Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Guest Author - Charlene Raddon


Food in the nineteenth century wasn’t as wholesome as man of us think. Contamination was rife, even among foods prepared at home, on the farm or ranch. Few understood about germs, bacteria and E. coli. Even then, food was tainted by foreign substances, chemicals, even fesses. By the 1840s, home-baked bread had died out among the rural poor and those living in small urban tenements, which were not equipped with ovens.

In 1872 Dr. Hassall, the main health reformer and a pioneer investigator into food adulteration, demonstrated that half of the bread he examined had considerable quantities of alum. While not poisonous itself, Alum could lower the nutritional value of foods by inhibiting the digestion. The list of poisonous additives from that time reads like the stock list of a wicked chemist:  strychnine, cocculus inculus (both hallucinogens), and copperas in rum and beer; sulphate of copper in pickles, bottled fruit, wine, and preserves; lead chromate in mustard and snuff; sulphate of iron in tea and beer; ferric ferrocynanide, lime sulphate, and turmeric in Chinese tea; copper carbonate, lead sulphate, bisulphate of mercury, and Venetian lead in sugar confectionery and chocolate; lead in wine and cider; all were extensively used and were accumulative in effect, resulting, over a long period, in chronic gastritis, and, indeed, often fatal food poisoning.

Dairies watered down their milk then added chalk to put back the color. Butter, bread and gin often had copper added to heighten the color. In London, where ice cream was called “hokey-pockey,” tested examples proved to contain cocci, bacilli, torulae, cotton fiber, lice, bed bugs, bug's legs, fleas, straw, human hair, cat and dog hair. Such befouled ice cream caused diphtheria, scarlet fever, diarrhea, and enteric fever. Meat purchased from butchers often came from diseased animals.

One of the major causes of infant mortality was the widespread practice of giving children narcotics, especially opium, to keep them quiet. Laudanum was cheap—about the price of a pint of beer—and its sale was totally unregulated until late in the century. In fact, the use of opium was widespread both in town and country. In Manchester, England, it was reported that five out of six working-class families used opium habitually. One druggist admitted to selling a half gallon of a very popular cordial, which contained opium, treacle, water, and spices, as well as five to six gallons of what was euphemistically called "quietness" every week. Another druggist admitted to selling four hundred gallons of laudanum annually. At mid-century at least ten proprietary brands, with Godfrey's Cordial, Steedman's Powder, and the grandly named Atkinson's Royal Infants Preservative among the most popular, were available in pharmacies everywhere. Opium in pills and penny sticks was widely sold and opium-taking in some areas was described as a way of life. Doctors reported that infants were wasted from it—'shrunk up into little old men,' 'wizened like little monkeys'.

Kept in a drugged state much of the time, infants generally refused to eat and therefore starved.  Rather than record a baby’s death as being from severe malnutrition, coroners often listed 'debility from birth,' or 'lack of breast milk,' as the cause. Addicts were diagnosed as having "alcoholic inebriety," "morphine inebriety," along with an endless list of manias: "opiomania," "morphinomania," "chloralomania," "etheromania," "chlorodynomania," and even "chloroformomania"; and - isms such as "cocainism" and "morphinism." It wasn’t until WWI that the term “addiction” came into favor.
Opium was at first believed to be a medical miracle and became the essential ingredient in innumerable remedies dispensed in Europe and America for the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, asthma, rheumatism, diabetes, malaria, cholera, fevers, bronchitis, insomnia, and pains of any sort. One must remember that at this time the physician's cabinet was almost bare of alternative drugs, and a doctor could hardly practice medicine without it. A great many respectable people imbibed narcotics and alcohol in the form of patent medicines and even soft drinks. The reason Coca Cola got its name is because it originally contained a minute amount of cocaine, thought to be a healthy stimulant, and a shocking number of “teetotaling” women relied on daily doses of tonics that, unknown to them, contained as much alcohol as whiskey or gin. Of course it was no secret that men imbibed alcohol at alarming rates and alcoholism was rampant. The result was a happy but less than healthy population.
So, is it any wonder the nineteenth century became known as “the good old days”?

Charlene Raddon is the award-winning author of five historical romance novels set in the American West. Three of these are now available as e-books. Her latest, To Have And To Hold touches on the subject of alcoholism. Her paperbacks can be found through used book stores. Her e-books are available at Amazon, B&N, Smashwords and other e-book stores. To Have and to Hold can be purchased here: 


  1. What a great article. Who would have thought that the food back then was so contaminated with bad things. The common thought is, they raised their own gardens and beef it should have been all natural. I guess nothing much has changed except different chemicals added to our food along with other unknown things nowadays. Thanks for the info.

  2. As I understand it, Shirl, it was mostly in the cities that it was so bad, but even on the farms and ranches, people weren't as knowledgeable or as concerned about germs and contamination.

  3. Peggy, thanks so much for having me. I hope your readers enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the research and writing of it.

  4. This i a real eye-opener for me. Like Shirl, I assumed everything to be natural, pure and all around healthier.
    The use of opiates completely blew me away! As a side note (something you may well recall, too) pediatricians, even as late as 1981, were still recommending paregoric for teething? And as my oldest son's dr told me, "A few drops in his bottle won't hurt anything." I never but it in his bottle, but I did rub it on his gums. My grandmother used it on my mom who used it on me and my sister.
    Great article, Charlene!

    1. You're right, Carley, paregoric is an old cure for teething and not the best for the poor babes. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. This is just one thing I love about you, Char, your knowledge of pastimes. Your articles are always so interesting.

    The only thing I'd add is that turmeric is not a drug or chemical additive. It's actually an important spice in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking and, as it turns out, has essential nutrients we can all use more of in our diets. It's been linked in recent years as a possible preventative for such diseases as cancer, Alzheimer's Disease, arthritis and diabetes.

    It's also used as a fabric dye, particularly in Buddhist communities. It's also used like annatto to dye foods, such as butter and cheese, commercial chicken broth and stock cubes, mustard and salad dressings, etc.

    It's also used in hair removal!

    Great spice! The hubs uses it liberally in his famous chicken curry ;-)

    1. Sounds like you have your share of knowledge as well, Kemberlee. I didn't know that about tumeric. Thanks for the input.

  6. Nice! I love this little titbits.

  7. Oh, if I ever write an old tyme mystery, I'll be coming here for ways to kill someone that wouldn't be noticed. hehehehehe Great article, Charlene! I may have to bookmark this for further reference for our novels. Great resource for me. Thanks!

  8. Thanks, Lynette. You'd fit right in with my critique group. After our meeting we go to lunch and have caught more than one curious or alarmed stare while discussing ways to kill people.