Yes, Sears Really Did Used to Sell Street Drugs

Hard to believe, but in the early 1900s, Sears & Roebuck (along with a number of other stores) sold products made with opium, heroin, and cocaine.

Until the FDA was established to regulate food and drug safety in 1930, the purchase of dangerous, narcotic medicines was not regulated and nearly as normal and commonplace as buying Aspirin or Tylenol is today.  These substances were bought and sold on the open market by people who were unaware of their harmful (sometimes fatal) side effects.

Imagine waking up at night to give little Billy (a teething baby) a nice spoon full of opium or a new “safer” heroin injection to ease the pain.  If you felt a little groggy, you could get a jolt to start the day from a glass of Coca Wine (a liquid cocaine beverage).  When trying to loose some weight, you could purchase Dr. Rose’s Obesity Powder – a fast, “safe,” cocaine formula that quickly burned those unwanted pounds, nose tissue, and brain cells.  Try to imagine what must have happened to many of the children and adults that used these.

Even pope Leo the 13th apparently endorsed narcotics at this dark moment in pharmaceutical history: Mariani “Wine” (yet another cocaine beverage) was said to give you immediate health, strength, energy, and vitality (as well as providing a “cure” for the influenza virus).

A heroin kit was available for around $1.50 and came with a syringe, two needles and a carrying case.  Children were given Cocaine Toothache Drops that sold for 15 cents a pack.  Asthma was thought to be cured by inhaling the smoke or vapor of opium.

So it stands to reason that the FDA has served a valuable purpose in eliminating the ignorance revolving around these substances that existed less than a hundred years ago.  While it’s funny to think about people using hard street drugs to treat things like a head ache, what happened to some of them as a result of it, really isn’t.


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Founder, Senior Writer, and Editorial Director
  1. The quality of this post is surprisingly low in its naive discussion of these drugs. Opioid drugs are STILL used for pain, coughs, and many other things, so selling these drugs was NOT unreasonable, and better than most the crap that was put in patent medicines that did nothing at all, or was purely harmful. Of course, the general understanding of these drugs was less, but over-use or mis-use has not changed that much with our increasing knowledge today. Many more people die from opioid overdose today (around 50,000/yr in the USA alone). Our modern prohibition has been a mixed blessing at the very least, where now doctors, Pharmaceutical companies, and drug dealers are the primary suppliers (with considerable overlap between these groups for pill formulations).

    As for stimulants, today, we give 5-10% of our children amphetamines (adderall, etc.), so they can perform better in school (and hopefully throughout life) which provides some clear benefits, but also some serious short term and long term risks. This is a more potent stimulant than the coca wines sold in 1900 which were relatively mild (yes, purified cocaine and amphetamines are similar, but again the bioavailable dose in coca wines was quite modest and reasonable). Cocaine also provides local numbing, so using for a painful toothache was quite reasonable. Yes, of course some people abused these drugs knowingly or unknowingly, but not much different than today.

    I could on, but my general point is to provide a little better perspective and balance here. And, not saying the FDA has not been helpful in improving safety and information.

    1. Your closing argument is really all I was getting at way back when I wrote this piece for entertainment purposes. It was never intended to be a scholarly article on the subject or to delve too deeply into it. While I agree with you that we definitely have an epidemic on our hands now, I would argue that very few people today get into an addictive situation unknowingly. That’s good progress and the FDA deserves recognition for their success in that – at least, in my opinion they do. My examples simply illustrate the singular point that the good old pre-FDA days were a time of general consumer ignorance, snake oil peddlers, zero accountability from manufactures to disclose ingredients, and dangerous substances going into products (including products for children) in an way that was completely uncontrolled and came with no warning labels. I personally don’t see how the existence of potentially worse comparison blocks in a controlled scenario, somehow negates the harmfulness of something like over-the-counter heroin being sold at big box stores like Sears. As far as whether or not highly addictive substances should be sold in unlimited quantities over-the-counter, I leave that open to ethical debate and lawmakers, but my personal stance on this, despite the dark market it creates, is “no.”

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