Laudanum, a tincture of opium, was initially created and named (after the Latin word laudare, meaning to praise) by a 16th century Swiss-German alchemist who discovered the elixir had to ability to reduce pain. By the 1800’s the popularity of the medicine had spread worldwide. Considering the ailments and diseases people faced, it’s easy to understand how laudanum had become the miracle drug of its time.
Though it was mixed or created with several bases, anything from honey to wine, laudanum was usually a reddish-brown color and hosted a bitter, distinct taste. Its main two ingredients were opium and alcohol. Containing morphine and codeine, the tincture was used to treat almost any aliment from pain relief to diarrhea. (It is still prescribed for severe diarrhea and a derivate of laudanum is given to babies going through withdrawals after being born to addicted mothers.)
Mary Todd Lincoln was addicted to laudanum, as were several other well-verified historical figures, which was not uncommon. Women were often encouraged to use laudanum daily for menstrual cramps, to assist in getting a full night’s sleep, and promote overall health and well-being.
Cheaper than a bottle of gin or wine because it was labeled as medicine and not subject to being taxed as an alcoholic beverage, laudanum was easily acquired and stocked as a staple in most general stores. Its over-use caused some communities to ‘limit’ purchases to doctors or medical professionals only, but for the most part there were no laws or even warnings about using, distributing, or making laudanum.
The cure-all's downfall happened in the early twentieth century. In 1906 the US Pure Food and Drug Act required all tinctures to be properly and accurately labeled with an ingredients list, This supposedly eliminated over 30% of laudanum producers and in 1914 the Harrison Narcotics Act restricted the manufacture and distribution of opiates, including laudanum.
Posted by Lauri Robinson