5 Freaky Drugs We Used to Give Children

In your grandparents' day, a crack baby was just called a "baby." Okay, that's being a bit extreme, but the crazy drugs we used to shovel into children make our Ritalin-riddled era seem tame.

Cracked Magazine, which has gone from being a second-rate little brother to Mad to one of the best receptacles for online listicles, has a piece on wildly inappropriate ads from previous eras. Among ads with kids holding guns, there are "medicines" made of some hardcore mind-altering substances that are illegal. Wondering what drugs were readily available for parents to party with their toddlers? These drugs were not just given to but marketed for children:

  • Cocaine: Yes, we all know Freud did more than all of Studio 54's visitors combined, and it used to be in Coca-Cola, but it was once specifically marketed to children for toothaches. (See ad above.) Parents were told it would not only ease their wee ones' pain, but put them in a better mood.

  • Heroin: In what I count as one of the greatest facts I've ever learned, Heroin was once a brand name, patented by Bayer, the aspirin folks. How's that for successful marketing? Like Coke, Jell-o, Kleenex, and Weed Wacker, it became a general name for the product itself, in this case opium. And if you were a mother with a teething child in 1887, you could get said opium in the form of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup. The University of Buffalo says it was an "indispensable aid to mothers and child care workers" and it "effectively quieted restless infants and small children." I'll bet.
  • Pot: Not nearly as dangerous as the others, it's still shocking to hear the Ohio State Medical Society declare, in 1860, that cannabis successfully treated "palsy," "whooping cough," and "infantile convulsions."
  • Speed: This is the least surprising of the bunch, since it remains the basis for many of the ADHD drugs widely used on kids today, but it's still incredible to think of the amounts of Benzedrine given to kids with asthma or behavioral disorders before we learned how it could stunt growth and make for a host of other problems.

  • Thalidomide: It's still frightening to think how widely used this stuff was before it was pulled from the market in 1961 for causing terrible birth defects (they've identified the element that caused them and it's still used in some countries). Its uses included the children's sedative Distaval, which bragged about its safety in ads.

Of course it's easy to engage in what E.P. Thompson called the "enormous condescension of posterity." In other words it's easy to mock from a distance. Back in the day, I would've given my little fussy midnight nightmare some Mrs. Winslow's, and probably saved a few drops for daddy.

But when you lived in a world where countless babies died in childbirth and so many children were lost to disease that every flu season was like a world war, the idea of getting your toddler high so she can have few minutes of peace doesn't seem so twisted. Besides it's hard to know what we'll doing now that future generations will shake their heads at. (Woman in 2035: "Do you know they used to give Tylenol to children? Damn.")


Images via the University of Buffalo's Addiction Research Unit

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