How the Victorians used Opium

The dangers of opium were not fully understood in the Victorian period. And this led to the not too uncommon consumption of laudanum, a drink that contained opium. Here we introduce you to laudanum in the Victorian Age.

How the Victorians used Opium

Lord Byron, famed opium user, in Albanian clothes. Painting by Thomas Phillips, 1813.

If you think drug addiction is a recent problem, think again. When I read Frankenstein recently I discovered that Doctor Victor Frankenstein used laudanum (an alcoholic tincture of opium). A drink of laudanum was made of approximately 10% opium and 90% alcohol, and flavored with cinnamon or saffron. It was first used by the ancient Greeks, and in the nineteenth century was mostly used as a painkiller, sleeping pill, or tranquilizer. It was cheaper then poppy oil and could be drunk like you’d drink scotch. It took a while for the Victorians to understand the negative side effects though. Indeed, it was only in 1919 that the production and export of opium was prohibited, and in 1928 a law was passed that prohibited its use.

Wikipedia’s list of laudanum-users is so incredibly long, it makes no sense to copy it. Here are some notable users: Lord Byron (of course!), Kate Chopin (from The Story of an Hour), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe.In literature, it is mentioned in a number of books.Mary Shelley’s character Victor Frankenstein uses laudanum to help him sleep after the death of his friend, Henry Clerval.In Jack Finney’s Time and Again, the main character, Si Morley, wonders if a live baby in an 1882 display case has been “doped up with one of the laudanum preparations I’d seen advertised in Harpers.”The character Cassy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin kills one of her children with laudanum to prevent it from growing up as a slave.In Charles Dickens’ novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood it is the drink of choice for the sinister uncle Jasper.In Bram Stoker’s Dracula Lucy Westenra’s maids are poisoned (though not killed) by Dracula with a dose of laudanum put into wine.And Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the poem fragment Kubla Khan immediately after waking up from a laudanum-induced dream.

So, it was a rather popular drug. In fact, innumerable Victorian women were prescribed the drug for relief of menstrual cramps and vague aches and used it to achieve the pallid complexion associated with tuberculosis (frailty and paleness were particularly prized in females at the time). Nurses also spoon-fed laudanum to infants. Finally, and sadly, the Pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal died of a laudanum overdose.


This article is provided by Geerte de Jong from


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