“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.
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.
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.”
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!
Whiskey and brandy were frequently advertised in medical and nursing journals; those same journals then published articles extolling their merits.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seattle Brewing Company introduced their own malt product, Malt Rainier, which they, too, marketed to new and nursing mothers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Click 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.