This article stems from research done for the historical novels Beyond the Cliffs of Kerry and The Sword of the Banshee by Amanda Hughes
Two of the most addictive, mood altering substances used in the early days of America were absinthe and laudanum. Although not widely used today, they are still being manufactured on a limited basis.
Absinthe, commonly called The Green Fairy, is an anise-flavored spirit, high in alcoholic content. The brilliant green color comes from the chlorophyll content when the herbs are used in distilling the beverage. Although many herbs are used in making absinthe, wormwood is the ingredient which received the most attention. Used for centuries to eliminate tapeworm in humans, wormwood also had the side effect of a mood altering drug. It is present in absinthe in only small amounts, the predominate substance being alcohol.
Absinthe was usually served with water and sugar. The absinthe was placed in a glass and water was drizzled over a sugar cube to help eliminate the bitterness. Absinthe became wildly popular especially in France and New Orleans where the Old Absinthe Bar is still in existence today and still serving a form of absinthe.
A host of paraphernalia surrounds absinthe including, absinthe fountains, glassware and special “absinthe spoons” for drizzling sugar into the drink. The elixir was widely used by the literary giants of the 19th Century but by the end of the beginning of the 20th Century its use would be frowned upon. It was thought, at the time, that absinthe caused madness and suicide and was outlawed until late in the century.
Laudanum, a combination of opium and alcohol was used as far back as ancient Greece and has been used as a potent pain killer and mood altering drug over the centuries. It was used for a variety of ailments such as tuberculosis, menstrual cramps, cancer and was even spoon fed to babies.
It was not always used for medicinal purposes though; fashion conscious women in the Victorian Era used laudanum to achieve the highly desirable pallid complexion of tuberculosis.
Initially laudanum was a lower class drug. It was less expensive than alcohol because it was not taxed. Later it became extremely popular in the Victorian era among all social classes because of its highly addictive properties and its accessibility.
Like absinthe, laudanum fell out of favor with the dawning of the 20th Century and although it is still in use today it has been classified a controlled substance.