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If Old Drug Ads Told the Truth

Through the late 19th century and mid-20th century, many of today’s illicit drugs of abuse were available legally in the United States. Products containing cocaine, heroin, or amphetamine were readily available for over-the-counter purchase – no prescription required. We collected 10 vintage advertisements for some of the period’s most popular pharmaceuticals and updated their outlandish claims with current medical knowledge to show the seismic shift the industry has undergone over the past century.

1. Cocaine Toothache Drops

These ads for “cocaine toothache drops” from Lloyd Manufacturing date back to 1885. The first paints a pleasant picture of children playing in a yard while promising an “instantaneous cure,” while the second goes into more detail on the drug’s various accolades. It was popular in the late 1800s to use cocaine as an anesthetic in dental procedures, although that trend didn’t last: After cocaine became a regulated substance with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, its reputation subsequently suffered while novocaine quickly took its place as the local anesthetic of choice.

Cocaine salt is water-soluble and is absorbed quickly through the mucous membranes of both the mouth and the nose, which means that taking these cocaine toothache drops would be comparable to snorting the same amount of cocaine. The rapid onset – as well as short duration – of its benefits would encourage the patient to use more and more toothache drops to sustain its effects. And despite the praise it received centuries ago from physicians, surgeons, and dentists, cocaine’s harms are well-documented: Today, it’s associated with more emergency room visits in the U.S. than any other illegal drug.

2. Allen’s Cocaine Tablets

Cocaine was also used as a remedy for head and chest congestion. Allen’s Cocaine Tablets claimed to not only treat excessive mucus buildup and sore throats, but also psychosomatic conditions like nervousness and sleeplessness. These tablets would presumably dissolve in the mouth and enter the body through the mucous membranes.

Because cocaine constricts blood vessels, it does have some decongestant effects: Constricting blood vessels in the mucous membranes of the nose, for example, opens up nasal passageways for easier breathing. However, it also constricts blood vessels in the brain, which can cause strokes (even in users without other risk factors), and blood vessels in the heart, which can cause heart attacks (even in users without heart disease). And rather than curing nervousness and sleeplessness, cocaine’s stimulant properties increase heart rate, exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and elicit sleep disturbances among a plethora of other symptoms.

3. Vin Mariani Coca Wine

Thanks to Vin Mariani, coca wine became a profitable market in the late 1800s. Upon its release, the French drink became extremely popular in both the U.S. and Europe, receiving endorsements from celebrities, physicians, and even Pope Leo XIII, who reportedly awarded its creator Angelo Mariani a Vatican gold medal. The advertisement claims that this combination of alcohol and cocaine is beneficial to the body and brain.

But Mariani was very wrong. When used together, cocaine and alcohol create a new compound called cocaethylene, which is less potent yet significantly more cardiotoxic and neurotoxic than cocaine – potentiating damage to these vital organ systems over time. Rather than strengthening the system, this product would exacerbate the effects produced by both cocaine and alcohol and potentially contribute to more severe, long-lasting symptoms.  

4. Metcalf’s Coca Wine

Metcalf’s Coca Wine was another popular coca wine of the late 1800s that followed the success of Vin Mariani. It stressed its medicinal effects as an “invigorator” and cure for neuralgia (nerve pain), sleeplessness, and despondency, but also its quality: “…being prepared with the utmost skill and precision from the Freshest Coca Leaves and the Purest Wine obtainable.”

Again, mixing cocaine and alcohol is never a good idea, especially in the same drink. Cocaine increases the heart rate, potentially to levels of cardiac arrest – especially when combined with alcohol. In terms of neuralgia and despondency, the euphoria produced by both substances is incredibly short-lived; and while alcohol is a depressant, cocaine’s stimulant properties make sleep difficult. Finally, the ad’s claims of purity were unfounded: Because coca leaves were unregulated until the 1914 Harrison Act, establishing a standard of enforceable quality was not possible.

5. Coca-Cola Syrup and Extract

The coca wine market ran into some obstacles in the late 1800s, particularly with the growing Prohibition movement: a crusade to make alcohol – rather than cocaine – illegal. Some counties began to pass Prohibition laws long before the establishment of the 18th Amendment. Dr. John Stith Pemberton, the owner of a coca wine called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, lived in one of these counties. He stayed in business by replacing the wine in his beverage with a non-alcoholic syrup, rebranding Pemberton’s French Wine Coca in 1886 as “Coca-Cola: The temperance drink.”

Though removing alcohol eliminated the creation of cocaethylene, cocaine’s psychoactive effects remained. The ad touted its palate-delighting flavor and its many pharmaceutical benefits: It was a “valuable Brain Tonic” and a “cure for all nervous affections.” But as we’ve seen, cocaine’s relationship to the brain is one of toxin rather than tonic. It enhances neurotransmitter activity in the brain by blocking the reuptake process, flooding the brain with dopamine. Repeated use essentially rewires the brain’s reward system. Although cocaine wasn’t regulated until 1914, growing concern over its effects led to Coca-Cola removing the substance from its formula in 1903.

6. Benzedrine Sulfate Tablets


The company Smith, Kline, and French originally popularized Benzedrine inhalers, which claimed to relieve head congestion and asthma. But soon after, they saw potential in amphetamine as an euphoria-producing stimulant, even without a legitimate medical purpose. In 1937, they debuted Benzedrine Sulfate, which contained amphetamine in pill form rather than in an inhaler. Its new intended use was to improve moods – to “relieve psychogenic tiredness.”

Amphetamine and cocaine are similar in that both stimulants alter the normal balance of neurotransmitters in the brain and increase dopamine activity, which means that both gradually impact the brain’s reward system. As a direct result, both are also highly addictive. Abuse leads to a “binge and crash” cycle in which users try to sustain their high, “crash” when the stimulant’s effects wear off, and are left with feelings of depression, anxiety, and fatigue. So while Benzedrine Sulfate may have initially “relieved” tiredness, that heightened energy would later come with a heavy price.

7. Stickney & Poor’s Paregoric

Stickney & Poor’s Paregoric syrup contained 46 percent alcohol as well as 1.8 “grains of opium to each fluid ounce,” and – incredibly – it was marketed for newborns and infants. Its alcohol content alone is higher than that of the average vodka, whiskey, or rum (40 percent alcohol), and its opium content is equivalent to around 11.7 milligrams of morphine. It was intended to quiet fussy babies.

Opium and its opioid derivatives do cause drowsiness, which would definitely put a baby to sleep, but a high dose can cause severe respiratory depression, especially when mixed with a strong concentration of alcohol. Any dose given to an infant would toe the line between slowing breathing to the point of calmness and slowing breathing to the point of death.

8. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was manufactured in 1845. Apparently, one of the owners’ mothers-in-law – named, naturally, Mrs. Winslow – created the formula while she was working as a nurse for infants. It contained 65 milligrams of morphine per ounce, and like Stickney & Poor’s Paregoric, it was used to calm babies and young children. This product in particular was heavily marketed to mothers and housewives in the forms of recipe books and calendars.

Again, giving such a large dose of morphine to young children is incredibly dangerous. While opioids do relieve discomfort – they attach themselves to opioid receptors in the brain, which reduces the sensation of pain – the risk of respiratory depression and death is too high to justify the “soothing” of teething babies. Furthermore, persistent use of the product would lead quickly to severe constipation – probably not the best way to go about trying to soothe an infant.

9. Glyco-Heroin (Smith)

Although heroin had already been invented in 1874, the pharmaceutical company Bayer decided to sell it as a morphine substitute between 1898 and 1910. It was used as both a pain reliever and a cure for coughs, asthma, and pneumonia. The name of the product – Glyco-Heroin (Smith) – comes from its mixture of glycerin and heroin. The combination, often also mixed with sugar or spices, sweetened the bitter taste of heroin and made it easier to swallow.

Heroin is synthesized from morphine and shares its sedating properties. As an opioid, it dulls the perception of pain, which might temporarily improve the aches associated with the flu or other illness As a cough suppressant, it may temporarily dampen the cough reflex, easing colds  and other respiratory ailments. Even with these potentially therapeutic applications, the specter of respiratory depression always looms large – potentially slowing breathing rate to the point of severe lack of oxygenation and, eventually, death. Another major issue with opioids is a quickly-building physical tolerance, which leads to severe symptoms of withdrawal even hours after use. This sickness might encourage users to take more of the Glyco-Heroin (Smith) for relief, propelling the progression of a heroin addiction.

10. Dr. Miles Nervine

The active ingredient in Dr. Miles Nervine was bromide, an element that chemists extracted from concentrated salt water in the late 1800s. Because of its sedative properties, the pharmaceutical industry began to market it as a cure for all nervous afflictions: “Dr. Miles Nervine brings soothing relief when you are Nervous, Irritable, Excitable, Sleepless, or Restless.” Many of its advertisements specifically targeted overworked housewives as a remedy for all their problems.

But it turned out that bromide is extremely toxic when taken regularly. Repeated ingestion can cause loss of muscle control, psychosis, memory loss, irritability, and headaches, and high dosages can result in skin rashes, mania, hallucinations, and even coma – hardly “soothing relief.”

Drugs of the Past Still Dangerous

At the time, the promise of an off-the-shelf, easy to take, mutli-therapeutic drug apparently superseded better judgment. Despite some of the legitimate medicinal applications that many of these drugs had, none of them – with their potential for addiction and increasingly harmful health effects – should have been promoted casually to unsuspecting consumers. The marketing of a pharmaceutical heroin product for children, for one, seems shocking, but highlights an industry naïve to the long-term consequences of these substances and their potential for abuse.

At this point in time, we should know better. Still, some of the same mistakes are being made. Prescriptions continue to be written for medicines – many in the same classes of drugs as the ones examined here – with seemingly overlooked regard for the potential downsides of taking them. Being a prescription drug doesn’t necessarily imply safety. The phenomena of tolerance, painful withdrawal syndromes, chemical dependency, the development of compulsive drug seeking and drug using behavior all are part of a growing number of substance use disorder diagnoses – and, all are issues that we, as a nation, are impacted with with as we struggle to control a growing prescription drug abuse problem.

While the task of tackling substance abuse issues – both with prescription medications or illicit drugs – may seem daunting, there is hope in the form of addiction treatment. If you’re concerned about your own drug use, or that of someone close to you, visit or call  to speak with someone today about recovery options and treatment resources that will meet your needs.

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