The Great Binge  

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Heroin was commercially developed by Bayer Pharmaceutical and was marketed by Bayer and other companies (c. 1900) for several medicinal uses including cough suppression.
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Heroin was commercially developed by Bayer Pharmaceutical and was marketed by Bayer and other companies (c. 1900) for several medicinal uses including cough suppression.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The "Great Binge" is a term used first used in a now deleted Wikipedia article[1] to describe the period between 1870 and 1914 when various drugs were developed and widely consumed, alongside strong alcoholic drinks, without prohibition and in quantities that nowadays are considered excessive.

The "binge" started in the 1860s, when absinthe became popular in Europe. After the Franco-Prussian War, most French vines were destroyed by the phylloxera epidemic, destroying the supply of wine. This created an opening for the then new and unfamiliar drink. Following this, in 1862 Merck patented cocaine, which found its way into several popular drinks such as Vin Mariani (cocaine and wine) and Coca-Cola (cocaine, wine, and kola nuts). Cocaine was also used in medicine: in 1879 to treat morphine addiction, and in 1884 as a local anaesthetic. Around this time Sigmund Freud published his work "Über Coca", in which he wrote that cocaine caused:

"...exhilaration and lasting euphoria, which in no way differs from the normal euphoria of the healthy person...You perceive an increase of self-control and possess more vitality and capacity for work....In other words, you are simply normal, and it is soon hard to believe you are under the influence of any drug....Long intensive physical work is performed without any fatigue...This result is enjoyed without any of the unpleasant after-effects that follow exhilaration brought about by alcohol....Absolutely no craving for the further use of cocaine appears after the first, or even after repeated taking of the drug..."

In the 1890s, as cocaine was gaining in popularity, pharmacists at the Bayer pharmaceutical company were attempting to acetylate morphine to produce codeine, a natural derivative of the opium poppy, similar to morphine but less potent and less addictive. But instead of producing codeine, the experiment produced a substance that was actually almost two times more potent than morphine itself. Bayer would name the substance "heroin."

From 1898 to 1910 heroin was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough medicine for children. Bayer marketed heroin as a cure for morphine addiction before it was discovered that heroin is converted to morphine when metabolized in the liver. The company was somewhat embarrassed by this new finding and it became a historic blunder for Bayer.

Thus, by the start of the twentieth century, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and strong alcoholic drinks such as absinthe were being widely consumed throughout the U.S. and Europe, without any state prohibition. These substances were considered as innocuous as tobacco and alcohol are today, more so in fact, as both cocaine and heroin were marketed as medications for children. The popular fictional character Sherlock Holmes was shown in several stories consuming either cocaine or morphine, depending on his condition. Real-life heroes also made use of drugs: in 1909, Ernest Shackleton took "Forced March" brand cocaine tablets to Antarctica, as did Captain Scott a year later on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole. Harrods, a large store in London, sold morphine and cocaine gift-boxes, which were marketed during the First World War as special gifts for soldiers on the front. The gift-boxes were eventually withdrawn in 1916.

Such consumption, however, could not last. Public tolerance of alcohol and drugs was beginning to wane as the effects of addiction became more obvious. Now though it is thought that the prohibition that was put in place then has created many more addicts than were previously around. The first to be banned was absinthe, after a Swiss alcoholic named Jean Lanfray killed his wife and children after a binge on absinthe, wine, and brandy. This event gave strength to various anti-absinthe groups, and led to various bans which saw it almost completely removed from European society by 1915. Around this time, similar bans on cocaine, morphine, heroin, and other drugs also began to come into effect. The binge's last gasp was the widespread sale of Benzedrine (an amphetamine) inhalers by Smith, Kline and French as decongestants in 1928, but addictive effects were noticed soon enough and sale was then restricted to the military. That said, even as late as 1938, the Larousse Gastronomique published a recipe for "cocaine pudding"; by this point, however, controls had been placed on all drugs and the pharmacological and beverage industries had both come under government regulation, effectively bringing The Great Binge to an end.

See also

binge, fin de siècle, temperance movement, popularization and suppression of cocaine; entheogenic drugs and the archaeological record




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Great Binge" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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