Joe McKendry

By the time of the American Civil War, in the 1860s, morphine was a battlefield staple, shot into soldiers to ease the pain of wounds and to treat the dysentery and malaria that raged through military camps. Home gardens in both the North and the South were ablaze with poppies as citizens patriotically grew opium for their troops; the raw drug was then processed into morphine and rushed to the front. Millions of doses were given. Thousands of veterans with lifelong wounds were taught how to use syringes to self-administer the drug long after the war ended; morphine and syringes were sold by mail order and over the counter at drugstores.

As morphine’s medical uses increased—for surgery, for accidents, for pretty much any disease or injury—so did the number of patients dependent on the drug. Scientists called this new epidemic “morphinism” and tried with increasing concern to find ways to control it. Enter the German company Bayer and its new drug, Heroin. Bayer’s tests showed that Heroin was up to five times stronger than morphine and far less habit-forming. It also seemed to have the unusual ability to open up airways in the body, so the company started selling it, at home and overseas, to treat coughs and breathing disorders as well as morphine addiction. For $1.50, Americans around the turn of the century could place an order through a Sears, Roebuck catalog and receive a syringe, two needles, and two vials of Bayer Heroin, all in a handsome carrying case.

Adapted from Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine, by Thomas Hager, published by Abrams


This article appears in the March 2019 print edition with the headline “When the Sears Catalog Sold Heroin.”

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