The unwholesome mid-century: A wave of dependency on tranquilizers, barbiturates, and amphetamines
He's the one they call Dr. Feelgood
He's the one that makes you feel all right
He's the one they call Dr. Feelgood
He's gonna be your Frankenstein
The lyrics and music video for Motley Crue's song about "Dr. Feelgood" sum up the popular view of the drug culture by the late 1980s. Drugs came from the street, and were distributed by local and entrepreneurial pushers, with no advertising and no appeal to authority. They were risky, dangerous, and unnatural substances (hence the reference to Dr. Frankenstein), and therefore only reckless long-haired badasses like Crue fans would be into the scene for the long, or not-so-long, term. The post-apocalyptic imagery and way-out-in-the-desert setting tells you that this way of life was another world apart from the white-picket-fence suburbs where the majority lived out wholesome lives.
That could not be farther away from the zeitgeist of the mid-20th century, when physician to the stars Max Jacobson, also nicknamed "Dr. Feelgood", acted as an amphetamine supplier to such luminaries as Tennessee Williams, Mickey Mantle, Nelson Rockefeller, and John F. Kennedy.
From roughly the mid-'30s through the late '50s, the popular view was that drugs came from all-American manufacturers, and were distributed by benevolent doctors not known for rocking the boat. Aside from the appeal to the "physician knows best" principle, they came stamped with the approval of the federal government, and were widely advertised in the popular media. And ad men would never try to sell you something that was bad for you but profitable for their clients, now would they? After all, these drugs were the result of invention and fine-tuned engineering by research scientists, not some kind of "eye of newt" nostrum that an old-fashioned witch doctor would try to fob off on you.
So, aside from the odd side-effect, they were basically safe to start taking, regardless of whether or not you thought you were such a head-case that you required "medicine". Why, even -- or especially -- the middle-class majority, both the frazzled housewife and her upward-striving husband, could benefit from a daily dose of whatever could energize the listless and steady the nerves of the anxious. Far from being adulterating substances that might threaten personal and societal ruin, regular drug use heralded an age of progress toward a "choose your mood society," as Fortune magazine styled it in 1957.
It doesn't get more unwholesome than that. Not only is the dream of widespread, rather than sub-cultural drug use, but the attitude toward potential danger is glib and dismissive. As JFK himself said about Dr. Feelgood's amphetamine cocktail: "I don't care if it's horse piss. It works." People are trying to squeeze out the highs and lows of life, as though they'd surgically altered their vocal apparatus to only speak in a flat tone, rather than to occasionally introduce even more emotional variety into their experiences. Drug use is hoped to be a staple of their daily habits -- not the occasional up-ending of routine in a cathartic release, returning afterward to normal life. Worst of all, stabilizing drugs aren't safer: they are addictive, can lead to overdose, and can have harmful side-effects and/or withdrawal pains after discontinued use.
We could sum up the differences between the two drug cultures as "stabilizing" and "destabilizing". The former breeds complacency and thus widespread adoption, while the latter instills a sense of wariness and thus restricts hardcore users to the most reckless part of the population. Because they're more sensational, destabilizing drugs get more charged coverage at the time and after their day has passed. It's the more common culture of stabilizing drugs that goes unseen by most at the time and to observers in the future.
Was the mid-century zeitgeist merely a trend in attitude but not in behavior? No: changes in the popular mood mirrored the popularity of mood-changers. My goal here is not to establish that on a factual level, since it has been done in great detail by historians.
The best all-encompassing account is Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac by David Herzberg. For the mid-century, he focuses on the craze for minor tranquilizers like Miltown and Valium, used as anti-anxiety drugs. First adopted enthusiastically in the second half of the '50s, they came under suspicion during the '60s, from the regulatory agencies of the federal government, to patients at the grassroots level, and pop culture stars like the Rolling Stones, whose 1966 hit "Mother's Little Helper" blasted mid-century hypocrisy about drug use. The growth rate in the number of prescriptions written had already slowed during the first half of the '60s, hit a plateau in the early-mid-'70s, and have never regained their popularity since.
Two article-length accounts, here and here, cover the other major drug types: "America's First Amphetamine Epidemic 1929--1971" by Rasmussen, and "The history of barbiturates a century after their clinical introduction" by Lopez-Munoz et al. The graphics include ads as well as data charts, and are worth a look themselves.
Amphetamines AKA "speed" appear to have been the drug of choice during the mid-century mania, more prevalent than tranquilizers, and perhaps more than barbiturates, although I can't tell from the data available. And they were also used in amphetamine-barbiturate combinations. In any case, people started adopting amphetamines during the mid-to-late 1930s, and they enjoyed their guilt-free peak during the '50s, only to come under suspicion during the '60s and begin declining during the '70s and '80s. In 1962, enough amphetamines were being produced to give every American 43 standard 10-mg doses per year, or about one hit every 8.5 days -- again, not for actual users, but as though everyone were getting high that often.
Barbiturates are hypnotics (sleep-inducing) or sedatives, and were meant to mellow out the symptoms of anxiety. Their heyday was the '30s and '40s, and still did well into the '50s, not suffering from a tarnished reputation, just being edged out a bit by the introduction of tranquilizers like Miltown. Only during the '60s did they come under suspicion and decline, never to return to their peak popularity. Dark fun fact for the day -- barbiturates were what Marilyn Monroe turned to when she committed suicide in 1962.
Despite their declining reputation starting in the '60s, and their declining usage during the '70s and '80s, both prescription uppers and downers have come back into fashion since the 1990s, in the form of amphetamine-like or amphetamine-containing drugs (Ritalin, Adderall, etc.) and SSRIs (Prozac, Zoloft, etc.), respectively. And yet before their surge during the mid-century, approved-of and sanctioned uppers and downers were on the decline, from roughly the turn of the century through the end of the Jazz Age in the early '30s.
That period itself was a reversal of the Victorian craze for ham-fisted drug solutions to the normal demands of real life, which saw the heyday of the "patent medicine" AKA snake oil. Patent medicines only came under suspicion and regulation during the early 1900s, as part of the muckraking and Progressive era -- the pre-cursor to the muckraking and Progressive era of the 1960s.
What ties together all of the periods of rising enthusiasm for "cosmetic pharmacology" is a falling crime rate, and all periods of rising wariness of everyday mood-changers is a rising crime rate. I explored some of the connections between those variables in a post about cocooning and mental dysfunction, and in a post on the cycles in advertising that brought us campaigns for snake oil, Geritol, and Enzyte across three separate falling-crime periods.
That may strike us as surprising when we recall the heady atmosphere of seemingly widespread drug use during the Jazz Age (opiates) and the New Wave Age (just about everything, but especially pot). However, those were sub-cultures, with the more hardcore ones being almost underground. They were not blithely adopted by mainstream middle-class suburbanites, who instead came to appreciate how destructive casual drug use could be. And even among users, the goal was not to squeeze out all the variety of life, but indeed to introduce more excitement, and in a social rather than isolated setting.
All of these aspects point to a more wholesome culture during rising-crime times, when destabilizing drugs are popular, and to a more unwholesome one in falling-crime times, when stabilizing drugs rule the day. Apart from the crime rate itself, life is overall more fulfilling when we're put to manageable challenges that we must work through with one another.