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The Molding Of American Culture: Cocaine 1860-1914

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Cocaine: The Molding of American Culture, 1860- 1914

Cocaine had slowly risen into American Popular Culture, starting with an appeal to the elite class and ending with the Harrison Act of 1914. Employers encouraged the use of the coca leaf among their workers to increase productivity and decrease fatigue. Early physicians would prescribe cocaine to treat everything from morphine addiction to the common cold. Cocaine became a common ingredient in consumer goods. Marketers raved about the amazing effects of cocaine in their advertisements. Early historical figures, including Thomas Edison and Pope Leo XIII, endorsed French coca wine. It was difficult to escape the grasp of cocaine’s spreading popularity.

The plant from which cocaine is extracted has been cultivated in South America for thousands of years, and a large part of the population of Bolivia and Peru, smaller numbers in Colombia, and a few people in Argentina and Brazil now chew its leaf every day (Grinspoon and Bakalar 9). One student of the coca leaf has gone so far as to write of the Peruvian Indians, “Never in the life of a people has a drug had such importance.” (Grinspoon and Bakalar 9). Many have noted if it wasn’t for the coca leaf, Peru would cease to exist.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where coca first grew wild or was used as a drug. Documented early use has sprung up among various regions and many civilizations at different times. It has been suggested that the chewing of coca originated in central Amazon or with the Aymara Indians of Bolivia. The word coca is believed to be of Aymara origin and it simply means plant or tree (Grinspoon and Bakalar 9-10). There is also some research that may suggest coca use originated in Northeast Africa. In 1992, a forensic study of a 3,000 years old high priestess mummy found evidence of coca use (Arts and Entertainment Network). Given the relevant context, it is assumed that coca was of great importance and ranked high among value to these cultures.

The coca leaf does not yield the potency to deliver any type of overwhelming effect. The coca leaf in natural form gives the similar effect that a well caffeinated cup of coffee would (Arts and Entertainment Network). It wasn’t until Albert Niemann, a German scientist, extracted and processed the coca leaf ingredients, would it become a potent drug. In 1860, Niemann would rename the results of his extraction, cocaine (Arts and Entertainment Network).

In 1863, coca arrives on United States’ shores as an ingredient in a French wine, Vin Mariani. The wine was very successful with consumers. Popular figures, Thomas Edison, and Pope Leo XIII, endorsed Vin Mariani (Spillane 2). President Ulysses Grant would habitually drink the coca wine, to ease the pain of throat cancer, while writing his memoirs (Arts and Entertainment Network). Mark Twain often delivered the cocaine wine to President Grant and indulged alongside him (Arts and Entertainment Network).

American physicians begin to use cocaine in medical practices. Cocaine was identified as a drug that depresses the central nervous system; however it had the exact opposite affect. The only general anesthetics available to physicians were chloroform and ether. These anesthetics would induce retching or vomit and did little for pain. Operations that required precision and detail were nearly impossible. Cocaine had delivered none of these negative effects and numbed the pain of the patient (Spillane 14). For the time being, cocaine was revered as a “wonder drug” to the medical community.

Sigmund Freud, perhaps the most famous psychiatrist in history, and a cocaine enthusiast, felt that psychiatrists had many drugs that sedate patients, but very little that stimulated. However, no drugs were available that could increase the functioning of nerve centers. Cocaine was the answer to his problem. Freud believed with the right implication, cocaine could treat nervous disease. Freud also urged its adoption in the treatment of hysteria, hypochondria, and melancholy (Spillane 18). The Philadelphia Medical Times reported that coca was an effective “stimulant, tonic, and restorative to the system in the treatment of various diseases by debility and exhaustion.” (Spillane 18). Sigmund Freud would become a cocaine addict, however he would eventually recover from his affliction (Arts and Entertainment Network).

Freud’s testimonies were to play a significant role in the development of the North American cocaine industry. “I take very small doses of it regularly and against depression and against indigestion, and with the most brilliant success”, he observed. Industrial drug giants Merck and Parke Davies both paid Freud to endorse their rival brands. He wrote several enthusiastic papers on cocaine, notably Uber Coca in 1884. A passage from his written work, On Cocaine: “A few minutes after taking cocaine, one experiences a certain exhilaration and feeling of lightness. One feels certain furriness on the lips and palate, followed by a feeling of warmth in the same areas; if one now drinks cold water, it feels warm on the lips and cold in the throat. One other occasion the predominant feeling is a rather pleasant coolness in the mouth and throat.” (Arts and Entertainment Network).

During the 1890s, cocaine had reached new heights of popularity. North America’s idolized baseball players partook in cocaine use, while playing professional games, much like chewing tobacco is used today. Many works of literature were written that popularized cocaine, such as 7% Solution and Doyle’s fictional stories of Detective Sherlock Holmes whom injects cocaine everyday (Arts and Entertainment Network).

Entrepreneurs started adding cocaine to any product they could. Common cold medicines, “pep” pills, hygiene products, wine, and tonics were among the cocaine riddled products introduced to stores (Arts and Entertainment Network). These were all marketed to The United States’ consumers.

Coca-Cola is probably the most well known cocaine containing product of the 1880s. Originally called Pemberton’s Tonics, used to treat morphine addiction. Asa Candler bought Pemberton’s formula and added various flavorings. Candler renamed this tonic Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola was advertised to create energy and deplete headaches (Arts and Entertainment Network). Coca-Cola has since become a national icon and an established international corporate empire.

Cocaine use to increase workplace productivity was first documented around 1890, among the African American male working class. The roustabouts or dock workers of the Mississippi


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