Painkillers of the 1800s

“Give me somethin’ for the pain, Doc…” How many times have you heard this in a Western movie?

If you were to rate the knowledge about painkillers in the 1800s in North America, which one would you say:

  1. Doctors knew very little. Most of the time, they just gave whisky.
  2. They knew enough to help some people. Mostly with unknown herbs.
  3. They used the major painkiller that is still the major painkiller we use in hospitals today.

The answer is the last one. XXX3XXX.

MORPHINE. Morphine was discovered in 1803. It was named after Morpheus, the Greek God of Dreams. At first it was given orally, but when hypodermic needles were invented (1853) morphine was injected. It worked faster. It became popular for treating injured soldiers during the 1860s Civil War. Morphine was also used during childbirth, to suppress coughing, even to relieve diarrhea and dysentery. Side effects can include drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and constipation (that’s why it was effective with dysentery). Morphine is still the most prescribed major painkiller in the world. It has ten times the potency of Demerol (a synthetic painkiller invented 1930s). In hospitals today, morphine is often the medication prescribed for severe pain. There are other medicines, even more powerful, that have been developed in recent times, but their use is not as common.

NARCOTICS. Opiate is the broad term that covers any drug made from opium (the poppy plant). These drugs are also called narcotics. Morphine falls into this group. So does Codeine (not discovered till 1930s). Extracts from poppy plants have been used for medicinal purposes since 4,000 B.C.

OPIUM DENS. These sprang up across America during the last half of the 19th century. They began with the arrival of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco shortly after 1850, who imported opium. Customers smoked it through special pipes and lamps and got high. Laws banning drug use started in the late 1870s, but weren’t enforced until the early 1900s, when doctors realized these things were addictive and detrimental.

HEROIN. Did you know if you boiled morphine, you’d get heroin? They discovered that in the late 1870s. Heroin is several times more potent than morphine. When heroin was discovered, it was briefly used in hospitals for pain medication, but is no longer used in hospitals because it crosses the blood-brain barrier and is highly addictive.

CANNABIS. Hemp, or medicinal cannabis (also called marijuana) has been used for centuries. An Irish doctor, an herb specialist at a medical college in Calcutta 1830, is credited with training his Western colleagues in the benefits for relief of muscle spasm and pain. It was also used to treat migraines and insomnia, and as a primary pain reliever until the invention of aspirin. It became controversial in 1937 when the U.S. banned it.

ASPIRIN. (Acetylsalicylic acid or ASA) Aspirin ingredients originally came from extracts of willow bark. Indian tribes knew its value, and chewed on pieces of bark for pain relief. Even Hippocrates in 400 BC recommended it to his patients. Scientists began to study willow bark in the 1850s to see if they could isolate the analgesic ingredient. Voila…1899, aspirin.

COCAINE. Derived from the coca plant in South America. Indigenous people chewed on the leaves to give them ‘strength and energy.’ Medicine men used it to wrap broken bones, reduce swelling, and treat festering wounds. The plant didn’t grow in Europe and spoiled easily during travel, so it wasn’t until 1855 in Germany that the main ingredients were isolated. By 1885, cocaine was sold in corner stores in America in various forms – cigarettes, powder, even injection by needle (heroin was also widely available). In medicine, cocaine was commonly used as a local anaesthetic. Sigmund Freud prescribed it for his patients to induce euphoria for those depressed. It wasn’t until many years later they discovered its addictive nature.

LAUDANUM. Laudanum, or tincture of opium, was a very common painkiller because it was cheap and available to working class people. It came as a liquid, the main ingredients being morphine mixed with alcohol. There were different versions, with different ratios of opium (morphine). It was widely prescribed for many uses such as colds, pain relief, insomnia and heart ailments. Many writers and poets of the time were known to use it—Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

WHISKY. Alcohol is a depressant on the central nervous system and a mood modifier. It was used not as an analgesic in itself, but because it made the person groggy and intoxicated, so he or she wouldn’t notice the pain as much. As a local anaesthetic (numbing agent) they used it for toothaches (ex. packing the hole in the gums left by a tooth extraction with gauze soaked in cognac). Doctors today do not recommend alcohol as a painkiller.

HOME REMEDIES FOR PAIN RELIEF. These included warm or cold compresses, poultices wrapped on the aching part of the body, herbal remedies (such as chamomile tea for stomach aches), liniments for muscle aches, electrical stimulation with batteries (Benjamin Franklin experimented with this in the 1750s, although the ancient Greeks discovered that using electrical eels in foot baths relieved pain), and untold others.

If you’re a writer, things to watch for in your story:

Because we’re modern readers aware of harmful drugs, if the doctor in your novel pulled out a vial of cocaine, or cannabis etc., some explaining would be necessary for how this fit into society. Otherwise the reader may get confused. You might not want to mention these addictive painkillers, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish in the scene. Sticking with morphine tablet or injection, laudanum, extract of willow bark, home remedies and yes, a good ol’ bottle of whisky would be just as accurate. If you’re unsure of a doctor’s drug choice, you might give the point of view to a person in the scene who doesn’t know anything about medicine.

A lot depends on where the story is taking place. City doctors had more access to drugs. Supplies (as well as medical texts) would have been limited on the open range. Fictional doctors may be written as smart or as helpless as needed for the story. If there was no doctor around, who might a character go to for advice? Maybe…a ranch hand who works with animals, midwife, ship’s captain, or someone who’s fought fires.

Are you surprised how many drugs they had available in the 1800s? I can’t believe how many narcotics they sold in corner stores. These days, doctors and scientists are continually working on adding new pain medicines to the list.


  1. Mercedes says:

    Hi, I’m in 4th grade doing a Gold Rush newspaper article. I’m also building a boomtown building for my article. I’m the Doctor of the town so I’m doing a ad in the paper for my building. This really helped me beacause I had no idea what the would use for pain.So Thanks!


  2. Pingback: The History of Addiction in America: An Opioid Epidemic Over Centuries

  3. Justin C. says:

    This is great. For a class I am in, I have to do something creative dealing with the 1800’s. We were given old newspaper articles, old diaries, and scrapbooks to look through to get ideas. For my project, I am going to create my own fictional characters and journal entries. Their entries will be about drugs they used back then. This helps a lot! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Don A Clarke says:

    Thank you, your article was very informative and interesting. Back in 1964 I was eight years old and while investigating the dilapidated ruins of an old mountain cabin, I found an old empty bottle with the word “Capudine” on it. (No other writing or markings) I knew it was an old bottle, because it was a cork-top. (Although the cork was missing.) I tried for years to find out “Capudine” was with no success. However, a few months ago I found it on the Internet. I was a pain preparation. Manufactured ca 1930, according to the website. However, the bottles shown on the website show screw caps and since mine was a cork-top, I’ve wondered if it wasnt pre-1900 and therefore, also a pain medication of the 1800s? Would you be able to shed any light on this? Thanks. Below is the website link to the Capudine info I found.


    • Kate Bridges says:

      Hi Don,

      Glad you liked my article. In my research of the 1800s, I’ve never come across Capudine, so I tend to believe it was developed after 1900. I see by the ingredients that it was a combination of pain relievers and a sedative. You made an interesting find.


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