Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Laudanum

Jacob Wandel writes:
A typical label (early 20C)
Laudanum in the nineteenth century was the rough equivalent of the skunk marijuana smoked by so many people in the present day, but more dangerous. 

A recent article in the cooking supplement of last Saturday's Guardian (7 March) by Henry Jeffreys was about laudanum, not as an ingredient for your next pudding, I must add. 

Under a line which refers to the famous quotation by Karl Marx - 'In Britain, the opium of the people was not religion, it was simply laudanum', he gives evidence of what many Brontë Society members will probably know already: that the red-brown liquid, powdered opium (ten percent) dissolved in alcohol, its extreme bitterness offset by various spices and additives, could be purchased in most pharmacies during the nineteenth century, and that its use was widespread. Jeffreys makes it clear that it was everywhere. Branwell was just one of countless others who used it frequently.

Apparently, according to the article, it was not mainly in the big industrial slums where it was used. The Morning Chronicle in 1850 referred to the 'opium-eating city of Ely' and Thomas De Quincy (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater) described Lancashire towns 'loaded with little laudanum-vials, even to the hundreds, for the accommodation of customers retiring from the workshops on Saturday night". Gee's Linctus, a cough medicine which was available well into the twentieth century (older members may remember it) was made with opium, and that great household manager Isabella Beeton featured recipes for various remedies made with opium, in her famous book. Mary Shelley's character, Victor Frankenstein, used it to help him sleep.

I am now wondering how many others in nineteenth century Haworth would have bought laudanum to ease their pains, help them forget their woes or to finish themselves off.  Is there a scholar who has done the counting?

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