Nitrous, weed, opium and peach-pits: the intoxicants of 18th C England


Historical novelist Debra Daley posts a master guide to the intoxicants of 18th century England, which ranged from modern favorites (laughing gas, cannabis) to historic classics (laudanum) to ratafia, "a sweet liqueur flavoured with peach or cherry kernels," which contained cyanogenic glycosides that broke down into fatal, insanity-causing hydrogen cyanide.

The 18th century -- like the centuries before and after -- were filled with people who were, frankly, high as fuck. But the 18th century marked a turning point in getting-high-ology, because of the opening of global trade routes, mass colonization, and the nascent industrial revolution, which brought more drugs, more cheaply, to England.

The summer of 1799 saw a new fixation in British society – the inhalation of laughing gas. Nitrous oxide had been discovered by chemist Joseph Priestley in 1772 after introducing iron filings to nitric acid – the resulting gas gave Priestley a painless and giddy feeling – and was synthesised later that year by his pupil Humphry Davy. Davy was delighted by the euphoric effects of the gas, which he had tested on himself at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. It induced an elated state which motivated Davy to set about supervising the construction of a machine that could reliably produce large quantities of the gas with a property that he described as ‘the thrilling’.

Davy soon issued invitations to people in his circle to sample the wondrous gas and experienced 'the thrilling' for themselves. They met at an upstairs drawing room at the Pneumatic Institution in a series of gatherings over the summer. The guests inhaled nitrous oxide from portable bags made of oiled green silk and happily stumbled about in wild merriment, before drifting into a dreamy sedated state. News of the nitrous oxide capers travelled and came to be repeated at ‘laughing parties’ held all over the country. Davy held nitrous sessions with poets Coleridge and Southey, the potter Josiah Wedgwood and the thesaurist Peter Roget.

People could not get enough of a gas that allowed “uneasiness [to be]”, as Davy put it, “for a few minutes swallowed up in pleasure.” He proposed in 1799 that nitrous oxide might be used in surgical operations to deaden pain; but his suggestion went unheeded for another forty-five years. It’s a theme that recurs with any account of the history of mind-altering substances: that they can do medical good is overshadowed by their good-time nature.

High Times in the 18th Century [Debra Daley/The History Girls]