In the sort of spirit of Halloween, I decided to make my very own bottle of laudanum. An old bottle previously used as décor for our kitchen fit the bill, and from there I found a vintage laudanum label on the internet and printed it. From there, I aged the paper, stained it a little for good measure and cut it out. I used a spray adhesive on the back to reduce bleed-through. Since laudanum was used as a cough suppressant, I decided to go for a cough-syrupy color for the liquid. Basically, just a combo of green and blue food dye did the trick. To top it off, I finally found a use for a small collection of old wine corks that have been accumulating in a drawer.
Laudanum was originally invented by the famed Swiss doctor and alchemist, Paracelsus, although his version was quite different from what was later known by the same name. Paracelsus’ version included the mandatory opium and high proof alcohol, but henbane, musk, coral, amber, gold and crushed pearls were also integrated into it.
By the nineteenth century, the formula was reduced down to just opium and alcohol. Generally, it consisted of 10% powdered opium by weight (equivalent to 1% morphine) and about 48% alcohol by volume, although the alcohol content varied.
The uses of laudanum varied as well. It was generally used as an antidiarrheal and cough syrup. It was oftentimes, as the label used on my recreation states, billed as a universal cure-all. With such opium content, it is not surprising that it would relieve the symptoms of just about any ailment. Also not surprising, it was used as a sedative. Women were prescribed it for menstrual cramps, and fussy babies were given it to help them sleep. A powdered form of laudanum was rubbed into the gums of teething babies as well.
Of course, not all of its uses were strictly medical. Many artists, poets, and authors used it for inspiration.
The origin of the name is not known. It is believed to originate from the Latin laudare which means “to praise” or “to recommend.” I was unable to connect any usage of this word to explain why laudanum’s name would be derived from it, leading me to suspect the alternative to be the true origin.
Ladanum was used to describe an herbal medicine made of plant resins, particularly of Cistus ladanifer and Cistus creticus, for centuries. In the middle ages, ladanum was used to treat colds, coughs and rheumatism. The ninth century rabbi Saadia ben Joseph suggested that ladanum was actually an ingredient in the sacred incense used in the Temple known as ketoret. Considering that Pliny the Elder wrote that an extract from an herb known as “ladan” was used in the incense, the rabbi might have been correct.
While true laudanum has been illegal for the almost a century, it is still available by prescription today under the name “Tincture of Opium.” However, it is not typically used anymore. The two main uses today are for severe diarrhea that does not respond to other treatments and for neonates born addicted to opiates due to gestational drug use. The newborns are given small doses to prevent life-threatening withdrawals and are slowly tapered off over the course of a few weeks.