At the dawn of the 20th century, a wide range of now-banned drugs were perfectly legal, leading to the lament of the beleaguered saloon keeper in the adjoining Puck cartoon. Asa Candler, a former druggist, put cocaine in his Coca-Cola until 1906. Prominent women of the day could visit the finest silversmiths to procure sterling-silver syringe sets for their opium habit. Laudanum was an alcohol-opium mixture that was given to crying babies, stressed out mothers, and anyone suffering from chronic pain. It formed the basis of many homemade elixirs that “snake-oil salesmen” and their ilk foisted upon the public to cure any ill one could think of. These elixirs, and laudanum itself, had a good chance of addicting their customers—ensuring future sales and foreshadowing the OxyContin addiction crisis of the 21st century.
The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 made cocaine and opium available by prescription only. This was followed by the ban on alcohol with the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, which brought about the gangsters, murders, bribery, speakeasies, and bathtub gin of Prohibition.
Of all drugs, alcohol was the one that most consumed (and, incidentally, most consumed by) cartoonists. Starting in the 18th century with William Hogarth’s “Gin Alley” and through the early 20th century, many political cartoonists were in support of the temperance movement. Though a number of cartoonists were against Prohibition because of its ill effects on society, they nonetheless continuously warned readers about the evils of imbibing alcohol in excess, a practice that continued well after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, their own alcohol consumption aside.
Winsor McCay, “Death the Modern Bartender,” Chicago Herald-Examiner (July 24, 1927)
Emil Flohri, “Extinct,” Judge (March 1, 1919)
Louis Dalrymple, “The Age of Drugs,” Puck (October 10, 1900)
Text by and images procured with the assistance of Warren Bernard for our DRUGS issue.
Featured in Lists: From the Drugs Issue