“There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.”
Throughout the 19th century, opium was one of the most widely used drugs, both medicinally and recreationally.
Pharmacies of the time offered opium and other narcotic drugs, usually mixed with alcohol, herbs, and other ingredients (in some cases even arsenic). The most popular preparation was laudanum, an alcoholic herbal mixture containing 10% opium. Called the ‘aspirin of the nineteenth century,’ laudanum was a popular painkiller and relaxant, recommended for all sorts of ailments including coughs, rheumatism, ‘women’s troubles’ and also, perhaps most disturbingly, as a soporific for babies and young children.
On the recreational side, establishments known as opium dens popped up across Europe and the U.S., catering to rich and poor alike (depending on which establishment you went to, that is).
Literature of the 19th century is fraught with horrific depictions of ghastly opium smokers strewn about the floors of the dens, too inebriated to remain upright. While in the latter part of the century opium dens would become synonymous with criminal activity, there are surprisingly few accounts of violence being a widespread issue in such establishments. This is likely due to the highly sedative effects of the drug.