19th Century

Victorian Cough Syrup

Have a drink of: homemade 19th century cold medicine
Ask your doctor if it’s right for you!

Side effects may include: vomiting, euphoria, dysphoria, poetry, death.

Getting the sniffles now that winter is upon us?  For a fun holiday project, make like it’s the Victorian era and mix up some DIY cough syrup, as directed by the January 1842 issue of the New-York Visitor and Lady’s Album (basically: antebellum Cosmo, with more engravings and fewer sex tips):


Three pops of this each day, and your cough will be gone in no time!  Withdrawal symptoms may take a while.

Fun Facts: 

Laudanum – a solution of opium dissolved in alcohol – was not only largely unregulated in the 19th century, it was freely available from grocers, pubs or general stores, and recommended without fear, for any number of maladies (or recreational non-maladies). People with colds or other minor illnesses took it, mothers gave laudanum to calm children, and story goes that Samuel Taylor Coleridge spat out Kubla Khan in one go after taking a dose of opiates for dysentery.  Whee!

The 1868 Pharmacy Act in England restricted the sale of opiates in that country after a rise in accidental poisonings, though it did not necessarily reduce laudanum use dramatically since people could still procure it by prescription from a pharmacist or purchase “patent medicines” using the stuff.

As unreservedly crazy as it sounds to modern ears, the medicine’s not totally out of left field: honey and vinegar have antimicrobial properties, ipecac in small doses is a legitimate expectorant, and even though it’s going after a fly with a machine gun, the combination of high-dose opiates and alcohol would certainly make you forget your aches and pains.

I can’t see the word “ipecac” without remembering Dave Barry’s line about it essentially being “Jagermeister Jr.”

Additional Reading: 

Clip above from The New-York Visitor and Lady’s Album, January 1842

Virginia Berridge, Opium Over the Counter in Nineteenth Century England, Pharmacy in History (v.20, no.3, 1978)

Poetry, Pain & Opium in Victorian England @ Wonders and Marvels