Thursday, September 16, 2010

Food and Drug Politics 1908

An ad for Lydia Pinkham's vegetable tonic, which sold in the bazillions of bottles in the Victorian era and which contained alcohol.

Yesterday, I decided to check out the archives of the New York Times to see what articles on Montreal they ran between 1908-09 and I came up with some terrific ones - and I'll write about some of them in later blogs.

While I was there I thought I'd check if there are any era articles on soda fountains (as I found none in the Montreal Gazette archives) and guess what? There are plenty.

As I am writing my book, Flo in the City, about a girl coming of age in the 1908-13 era, based on the letters of, I am writing an awful lot about fashion - and the place where fashion and politics intersects and drawing parallels with today.

That'a a natural, the Nicholson letters are full of talk of fashion. And the girls left behind some newspaper clippings that reveal they understood that clothing was a political issue.

But there's another area that I want to explore more for the book: the area where health, food, pharmaceuticals, patent medecines and the drug and alcohol evils intersect, because it was such an issue 100 years ago and, gee, it's such an issue today in 2010. It's a political issue, it's a health issue. It's a class issue.

And in my first chapter, where I send Flo and Mae to Sutherland's drug store for a soda, is where my opening lies.

The soda fountain is so emblematic of the era in my mind, I had to send the girls there. (Later, I noticed from the Nicholson account books that in 1899, I think, Norman Nicholson spends 5 cents at Sutherland's for a soda.)

Anyway, I have written before about the Nicholson women's obsession with their health and their fear of colds and LA Grippe. They took a lot of medicines for colds and coughs and no doubt many of these contained hard drugs, many active ingredients, as well as many placebos. But the story is complicated, I notice, just from reading the articles in era newspapers.

A few years ago I went to Brockville Ontario, to participate in a Canadian Antiques Roadshow Rehearsal or practice session.

The session took place in a very grand home on the water. Brockville, a little town in between Montreal and Kingston has many such homes. Seemed weird to me.

Someone explained to me that these homes belonged to 'the patent medicine men' who couldn't sell their snake oil in the States legally, so they sold it from across the Lake, so to speak.

In 1908, in the US, a Pure Food Law was passed and a man, H W Wiley, a chemist with a strong puritanical bent, promoting some common sense and some iffy science, was given wide powers to pursue the purveyors of impurities in food and drink and especially in so called medicines.

According to two era articles in the NYT, he denounced a popular soda product for containing cocaine. (In fact, he went after Coca Cola for the caffeine content, because any cocaine had been removed from their product early in the century.)

But it's the patent medicine people he wanted most.

Now, by 1908, cocaine was illegal and a person couldn't get it at the local pharmacy anymore unless the pharmacy was crooked. But they could still get in in some medicines.

I found one long article on the evil of cocaine, well-written and seemingly balanced, with many 'experts' providing insight, that framed the 'drug issue' in paradigms still used today. The drug problem it is stated is really a lower class problem (and in the South a Negro problem, with "Jew peddlars' selling the stuff to them), so the article says. A doctor claims that no upper class person has ever come to him with a cocaine problem, except doctors and nurses.

The term 'drug fiend' is often used, although this article describes the decline of the cocaine addict in much the same terms as the decline of the alcoholic.

And the paragraph that describes the effect of cocaine is practially an advertisement for the stuff. Shorthand: "It makes you feel real really really happy." In a recent blog I wrote about the ad for Coca Cola saying "the bubbles suggest happiness," well, the original recipe provided happiness, it seems.

Hmm, no wonder grandma was always grinning.

What am I trying to say: Well, that the articles describe the issue as a class issue, even if the reporter doesn't want to.

When the stuff was legal, everyone took it, young and old, says the article, the young for recreation, the old for their aches and pains. (Maybe even temperate, solid citizens like the Nicholsons, at Sutherland's, took it for a Sunday treat.) Now that the drug is illegal, the article says, the slimy underside of society is into it and drug fiends are everywhere. (Alcoholics, even then, in the time of of the Temperance Movement, were never described as 'fiends' or 'devils' probably because everyone knew an alcoholic. Everyone knew a fine upstanding citizen, who couldn't stand after a few drinks. Seems to me like an argument for legalization.

Anyway, Wiley hated alcohol as much as cocaine. Well, he hated coffee too. He also hated any preservatives and colorants in food.

He tried to get whisky outlawed for the preservatives and colorants, but lost out to that powerful lobby.

The man is also interviewed for dietetic advice. He has a lot of opinions. He believes meat is an important part of the diet (God intended us to eat animals, its seems) but he admits that it is important to eat meat to support the beef and cattle and pork industries. So he wanted to support established industries, but not emerging ones.

Food and drink: It's all about power, isn't it? Power, control, money. The FDA in the US has been given a lot of power by Obama, my brother in law tells me, to oversee the natural food industry. Hmm. La Plus ca Change.

Ps. One doctor is quoted as saying that cocaine is useful as a 'therapeutic for melancholia'. Hmm. I had never heard that term. Well, duh, that's why people were taking it! And now, 100 years later, Prozac and other drugs are handed out by doctors like candy and every second school boy is on Ritalin, and drugs for erectile dysfunction are pitched at middle aged men (and women) as aphrodisiacs - and Niagara is one huge vinyard because the wine industry is a global juggernaut (and wines are stronger than ever) not that I am complaining. And that's all OK, but Harper is building prisons, in a time of declining crime rates, to fill with..could it be? ... users of marijuana, a la US. (Just like in 1910, there's are too many unemployable young men so you got to put them somewhere or start a war)