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Wellcome Image of the week: Hall’s Coca Wine

20 Sep, 2013

Hall's Coca wineWe take a look back in time this week as we delve into the Wellcome Images archive of adverts. The picture above is an advertisement from the early 1900s for Hall’s Coca Wine – the self-proclaimed “Elixir of Life”. This was a restorative with a surprising ingredient: Cocaine!

Coca wine was made from the leaves of the Erythroxylum Coca plant. In the late 1800s and early 1900s coca leaves were thought to have great medicinal value and many brands of coca wine were created.  This advert was an insert in a magazine and some of the supposed health benefits of the wine are listed on the reverse. These include “Sleeplessness, Bronchitis, Neuralgia, Influenza, Anaemia, Mental Fatigue, Exhaustion” and if that weren’t enough, they also claim it treats menstrual disorders, or “sickness, so common to ladies” as they put it.

The advert also describes the origins of the coca leaves, largely grown in Peru and Bolivia, where chewing the leaves allows the locals to “undergo the excessive labour in the mines and other laborious industries”, because of an alkaloid found in the leaves (cocaine). “The value of which cannot be overestimated.”

Coca was used by South Americans for hundreds of years and was recognised early by Westerners as a potential medicine, the advert quotes Joseph Acosta from 1600 saying “I hold that it gives strength and courage to the Indians; for one sees the effect of it, as in travelling for many days with only a handful of coca leaves.”

By the late 1800s, British physicians were recommending coca as a medicine, which the advert is keen to emphasise: “the undeniable value of coca as a restorative and nervine is now fully recognised by the medical profession”. The recommended dose of coca wine was one glassful for adults and half a glassful for children several times a day. It was also recommended for professional singers half an hour before their performance. Coca-Cola was originally created as a non-alcoholic coca wine, and contained cocaine until 1903 when instead of active coca leaves, it started using coca leaves that had already had the cocaine extracted.

The advert dates back to 1916 and shows just how much attitudes towards cocaine have changed in the past 100 years.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London 
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