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Our Changing attitudes to alcohol, tobacco, & drugs
Berridge, Virginia

Thomas De Quincey first took opium in 1804. Plagued as he was with rheumatic pains in his head and face, a college friend recommended it.

It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards lay through Oxford Street; and near the stately Pantheon (as Mr Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist's shop. The druggist, unconscious minister of celestial pleasures!—as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday: and when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do: and furthermore, out of my shilling, returned to me what seemed to be real copper half­pence, taken out of a real wooden drawer.

The effect on him was far from dull.

I took it—and in an hour, oh! heavens! What a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! What an apoca­lypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea... for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness... happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be corked up in a pint bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.


The poet's use of the drug as described here stressed its aid to expanding consciousness. This was a type of recreational use, which in the nine­teenth century would have been called the 'luxurious' use of the drug. The place of what would later come to be called 'non-medical' use of opium in the genealogy of Romanticism in the nineteenth century has been discussed by a variety of biographers and literary critics.

The memoir also gives a clue to different ways in which opium was used in nineteenth-century society. That De Quincey could go to a druggist and buy the drug over the counter tells us something signifi­cant. For this anecdote opens the door to a world of drug taking not connected to the expansion of consciousness, to literary or artistic usage, but rather to opium as part of everyday life, the type of product which anyone could buy.

This chapter looks at cultural acceptability. In the first half of the nineteenth century 'drugs', whether opium, alcohol, or tobacco, were widely available in society, culturally sanctioned, and acceptable. Our three sets of substances were all more or less tolerated socially, although with rumblings of concern, at least so far as opium and alcohol were concerned. In this discussion, the focus is initially on opium, because its cultural acceptability is more unusual when looked at from the van­tage of the present. There is some reference to the parallel situations of alcohol and tobacco. This chapter examines how substances which later came to be considered separately both within society and in terms of regulation formed an overall culture of'substance use' at the time.

England is the case study and opium use there was completely unrestricted before 1868 when the first Pharmacy Act became law. The London drug wholesaling markets had their cases of opium alongside other imported drugs and spices. Opium was imported from Turkey through normal channels of commerce as one more item of trade. The London based drug wholesaling houses had extensive lists of opium products, which predated the nineteenth century.

Numerous opium preparations were available. There were opium pills, lozenges, powder of opium, opiate confection, opiate plaster, opium enema, and liniment. There was the famous tincture of opium, (opium dissolved in alcohol), known as laudanum and the camphor­ated tincture or paregoric. The dried capsules of the poppy were used, as were poppy fomentation, syrup of white poppies, and extract of poppy. Nationally famous and long established preparations such as Dover's Powder vied with a tranche of new commercial preparations from the mid nineteenth century—the chlorodynes, Collis Browne's, Towle's, and Freeman's. Childrens' opiates like Godfrey's Cordial and Dalby's Carminative were everyday purchases.There were local prepar­ations such as Kendal Black Drop, known only because Coleridge used and wrote about it.

The Apothecaries Company had twenty-six opium preparations available in 1868, including its popular 'cholera number two' mixture. One wholesale druggist was selling poppy capsules at l/10d a hundred, opiate plaster, Hemming's extract of opium and syrup of white pop­pies, Battley's Sedative solution, morphine acetate, and hydrochlorate, Turkey opium, as well as Black Drop and special Godfrey bottles (three dozen for ten shillings). Godfrey's cordial was an opium based patent medicine. Local wholesalers, even at the end of the century, had exten­sive opium lists. W. Kemp and Son at Horncastle offered nine opium preparations in 1890. There were special quotations for twenty-eight pound and fifty-six pound lots of Turkish opium. There were even short-lived attempts to grow opium commercially in England—but the weather and the shortage of labour defeated these.

What was this extensive variety of opium-based preparations being used for? Medicine of course was one area. Medical practice relied extensively on opium at the time. The pharmacologist Jonathan Pereira noted in his textbook of materia medica in 1839 that the drug was used to mitigate pain, to allay spasm, to promote sleep, to check nervous rest­lessness, to produce perspiration, and to check profuse mucous dis­charges from the bronchial tubes and gastro-intestinal canal.

It would almost be easier to list conditions which did not use opium than those where its use was central. For it was essentially a palliative...