Use of Laudanum in Victorian Medicine.   “Receipts”, or Recipes as we now describe them, were medicines to be made up by the household including Laudenum. Laudanum was a wildly popular drug during the Victorian era. It was an opium-based painkiller prescribed for everything from headaches to tuberculosis. Victorian nursemaids even spoon fed the drug to infants.

Laudanum Tincture of Opium.

Preparation instructions from Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, 1653: Take of Thebane Opium extracted in spirit of Wine, one ounce, Saffron alike extracted, a dram and an half, Castorium one dram: let them be taken in tincture of half an ounce of species Diambræ newly made in spirit of Wine, add to them Ambergris, Musk, of each six grains, oil of Nutmegs ten drops, evaporate the moisture away in a bath, and leave the mass.

In the adult gr. 1/6 of Morphine, or gr. iv of Opium has proved fatal.

The chief indications for the use of Opium are (1) to relieve pain ; (2) to produce sleep ; (3) to allay irritation; (4) to check excessive secretions ; (5) to support the system; (6) as a sudorific. It is badly borne usually by women and children, and in some persons great nausea and depression follow its use, which may usually be averted by the conjoined administration of Potassium Bromide, Hydrobromic Acid, or Spirit of Ether, with each dose of the opiate used.

To Prepare

Take a basketful of withered poppies. Pick out the poppy heads one by one, piercing the capsules with a sewing needle and then drop them into a small glazed crock and set it near the stove for the opium to sweat out. Afterwards, the extract would be mixed with sugar and/or alcohol to make it easier to drink.

Strengthening Medicine
Two and a half drachmas of Camomile flowers
half a drachma of bitter orange peel
half a drachma of root ginger
15 grains of root rhubarb
2 scruples of carbonated soda.
Pour a quart of boiling water on these ingredients.
Let it stand till cold,
strain it and put into a bottle for use.
A good sized wine glass full to be taken one hour
before breakfast and one hour before dinner.

For rheumatism
One spoonful of gum-guacum mixed with two teaspoonfuls of milk,
add six drops of laudanum, and take it three times a Day.
This is the quantity for one taking.

For a cough
Two tablespoonfuls of vinegar,
Two tablespoonfuls of Treacle
60 drops of Laudanum.
take a teaspoonful of this mixture night and morning.

A Rub for Rheumatism and other pains
2 ounces of laudanum.
2 drachms oil of sassafras.
2 drachms oil of cedar.
2 drachms spirits of turpentine.
2 drachms of gum camphor.
2 drachms tincture of capsicum.
1 pint of alcohol.

Poultices of bread and milk, flaxseed, slippery elm, or any other kind, may be worn with more comfort, and removed with more ease,if the surface is spread over, before applying, with a little perfectly fresh lard or sweet oil. If there is much pain, a few drops of laudanum may be mixed with the poultice. Spread always on soft old cloths.


In 1520, Paracelsus of Switzerland, promoted a mixture of opium, wine and various spices as a curative for anything. He called it laudanum. Laudanum remained popular and acceptable in Europe some 400 years. Laudanum was cheaper than gin or beer and was generally praised as a mood elevator.

In 19th century Britain it was the drug indicated in the treatment for any pain from infant teething to rheumatism, as well as for sleeplessness, diarrhoea, coughs and colds, and depression. It was largely self prescribed, since medical care for the mass of people was still mostly a matter of traditional remedies, and it was as popular as aspirin is now. Every home had its bottle of laudanum — opium dissolved in alcohol –, and in areas where living and working conditions were their worst, shop counters on Saturday market day would be laden with two or three thousand vials to meet the demand for the week.

Side Effects of Laudanum

Cold, clammy skin; confusion; convulsions (seizures); dizziness (severe); drowsiness (severe); low blood pressure; nervousness or restlessness (severe); pinpoint pupils of eyes; slow heartbeat; slow or irregular breathing; weakness (severe). bloating; constipation; loss of appetite; nausea or vomiting; stomach cramps or pain, rarely – Fast heartbeat; increased sweating; mental depression; redness or flushing of face; shortness of breath, wheezing, or troubled breathing; skin rash, hives, or itching; slow heartbeat – all of which require medical intervention and care …

…also difficult or painful urination; dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling faint; drowsiness; frequent urge to urinate; nervousness or restlessness; unusual decrease in amount of urine; unusual tiredness or weakness

After stopping use of laudanum, the body aches; diarrhea; fever, runny nose, or sneezing; gooseflesh; increased sweating; increased yawning; loss of appetite; nausea or vomiting; nervousness, restlessness, or irritability; shivering or trembling; stomach cramps; trouble in sleeping; unusually large pupils of eyes; weakness (severe).

Laudanum was a wildly popular drug during the Victorian era. It was an opium-based painkiller prescribed for everything from headaches to tuberculosis. Victorian nursemaids even spoon fed the drug to infants, often leading to the untimely deaths of their charges. Originally, Laudanum was thought of as a drug of the working class. As it was cheaper than gin it was not uncommon for blue-collar men and woman to binge on laudanum after a hard week’s work. Use of the drug spread rapidly. Doctors of the time prescribed it for almost every aliment. Many upper-class women developed habits.

One thought on “Laudanum

  1. It’s very similar to this modern age with opium based pain killers . Over-prescribed . Much more research and a pronounced need should be established , and proven chronic pain patients shouldn’t be harassed and harangued about this .

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