the time he became president. Paul Revere crafted dentures, and a thriving market in teeth pulled from slaves furnished the raw material for many of the sets made in that era. Modern dentistry had to await the introduction of nitrous oxide and ether in the 1840s and high speed drills after that (if those early treadle-powered gadgets could be called “high-speed”). Even cocaine-based powders for teeth and gums did not appear until the 1890s. Until then, tooth-ache sufferers had to make do with rough extractions and pain-killing opium.
Women had greater reasons than men to rely on opium. The most striking thing about reading pre-twentieth century biographies and memoirs is the very large number of pregnancies most women endured and the early age at which they died, often in connection with childbirth (similar to the developing world today). Prolonged labor, incomplete births, and miscarriages took their toll on women’s health, as did fibroids and cysts. Menstrual and pre-menstrual troubles were at least as common as today. For these women in the days before modern obstretics and gynecology, opium was the only remedy available.
Women’s need for opium did not stop at childbirth. Babies, then as now, suffered from colic and teething pains; but Mother’s Little Helper was at hand. Paregoric, an opium tincture, would soothe colic, ease teething pains, and just allow a frazzled mother a good night’s sleep. It remained on sale over the counter in most states through my childhood (the 1940s).
Not just women were in pain. In the pre-electric days, muscle-power, human or animal, did all work including lifting and carrying. A normal day would involve working with axes, firearms, and horses and oxen – all of which can cause serious trauma. Amputations were common, and surgery was primitive. Pain took many forms: Benjamin Franklin suffered from both kidney stones and gout and took large daily doses of laudanum for over twenty years. During that time he helped write the Declaration of Independence, represented America in France, and participated in the Constitutional Convention. Pain was everywhere and everyday – and aspirin was not invented until the 1890s. Opium was all there was.
The demand for opium was there. The question is whether the supply existed to meet it. Opium for America came from two sources: foreign and domestic. At the consumer level, demand can be inferred from an inventory of an apothecary’s shop in a small English village that showed over a dozen opium preparations in its stock.
By the 1790s, American traders were doing a thriving business in Turkish opium. This trade led to two of the first major foreign policy crises of the new nation: John Adams’s piracy treaty with Morocco and Thomas Jefferson’s naval action against Tripoli. While most of the opium was transshipped to China, a large portion was for domestic consumption. The size of the market is documented in the records on opium import taxes through the end of the nineteenth century.
Imports show only part of the study. Much opium was grown domestically. As early as the 1780s, wives of Nantucket were noted for the custom of growing poppies in household plots and drinking teas made from the seed pods. This custom is similar that the long-standing practice of women in the English Fens country of growing poppies and having daily cups of opium tea to “fight off the damp, foggy weather.” Thomas Jefferson grew poppies and prepared opium on his plantations. During the Civil War, the southern states, choked by naval blockade, met all of their military and civilian opium needs with domestically grown poppy crops. In 1874, the Massachusetts State Board of Health complained that opium growers in New Hampshire were flooding Boston with their products. The Board also pointed out that commercial opium growers were present in Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, and California. The opium poppy even became the state flower of California.
Did everyone in early America use opium? Probably not, but a very large share of them did. Advances in both public health and scientific medicine lessened the dependence on medicinal opium, and as it was removed from the family medicine cabinet, social reformers in the early twentieth century became free to focus on deviate social users. The decline in medical opium was a major causative factor in the rise of drug Prohibition. Ironically, the early wide-spread use in no way interfered with the dynamic blossoming of American society, while the later Prohibition has repeatedly shown itself much more destructive than opium use had ever been.