Just What the Doctor Ordered

Image of mother holding a baby“He was fed on brandy for days and weeks when a child. It was a physician’s prescription, you know.”

That was Mildred Powell’s explanation for Leonard Airedale’s alcohol dependence in the book, One Commonplace Day. In other words, Mildred believed the man she loved wasn’t to blame for his alcoholism—his doctor was.

Image of two beer steins filled with beer.Then, as now, the medical community and society at large struggled to discover the cause of adult alcoholism. How could some people have a glass of wine or beer on a strictly social basis, while others couldn’t take a sip of the stuff without forming an instant addiction?

In Leonard Airedale’s case, Mildred’s assessment would have made perfect sense. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, doctors often prescribed brandy, beer and other alcoholic drinks to patients, including children.

Image of a mother looking adoringly at her young son.Dr. Abraham Jacobi, known today as the father of American pediatrics, held alcohol in great esteem as a therapeutic agent for children. He authored several books in the 19th century on pediatric diseases, and influenced the way generations of physicians treated young patients. He believed that alcohol should be given to children to fight infection, and wrote that “There is no better antiseptic than alcohol beverages.”

Photograph of Dr. Abraham Jacobi
Abraham Jacobi, M.D.

In cases of typhoid, he wrote, “a child of three or four years may be saved by 100 or 200 ccm. of whiskey given daily, if by nothing else and escape the undertaker.”

And since 100 cubic centimeters of whiskey is equal to about 3-1/3 U.S. fluid ounces, the amount of whiskey he recommended for a three year old child was more than many adults could handle.

But that’s not all. If that daily dose of whiskey wasn’t effective, Dr. Jacobi recommended increasing the amount:

“Septic cases, with high fevers that will not improve after 100 or 200 centimetres of whiskey daily, are apt to do well with two or three times the dose, which, however, will cease to be tolerated as soon as the septic fever has passed by. Indeed I have seen such septic children of three or four years take 500.0 [ccm.] of whiskey a day.” That equates to a full pint of whiskey for a child under the age of five!

Image of a mother kneeling beside a cradle and gazing at her baby lying in the cradle

Whiskey and brandy were frequently advertised in medical and nursing journals; those same journals then published articles extolling their merits.

Image of an advertisement for Cascade Pure Whiskey
A full-page ad in the December 1909 edition of the Interstate Medical Journal


Doctors primarily used brandy as a cardiac stimulant because it appeared to increase cardiac output and blood pressure. But it was also a depressant, so doctors also prescribed it as a sedative for adults, children, and even infants.

Brandy and whiskey weren’t the only alcoholic beverages doctors recommended for health reasons.

Advertisement for champagne from the Interstate Medical Journal
Advertisement in the December 1909 edition of the Interstate Medical Journal


In 1895 Anheuser-Busch began advertising a beer product called Malt-Nutrine. The beverage contained 2% alcohol and its target market was women, especially young mothers.

Image of a magazine ad for Malt-Nutrine showing woman holding a baby.The beverage was advertised in women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan, Munsey’s and Good Housekeeping. The majority of the ads featured images of nursing mothers and their babies. And although Malt-Nutrine had a 2% alcohol content, Anheuser-Busch advertised their product as alcohol free and claimed it gave special nourishment, restful sleep, strength and joyousness to mother and baby.

In other words, nursing mothers who drank Malt-Nutrine passed along its alcoholic effects to their infants.

Anheuser-Busch also advertised their product to physicians. They ran full-page advertisements in medical journals, such as this one in the January 3, 1918 Boston Medical and Surgical Journal:

Image of Malt-Nutrine ad claiing the product was a tonic with food value

They had an ingenious marketing plan that included sending artwork to doctors. The artwork incorporated images of their product and was framed or finished in a way that made it suitable for hanging in physician offices where it could be seen by patients and remind physicians to recommend it.

Image of a stork carrying bottles of Malt-Nutrine to baby storks in the nest.
Example of Malt-Nutrine “artwork” sent to physicians


They also ran contests for physicians. One contest encouraged doctors to write in with suggested titles for one of their art promotions; the winning title received a cash award of $250 in gold.

Image advertising Pabst Extract and offering a free 1910 American Girl Calendar.
A full-page ad for Pabst Extract offering free calendars to physicians. From the Interstate Medical Journal, December 1909.


Other brewers jumped into the beer-for-health market. Pabst unabashedly marketed their Pabst Extract product as “The Best Tonic” to promote sleep, strengthen nerves and invigorate the exhausted. In their ads to physicians Pabst also gave away free promotional items such as calendars and wall art.

Magazine for Pabst Extract showing mother and baby above the caption, "The Joys of Motherhood"
Ad in Vogue Magazine, 1915


Like Anheuser-Busch, Pabst targeted a good portion of their advertising at mothers. And like Anheuser-Busch, Pabst downplayed the alcoholic content of their product and claimed instead that their product was “food” essential to nursing mothers’ health.

Image of mother with toddler and baby beside an oversized bottle of Pabst Extract, along with three long paragraphs of promotional text.
This ad in the December 1907 issue of Harper’s Bazar encouraged expectant mother’s to “prepare the way” for baby’s birth by drinking Pabst Extract.


Seattle Brewing Company introduced their own malt product, Malt Rainier, which they, too, marketed to new and nursing mothers.

Ad for Malt Rainier showing mother cuddling baby with caption, "For those requiring additional nourishment and strength."

Image of Mother holding baby on her lap with a bottle of Malt Rainier in her hand.
A 1909 trade card for Rainier Beer


A toddler-aged baby drools as she holds a large stein full of beer in both hands, under caption "Ah were you only mine, how happy I would be, thou cold and foaming stein, so full of jollity.
A cartoon of a baby craving beer, about 1900.

Isabella Alden might have had these beers in mind when she created the character of Eben Bruce in One Commonplace Day. Eben was a medical student, studying under the direction of the town doctor. Eben developed a habit of drinking alone in his room when he was supposed to be studying.

His mother was at fault. She had sipped her beer when he was a creeping baby, to give her strength to care for him. He never thought of blaming his mother for the fire that burned in his veins and had roused into power with the first taste of alcohol. Blessed ignorance of babyhood! He did not know that she was to blame. Miserable ignorance of motherhood! She did not know it either.

Unfortunately, some brewers, like The Seattle Brewing Company, weren’t satisfied with just nursing mothers drinking their beer. They wanted the mothers’ children to drink it, too, and they targeted their marketing campaign for Rainier Beer directly at children. At the time, Rainier Beer had an alcohol content of 4.91%, similar to levels of today’s beer.

Ad for Rainier Beer showing a little boy crying to his mother because he doesn't have a beer.

Rainier Beer ad showing little girl and elderly man clinking their glasses of Rainier Beer with the caption "Beneficial to Young and Old"

Brewers got away with these tactics by labeling their beers as “pure” or “nourishing” or a “tonic.” By doing so, the product was considered medicinal.

1893 ad for Rainier Beer showing children dancing around an oversized bottle of beer as if it were a maypole with caption, "Pure Air, Pure Food, Pure Health. For Pure Drink get Rainier Beer"

Medicinal wines, whiskeys and beers were sold over the counter in drug stores. For serious alcohol consumption, the drugstore was the place to go; and since no prescription was necessary, virtually anyone could walk out of a drug store carrying a bottle of alcohol labeled as medicine.

In addition to glycerine, this product contained a whopping 11% alcohol. Ad from the Medical Women's Journal, September 1921.
This product contained a whopping 11% alcohol. Ad from the Medical Women’s Journal, September 1921.


Even a product as intoxicating as Vin Mariani was available for purchase without a prescription. Vin Mariani was incredibly popular because of the potent effects of its formula: 6 milligrams of cocaine for each ounce of Bordeaux wine.  Like other “medicinal” wines, it was advertised in medical journals and was widely prescribed to children.

Ad for Vin Mariani claiming "endorsements from upwards of 8,000 physicians."
Ad in The Cincinnati Eclectic Medical Journal, April 1903


Could it be that Isabella Alden was right to be alarmed? Did mothers unwittingly create “a thirst for alcohol” in their children at a young age, or even before they were born?  Perhaps, as Isabella wrote, the blessed ignorance of motherhood prevented them from knowing what kind of damage they may or may not have done to their beloved children simply by following doctors’ orders.

You can click on any of the images in this post to see a larger version.

Cover_One Commonplace Day resizedClick here to read more about Isabella Alden’s book, One Commonplace Day.

Click here to read a New York Historical Society blog post about Pabst Malt Extract.

Click here to learn more about Vin Mariani, the medicinal wine that took the world by storm.

Click here to read a biography of Abraham Jacobi, M.D.

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