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Laudanum Use In Victorian Times


Following other Vics’ posts on Opium and its derivatives, I’ve chosen to write about laudanum. The drug is very old, but use became widespread during the Victorian era. Some authors suggest that use was a major health problem. Certainly many notable people of the time were addicted: Lord Byron, Percy Blythe Shelley, John Keats, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, William Taylor Coleridge, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (as well as his character Sherlock Holmes) are only a few. I confess I’m surprised that Charles Dickens appears on the list. Before we judge, however, we have to understand the times.

Look in your medicine cabinet. If yours is like mine, you stock pain relievers for headaches and arthritis, Immodium, antihistamines, allergies, and gas relief. In the 1800’s, mortality from cholera, malaria, and dysentery was very high. Now we only have to take an Immodium tablet or something similar, but diarrhea killed huge numbers of people while they suffered terrible cramping. Even if laudanum couldn’t cure them, it eased the pain. Tuberculosis was a problem, made worse by living conditions and hard work necessary for life in those times. Think of the furor when there’s an outbreak of e-choli, but that must have been commonplace in Victorian times and hardly noteworthy.

It’s hard to realize just how deadly these diseases were because we have sanitation that has diminished cholera and dysentery. The drainage of swamp lands decreased malaria, a disease one of my ancestors contracted from living in the Brazos River Valley near Waco, Texas in the 1880’s. Introduction of aspirin in 1899 provided an alternative medication for pain relief. Along with antibiotics, modern pharmaceuticals have diminished the severity of all those diseases.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable providing the recipe I discovered for making laudanum, but it was 10% opium and 90% alcohol and usually flavored with cinnamon and saffran. WordPress would not allow me to post the photo of a laudanum bottle, even though I posted the heroin bottle. Go figure, but you can imagine an old blue bottle with a cork and one of various labels. Not only was it available over the counter, it was recommended by doctors for everything from menstrual cramps to tuberculosis. It was much cheaper than any other form of pain killer, and that made it attractive to those in the lower economic classes. By no means was laudanum used only by the poor. Wealthy women even used it to achieve a coveted pallid complexion, and even infants were spoon fed laudanum. Only later did people realize that laudanum use was habit forming and demanded greater and greater doses to provide relief.

In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act required that certain specified drugs–alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and cannabis–be accurately labeled with contents and dosage. Previously, many drugs had been sold as patent medicines with secret ingredients or misleading labels. Authorities estimate that sales decreased by one third after labeling was required. The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 restricted the manufacture and distribution of opiates, including laudanum, and coca derivatives in the United States. Not until the middle of the 20th century did the U.S. government limit the use of opiates. In 1970, the U.S. adopted the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, which regulated opium tincture (laudanum) as a Schedule II substance and placed tighter controls on the drug.

In the 1800’s, which is the era we write, laudanum use and addiction was widespread. This is the position in which the character Aoiffe O’Neill finds herself in THE TEXAN’S IRISH BRIDE. Aoiffe is mother to the heroine, Cenora Rose, and is a lovely woman who thinks she’s dying. Due to gynecologic problems, a doctor prescribed laudanum and she’s growing weaker and weaker. Women were usually treated as less able to tolerate pain, weak-brained, and prone to mythical complaints. (Still happens today, in fact. The daughter of a friend died last week only two months after receiving a “clean bill of health” from her family physician. She had a brain tumor.) In Victorian times, doctors sometimes used laudanum as a catch-all remedy for “women’s complaints.” Here’s an excerpt in which the effects of laudanum is explained by the hero’s Aunt Kathryn, a folk healer of considerable skill:

Ma lay in bed in her shift with her rail-thin arms in view. As always, the sight of Ma so weak created an ache in Cenora’s heart and made her want to weep for fear of losing her mother. Wouldn’t she do anything to ease Ma’s life? That was one of the reasons she’d agreed to a forced marriage.

Against the white sheets, Ma appeared as pale as the linens. Dark circles ringed her sunken eyes. Standing beside Ma now, Kathryn’s radiant beauty only emphasized Ma’s frailty. Cenora prayed Kathryn could restore Ma to the energetic and cheerful woman she’d been years ago.

Kathryn smiled as if to reassure Cenora. “Your mother asked me to explain her problem because she’ll need your help with her treatment.”

“B—But Ma’ll be all right?”

Kathryn wrote with a pencil on a sheet of paper. “Oh, yes, I believe so, but it will take time. I’m writing a set of instructions for you and a copy of menus that Aoife needs to build her strength and restore her blood. And she needs to cut down her use of the laudanum.” She looked up. “It’ll be hard to reduce, because laudanum is habit forming and doing without causes pain and sweating, but she must. To continue is more harmful than doing without.”

Harmful? Dear Lord, she’d been giving Ma laudanum a long time. “What’s wrong? The doctor we asked said it was only her age and women’s complaints and offered no help except the laudanum.”

Kathryn looked up from her writing and her eyes sparked fire. “So Aoife said, and that makes me furious. I’d like to give that quack a piece of my mind!”

She waved her hand as if she dismissed the careless physician. “Aoife has a number of problems, but all can be treated. The most uncomfortable is the dropped womb, which requires a sponge pessary, cleaned regularly. I’m leaving a spare so she won’t be without while one is thoroughly soaked clean.”

Cenora had no idea what Kathryn meant, but mayhap Ma could explain later. “You’ve shown all this to Ma?”

Kathryn nodded. “And I’m writing it here. I’ll send someone over tomorrow with more of the herbs she needs and tonics. I’ll stop back by in a few days. In the meantime, your mother should rest for a few days and follow the diet I laid out.”

In the event you wish to read the entire story of Aoiffe, her beautiful heroine daughter Cenora, and the hero Dallas McClintock, please check out THE TEXAN’S IRISH BRIDE from or from Amazon or one of the other online book stores. In the meantime, you can read more about Caroline Clemmons at her website, or on her personal blog at





  1. Very interesting post, Caroline! It is amazing how people of the 19th century used these drugs for every ailment under the sun and gave them to their children.

    And I’m currently reading The Texan’s Irish Bride. Great story!

  2. Susan, thanks for your comment. Thanks especially for buying my book. I loved writing it and hope you enjoy reading it.

    Isn’t it wierd that WordPress would let me post a photo of the heroin bottle but not the laudanum bottle?

  3. Denise Eagan says:

    These things just fascinate me, Caroline! We think of the 1800’s as medically terrible, and it was, but they had plenty of painkillers, that’s for darned sure.

    Just ordered a kindle. Your book is the first thing I’m putting on it. I can’t wait!

  4. lilypad1213 says:

    Hello from Waco, Texas! Found your blog through Scandalous Women. Enjoying it!

  5. Denise Eagan says:

    Welcome Waco, Texas!

  6. Sleeping Sparrow says:

    Can you clarify what you mean by wordpress won’t let you post the image? Did they send you a take down order for a copyright violation or did they give you any other reason?

  7. […] tuberculosis (which is only a few lines, but many hours of work).  There’s the research on laudanum, and research on Custer’s last stand and Colorado’s statehood.  There’s treasure […]

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