These days cocaine, heroine and meth are not substances known for their health benefits.
But in the 19th century and early 20th century, these illegal class-A drugs were touted as miracle medical cures which were readily available over the counter.
This collection of now shocking adverts – taken from the late 1800s and early 1900s – advocated taking heroin for a cough, cocaine for hay fever and crystal meth for weight loss.
Cocaine – which was famously once an ingredient in Coca Cola – was even marketed to children to curb a sweet tooth.
The images below show how, before the introduction of regulation, lethal and addictive medical concoctions were unwittingly consumed by millions of people.
Candy containing cocaine, the now class A drug, was once marketed towards children
Cocaine’s pain-relieving skills led to a host of medicinal products in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries.
A 1890s advert for ‘coca wine’ – a popular alcoholic beverage combining wine and cocaine – claimed to relieve everything from ‘fatigue’ to ‘nervous debility’.
An advert for ‘coca wine’, which was an alcoholic beverage combining wine with cocaine, from circa 1900s
An advert from the 1850s for Allen’s Cocaine Tablets that claims to cure nervousness, headaches and sleeplessness
Meanwhile, a 1850s commercial promoted Allen’s Cocaine tablets as a cure-all for ‘hay fever, Catarrh and throat troubles’.
Coca Cola when first launched in 1886 had two key ingredients – cocaine and caffeine. It was invented by Dr John Pemberton, a pharmacist – himself a morphine addict – who wanted to create an elixir to ‘make the world happier’.
A bottle once contained an estimated nine milligrams of cocaine per glass, and the drug was eventually removed in 1903.
Heroin and morphine
A 1901 advert by drugs giant Bayer marketed heroin as a cough medicine – claiming it’s sedative effect would soothe the ailment.
The German drug company made its fortunes in the late 1890s when it commercialized both aspirin and heroin as pain remedies.
A front page leading article about cube morphine, a drug that is now a controlled substance
Heroin was once sold as cough medicine as this advert from December 1901 shows
This yesteryear advert now seem outrageous
Heroin – named so because it made users feel mighty, or heroisch (which translates as heroic in German) – was even said to be nonaddictive and Bayer touted it as a cure for morphine addiction.
As well as coughs and colds, the company claimed it could treat tuberculosis and asthma.
The Boston Medical Journal wrote in 1900: ‘It possesses many advantages over morphine… It is not a hypnotic,’ and luckily, there was ;an absence of danger of acquiring the habit.
But reality reared its ugly head, and early in the 20th century, more and more medical journals began reporting on heroin’s dark, addictive side. Of course we now know it’s one of the most addictive drugs around.
Amphetamines and crystal meth
Many of these dangerous substances in these outrageous adverts were aimed at women.
A 1943 commercial claimed methedrine – the brand name for methamphetamine hydrochloride, which is more commonly known as crystal meth today – will also help women looking to shed the pounds.
Another 1940s poster told females to ‘stay fit and slim by taking amphetamine’.
Other commercials include a 1956 poster which advised women to take modern day class-B drug dexedrine sulfate – similar to speed – for premenstrual tension.
An advert for amphetamine that promises the user it will make them ‘stay fit and slim’ and that it will ‘even give you the energy to carry on working throughout the night’
A 1956 advert for an amphetamine that promises to help women with period pains
Ads for cigarettes disappeared from TV and radio in the US in 1971 after Congress, in April 1970, passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act.
In the UK, television commercials for cigarettes were banned in August 1965, although adverts for loose tobacco and cigars continued until 1991. Health warnings had to be included on all cigarette packets from 1971.
Yet adverts from yesteryear not only carried no health warnings but claimed smoking was actually good for you.
This advert from the early 20th century seems to suggest that cigarettes are great for keeping your weight healthy – implying you could look like the athletic man in the picture if you smoked them
Lucky Strike cigarettes were endorsed by singer Carole Lombard who advises singers to smoke as many light cigarettes as they wanted
An advert from the early 20th century cigarettes suggested cigarettes are great for keeping your weight healthy – implying you could look like the athletic man in the picture if you smoked them.
Lucky Strike cigarettes were endorsed by singer Carole Lombard who advised singers to smoke as many light cigarettes as they wanted just like her.
And a bemusing advert from the 19th century even claimed cigarettes help with asthma.
This vintage advert from 1956 prescribes cigarettes for new mothers – not something that doctors of today would recommend
This bemusing advert from the 19th century is for cigarettes to help with asthma, something that seems counter-intuitive by today’s standards
Other bizarre adverts
One advert promoted ‘sanitized tape worms’ for weight loss and promises that ‘no diet’ and ‘no exercise’ is necessary with this dangerous parasite dietary supplement.
And a 1890s Dr Campbells advert recommended arsenic cream as an anti-ageing product.
Sanitised tapeworms was all the rage as a weight loss supplement – and needed no diet or exercise claimed the advertisers
An advert circa late 1800s for child corsets – a fashion fad that has proven to be risky
This advert for diet pills is clearly playing on people’s insecurities – telling women to be as ‘slim as you should be’
Victorian advertisements also recommended corsets to keep growing children healthy and cigarettes to relieve asthma.
The posters and magazine adverts were all in circulation before medical regulation was formally introduced.
It wasn’t until the Pure Food and Drug Act was introduced in 1906 in America that regulation was slowly introduced. In the UK the quack medical practice was largely eradicated by the time the World War 1 ended.
DID ARSENIC KILL NAPOLEON?
Arsenic could have contributed to Napoleon’s death
The death of Napoleon in 1821 has been blamed on many things, including mercury, but high levels of arsenic were found in his hair.
Could arsenic have killed him? It might have contributed, but was unlikely the sole cause of death, says the authors.
One theory is that arsenic in his wallpaper could have played a role.
Arsenic dyes, used to color artificial flowers, fabrics, and wallpaper were very popular by the mid-1800s.
Unfortunately, these products poisoned many of their users by releasing flakes of poisonous paper into the environment or infusing the air with arsenic over time.
This and many more weird and wacky medical remedies from the past that were once considered the norm have been revealed in a new book, Quackery: A Brief History Of The Worst Ways To Cure Everything.