Charlene Raddon: Were Those Really the Good Old Days?

We’re so happy to have Miss Charlene Raddon back visiting with us. She’s brought an interesting subject to talk about in addition to a giveaway at the bottom. Take us away, Charlene.

Thank you for having me. I’m so happy to be back. My image of a typical 19th-century family sitting down to supper used to include a table laden with healthy, wholesome, homemade foods. To a shocking degree, the truth is the opposite. Contamination was rife, even among foods prepared at home, on the farm or ranch. Few people understood germs, bacteria and E. coli. Foreign substances and chemicals tainted foods. By the 1840s, home-baked bread had supposedly died out among the rural poor. I find this hard to believe. But it is true that people living in small urban tenements, typically unequipped with ovens, bought their bread when they could afford it.

In 1872, Dr. Hassall, the primary health reformer and a pioneer investigator into food adulteration, demonstrated that half of the bread he examined had considerable quantities of alum. Alum lowers the nutritional value of foods by inhibiting the digestion. The list of poisonous additives from that time reads like the stock list of a wicked chemist: strychnine, cocculus inculus (both hallucinogens), and copperas in rum and beer; sulphate of copper in pickles, bottled fruit, wine, and preserves; lead chromate in mustard and snuff; sulphate of iron in tea and beer; ferric ferrocynanide, lime sulphate, and turmeric in Chinese tea; copper carbonate, lead sulphate, bisulphate of mercury, and Venetian lead in sugar confectionery and chocolate; lead in wine and cider. All were extensively used and accumulative in effect, meaning that, over a long period, in chronic gastritis, and, indeed, often fatal food poisoning.


Dairies watered down their milk then added chalk to put back the color. Butter, bread, and gin often had copper added to heighten the color. In London, where ice cream was called “hokey-pockey,” tested examples proved to contain cocci, bacilli, torulae, cotton fiber, lice, bed bugs, bug’s legs, fleas, straw, human hair, cat and dog hair. Such befouled ice cream caused diphtheria, scarlet fever, diarrhea, and enteric fever. Meat purchased from butchers often came from diseased animals.

A significant cause of infant mortality was the widespread practice of giving children narcotics, especially opium, to keep them quiet. Laudanum was cheap—about the price of a pint of beer—and its sale was unregulated until late in the century. The use of opium was widespread both in town and country. In Manchester, England, five out of six working-class families used the drug habitually. One druggist admitted to selling a half-gallon of a very popular cordial, which contained opium, treacle, water, and spices, as well as five to six gallons of a substance euphemistically called “quietness” every week. Another druggist admitted to selling four hundred gallons of laudanum annually. At mid-century at least ten proprietary brands, with Godfrey’s Cordial, Steedman’s Powder, and the grandly named Atkinson’s Royal Infants Preservative among the most popular, were available in pharmacies everywhere. Opium in pills and penny sticks was widely sold and opium-taking in some areas was described as a way of life. Doctors reported that infants were wasted from it—’shrunk up into little old men,’ ‘wizened like little monkeys’. The nashville addiction center can help the ones that are addicted to substance just to function everyday.

And what was the fate of those wizened little monkeys? Chances are the worst of them grew up in a “sanitorium” or an asylum for the mad. After all, we can’t have rich Aunt Matilda or the preacher’s wife seeing such a child. Or the child might be put in the attic to be raised by Grandma, who’s not quite right in the head.

Kept in a drugged state much of the time, infants generally refused to eat and therefore starved.  Rather than record a baby’s death as being from severe malnutrition, coroners often listed ‘debility from birth,’ or ‘lack of breast milk,’ as the cause. Addicts were diagnosed as having alcoholic inebriety, morphine inebriety, along with an endless list of man dypsomania, opiomania, morphinomania, chloralomania, etheromania, chlorodynomania, and even chloroformomania; and – isms such as cocainism and morphinism. It wasn’t until WWI that the term “addiction” came into favor.

In the beginning, opium was considered a medical miracle used as the essential ingredient in many remedies dispensed in Europe and America for the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, asthma, rheumatism, diabetes, malaria, cholera, fevers, bronchitis, insomnia, and pains of any sort.

One must remember that at this time, the physician’s cabinet was almost bare of alternative drugs, and a doctor could hardly practice medicine without it. A great many respectable people imbibed narcotics and alcohol in the form of patent medicines and even soft drinks. Coca Cola got its name because it originally contained a minute amount of cocaine, thought to be a healthy stimulant. A shocking number of “teetotaling” women relied on daily doses of tonics that, unknown to them, contained as much alcohol as whiskey or gin. Of course, it was no secret that men imbibed alcohol at alarming rates, and alcoholism was rampant. The result was a happy but less than healthy population.



I used this in my mail-order bride story, Forever Mine. The hero’s shrew of a wife had diabetes and treated it by drinking a tonic that promised to cure everything. It didn’t. In my book, Taming Jenna, the heroine’s missing father fell victim to dipsomania and was saved by the hero’s determination and kindness. In Thalia, Book 7 of the Widows of Wildcat Ridge Series, my heroine is in love with the town’s newspaper owner. Unfortunately, he suffers from dipsomania. It doesn’t faze Thalia though. She loves him anyway.

Is it any wonder the nineteenth century became known as “the good old days”?

What are your thoughts on this? Would you have drank Coca Cola if you knew it had cocaine in it? I’m giving away a $5 Amazon gift card plus a copy of one of these books—Forever Mine, Taming Jenna, or Thalia—to one person who comments. The drawing will be Sunday.


Charlene Raddon is an Amazon bestselling author of sixteen historical romance novels set in the American West. Originally published in 1994 by Kensington Books, she is now an Indie author. Charlene also designs book covers, specializing in western historical. You can find her covers at

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67 thoughts on “Charlene Raddon: Were Those Really the Good Old Days?”

  1. Happy Good Friday Charlene- What a fabulous blog. It’s amazing that more people and children didn’t die from overdoes back then, by pure accident of not knowing what they really were consuming. It’s hard to say if I would of tried Coca Cola, I’d like to think not, but I think if I’d been given some to try, I probably would have, just out of curiosity. I being a recovering alcoholic for 20 years, and knowing that, I fear I would have been in deep trouble. Addiction is a disease and a terrible one at that. It grabs hold of a person and never lets go. I praise my dear Savior above, he saved me from mine.
    Thanks again for so much information from this time period of products. Quite eye opening.
    Have a blessed Easter.

    • I’m so very proud for you of your amazing success story! I’m sure most of us would have been in trouble back then since it was all normal to them. They just didn’t know better. Addiction is a terrible disease.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tonya. I’m not sure either if I would have drunk Coca Cola, knowing its contents. It would depend on how old I was at the time. At age fifteen, I might have been dumb enough to do it.

  2. What a fascinating post. I also can’t believe that a child, let alone an infant was ingesting these drugs. So scary that any of them survived past a year. Especially since they had no drug regulations. I don’t know if I’d have tried the coca cola then. But probably. I drank coke everyday for years before switching to Pepsi.

    • Oh my goodness, I did not know most of this! Thank you for the history lesson. Knowing what I know now, no I wouldn’t have drank a Coca Cola. However, considering that I wouldn’t have known the difference back then I probably would have. I found most of this shocking and much of it disgusting. I now understand why so many babies and children died back then and why the lifespan of all humans was such a lower number. Wowza. And here I thought that one of the most shocking things was that people were the local doctor without a medical degree often. I’m just dumb founded. I’d love the opportunity to read your book. Your covers are beautiful bu the way. I’ve got to get a cup of coffee and sober up after reading this blog! ?

      • Thanks, Stephanie. If you ever get a chance to visit a ghost town or any really old town, visit the cemetery and notice how many of the graves are for children. They make up the most, but the graves of women are numerous too. So many died in childbirth, it amazes me women didn’t refuse to risk pregnancy.

  3. I’m just surprised humans survived with so much bacteria in food but than again lack of keeping stuff cold and many poor in cities I guess it shouldn’t surprise me.

    • Kim, having done genealogy for twenty years and reading a good many death certificates, I was surprised that alcohol and drugs were not listed more often as cause of death. But drugs were at the root of many of the diseases folks died of.

  4. Oops I don’t know how my blog comment ended up as a reply on Carol Lucino but it did! Ugh. So here it is again.

    Oh my goodness, I did not know most of this! Thank you for the history lesson. Knowing what I know now, no I wouldn’t have drank a Coca Cola. However, considering that I wouldn’t have known the difference back then I probably would have. I found most of this shocking and much of it disgusting. I now understand why so many babies and children died back then and why the lifespan of all humans was such a lower number. Wowza. And here I thought that one of the most shocking things was that people were the local doctor without a medical degree often. I’m just dumb founded. I’d love the opportunity to read your book. Your covers are beautiful bu the way. I’ve got to get a cup of coffee and sober up after reading this blog!

  5. I probably would have as I would not have known how bad it was for me. And I did know about the coke in Coke.

  6. That’s absolutely crazy! I never would have thought all those people being drugged like that. But I guess back then they didn’t think about addictions or anything like that. I probably would have drank the coke back then if others recommended it and I didn’t know how addictive cocaine was.

  7. Thank you for a fascinating and frightening post. It is truly a miracle that people did in fact survive.

    • You have to remember that people back then had a few things in their favor. They worked very hard so were in good health otherwise and when they were ill, many simply kept going. I had an ancestor who was scalped by Indians at age 14 and died an old woman, though it was an infection on her scalp that killed her finally. She married and had children. She would have lived longer had she not worn a hat all the time which kept her head from healing properly.

  8. What a great post. Kind of sounds like the drug problem was as bad back then as it is today here. I can’t believe they gave it to babies just to keep them from crying. As far as food goes they really didn’t have a lot of ways to keep food so I am not surprise.

    • Hello, Quilt Lady. Good to see you again. They did have iceboxes fairly early in the 19th century and every town had an ice house. Ice would be sawed into blocks and stored underground or in a cave for use in summer. People had cellars too where they kept food cool and even store ice.

  9. I like watching Suzannah Lipscomb’s Hidden Killers documentaries. After watching them I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone managed to stay alive when what you ate or drank could be anything else than what it was supposed to be, not to mention the lead paint that was used even in kids toys and wall papers. And what about the makeup they used? Oh boy…

  10. WOW thats all I can think to say. this is something. if I knew what was in coca cola and I knew what it really was and did, no i wouldnt drink it. but at that time did the common folk really know what these did? I would love to read Thalia

  11. I think knowing what we know now about cocaine none of us would want to drink Coca Cola. In that day we probably would have drank it because we would have been blissfully ignorant to the danger of drinking something potentially so toxic

    • And yet, Glenda, look at how many people today are addicts and they know the dangers. They simply don’t believe the data or the high they get on the drugs is worth it to them to escape their troubles. The sad thing is that their troubles are probably far easier to fix than their habits.

  12. It happened again. Comment went to the wrong place. Somehow, when using my phone, two comment boxes appear. Inevitably, the one I used first ended up on someone else’s post. I didn’t mean for it to go there. Grr…

    • Oh, Pam, I’ve forgotten so much of what I used to know. There was a time you could have asked me about any plant in the western states and I could give you it’s name, family and what it could be used for. Oh, for the good old days 🙂

  13. The chalk in the watered down milk sounds gross, so does the ice cream…but I will admit to finding a bug at the bottom of my ice cream container the other day… not pleasant… a very interesting post, thanks for sharing!

  14. The people at that time had no idea and were innocent. I never did drink coca cola. I enjoyed your amazing informative post.

  15. Not entering, Charlene, just adding a comment to your excellent post. Before I was born, my half-sister in CA asked my father to please mail her a bottle of paregoric. It was no longer sold over the counter in CA but still available in TX and her son had colic and cried all the time. Daddy refused because he said he couldn’t mail it if it was illegal so they used what was called a “sugar tit”, which was a lump of brown sugar tied in a white cloth and soaked in whiskey. Amazing what a desperate, sleep-deprived woman will do.

  16. I wouldn’t have drank Coca-Cola since I don’t even like it. Interesting post. Thank you for sharing.

  17. What a really interesting article. I doubt I would have tried the cola then. I usually just drink water so that would have been my choice.

  18. yes, I would have drunk the coca cola back then if I had severe pain or cancer that may have been called something else. There may not have been much of a choice. I doubt if most people really knew what was in the cola. Thanks, for sharing the information as most of us don’t do the work or have the time to research the old west period.

    Forty years ago when I would visit my grandmother in a nursing home she loved a cold coke. We could get one from the machine when hot coffee wasn’t available in the afternoon. She like many grew up drinking coffee all there lives. The old original coke coke has a really good taste and can many folks like the taste plus enjoying a cold drink.

  19. Happy Good Friday, Charlene. Fascinating blog. I knew some of the information about drugs back then and their prevalence, but you really went into the detailed facts. I remember my grandmother who was born in 1901 swore up and down that Coke originally had cocaine in it. The stuff with regard to infants and children is particularly chilling, though. Great Blog!

  20. Hi I don’t think I would have drank Coca Cola, I wouldn’t want to get addicted to it. Thank you for posting this , it si very interesting and a little scary. Have a Great weekend. Happy Easter. God Bless you and your family. Thank you for the chance.

  21. That was a scary article. No I would not have drank the Coca Cola. It is sad to look back and realize just how many lives were destroyed by those who thought they were doing a good thing. I am so glad I am alive today and medicine has advanced so much.

  22. All the rosy descriptions and pictures of life in the 1800’s and even early 1900’s certainly paint a very different picture. It might, however, explain some of the family portraits of people that look rather closed up and stern or barely there. I knew that Coke had the cocaine additive until 1929. At that time, drinking it would not have been an issue since it was so commonly used considered helpful. Today with what we know, there is no way I would drink it. I was familiar with the amount of alcohol in many elixirs and the availability and use of opium, cocaine, and Laudanum. I knew mercury was part of the medication used to treat syphilis and arsenic was in some tablets. The number of other toxic ingredients that were used is frightening. When we bought our old farm house, I found a bottle of pills. The bottle was blue glass, had poison on the bottle and the pills were shaped like coffins. I discovered they had a mercury derivative in them, but they are listed as Antiseptic tablets. I can’t imagine…….
    The saddest part is the use of these narcotics and poisons on children. It was likely a factor in the infant mortality rate. When my children were babies in the 1970’s, I had several older women tell me to rub the gums of a teething baby with whiskey to help ease the pain. They also said to make a sugar tit and dip it in whiskey if they were fussy. Enough of that and the baby really wouldn’t feel any pain.
    People do not appreciate the regulations and inspections we have today for our foods. They will after reading this. Fresh food on the farm was likely true to a point, at least initially. With no refrigeration things would spoil rapidly in the warmer months. Spring houses kept things cool (primarily dairy products) but there was no real temperature control. Ice boxes helped, but weren’t perfect, plus you needed to have a good supply of ice blocks. Growing up, we would use our unheated garage like a refrigerator during the winter. I still do today, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas when there is so much food and limited refrigerator space. We had a closet on an exterior wall off the kitchen that stayed pretty cool. It was our storage room for apples and other fruits and vegetables. Kind of a variation on a root cellar.
    When you think of it, people back then were almost more in danger from their foods and medicines than all the other hazards nature and their world threw at them. Thank you for an interesting post. Have a nice holiday weekend. Stay safe and healthy.

    • Patricia, I hope you kept that blue bottle. That’s an antique you could sell. I might glue the lid on though so no one could get into it. Thank you so much for commenting.

      • We still have the bottle. It is on a shelf with other old bottles and old medicine containers and boxes. It was 25 years ago when we found it and we still had curious children at home. I think my husband disposed of the pills, not wanting to take a chance someone would get into them.

  23. I personally don’t like coke so I think I would have been okay back then. I guess today isn’t any better because if you read the ingredients on some products its scary what they have in them. And the side effects are like really. Thank you for sharing your time with us all.

  24. I would have probably tasted it to see what it was like. But I think I would have stuck with coffee.

  25. Charlene Raddon, thank you for this “history” lesson. I think we all learned something today. But I have to tell you how similar this story sounds to the cautions about White Lighting today. You don’t know what’s in it. You don’t know where it is cooked. And many, many people have paid for their ignorance. Thank you for enightening us with even a carry over to today. Thank you again.

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