Four centuries of Drug Abuse

Dr. Kildare or Dr. Frankenstein? Two scenes from American medical care of yore: in the 1840s, physicians prescribed opium to cure their patients' drinking problems. Fifty years later, Parke Davis promised that most aches would succumb to its special home-injection kit--a shiny hypodermic and six vials of cocaine.

Since the Jamestown colonists first harvested tobacco in 1611, America has been afflicted by drugs but only occasionally conscious of it. As the nation slips into another period of denial and the drug issue disappears from the news, a Rochester, N.Y., museum has opened a chilling exhibit on the deep roots of substance abuse in American life. History-told in antique bottles, syringes, handbills and stills-becomes a succession of dangerous elixirs, each welcomed in its turn as a salvation from the disappointments of the last.

Patricia Tice, curator of the "Altered States: Alcohol and Other Drugs in America" exhibit at the Strong Museum, says that both slavery and the frontier spirit stemmed, in part, from the first popular American drug-tobacco. "Without African slaves," Tice says, "the South would not have been able to establish large plantations of tobacco. Since tobacco exhausted the soil, farmers were forced to push farther west."

The exhibit, scheduled for a national Smithsonian tour in 1995, displays more than 400 items--decorative pipes, whisky bottles, a 1790 still, primitive hypodermics, advertisements, paintings, cocktail trays and an eight-bolt crackhouse door-to illustrate nearly four centuries of often unintended addictions. Cycles of use, abuse, reaction and reuse stretched over so many decades that generations unknowingly adopted favorite addictions of their great-grandparents while thinking they were wickedly modern.

The temperance movements of the mid-19th century led to acceptance of narcotics as alcohol substitutes in medicine, including the opium-based Brown's Teething Cordial for fretful babies. When those remedies proved startlingly addictive, cocaine became the favorite health tonic and a key ingredient of early Coca-Cola. Bayer marketed a cough syrup in 1898 with heavy promotion of its wonder drug, heroin.

Cocaine was outlawed as a health cure in 1915, only to be reborn two generations later as an underground balm for the psychic ills of both rich -and poor. When patent medicines laced with opium and other narcotics acquired an unsavory reputation, alcohol became respectable once again. "I'm so tired shopping, make it a MARTINI," says the well-dressed woman in a 1904 Ladies' Home Journal ad. "I need a little Tonic and it's so much better than a drug of any kind."

Drug scares came and went, often inspired more by ethnic tension than any yearning for better health. The exhibit reproduces a Feb. 8, 1914, New York Times headline: NEGRO COCAINE 'FIENDS' ARE A NEW SOUTHERN MENACE. Whites were far more likely to use cocaine, yet the article insisted the drug gave blacks dangerous sexual appetites and made them immune to the pain of police bullets.

The museum collection is stocked largely with items left by Rochester heiress-eccentric Margaret Woodbury Strong-the museum's founder-and 66 other private and public sources during a two-year search. The exhibit ends with a review of recent presidential wars on drugs. "We're on our third," Tice says. And it probably won't be the last.

Join the Discussion