“Opium—the poor child’s nurse”

January 29, 1859

artist unknown

“Opium—the poor child’s nurse”

Children; Drugs; Home Life;

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This Harper’s Weekly cartoon dramatizes the widespread use of opium in the 19th century, emphasizing its application as teething medicine or a soporific to the children of the poor.

Opium use dates back to antiquity, and existed in many cultures, although it was particularly associated with China and India. It was considered to be a medical cure-all until other painkillers and therapeutics began to be developed in the 19th century. In England and the United States in the mid-19th century, physicians prescribed opium readily, yet it could be purchased without a prescription. It was often an ingredient in pills, tablets, cough drops, lozenges, plasters, and other medicinal forms. Opium was used extensively in medicines for gynecological maladies, resulting in a high rate of addiction among women (three times higher than in men).

There was an awareness of the problem of addiction to opium, but druggists were usually ignorant about safe dosages. The invention of the hypodermic needle in the mid-19th century was considered a partial solution because it was erroneously supposed that intravenous use would not cause addiction. Opiates were administered by hypodermic needles to wounded or ill soldiers. The result in the United States was the addiction of thousands of servicemen during the Civil War.

Harper’s Weekly reported on the prevalent use of opium in the late 1850s. The journal’s inaugural issue of January 3, 1857, carried the essay, “A Recent Confession of an Opium-Eater,” and in 1858 and 1859, the newspaper ran advertisements for Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. News stories and illustrations took readers into opium dens, as well as reported the Second Opium War in which Britain fought to keep open its lucrative opium trade after the Chinese government prohibited the narcotic.

Harper’s Weekly alerted the public that the opium habit was spreading in New York City and across America. Custom houses reported 300,000 pounds imported in 1858, estimating 90 percent was intended for recreational use. It was a problem which affected all classes and ethnic groups, from Broadway to the Bowery. The effects of opium addiction could be noted in the “glassy eyes in Fifth Avenue drawing-rooms and opera-stalls,” and in the babies of beggar-women. The infants’ sleepiness was induced by laudanum (an opium derivative), which kept the children “fuddled continually, and permanently stupefied.” It was, in fact, a common remedy used by American and British parents, especially poor ones, for infants who were experiencing teething or other pains.

Not until the late-19th century was opium use identified with the underworld of prostitutes, gamblers, and criminals, more than with medical therapy. By the turn of the century, opium addiction was recognized as a worldwide problem. The first U.S. federal law regulating drug use was the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Opium—the poor child’s nurse”
July 14, 2024

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