It seems appropriate to post my final addiction-themed post of the year on New Year’s Eve. I’m already anticipating the usual New Year’s Day article decrying the scenes in Britain’s towns and cities, amply illustrated with photos of young women in high heels slumped on benches and on the edge of pavements (the Daily Mail seem to do this each year like clockwork).
The trope of the woman collapsed in the street, worse the wear for drink or other substances, isn’t a new one, nor is it confined to Britain. In 1897 a number of American newspapers carried a piece entitled Picked up on Broadway, vividly describing an incident in which a woman was found unconscious in the street and hurried to the nearest hospital. Once there she was discovered ‘to be covered with sores caused by the hypodermic injection of morphine’, which she had begun taking to relieve the pains of a uterine disorder. The piece was accompanied by an illustration of the woman’s collapse: helped up by a male passer-by, her eyes downcast, one arm propping herself up on the pavement, the other held limply in her lap. By her side lie the packages she has dropped in her fall. In the background, another man advances towards the scene to help and a woman raises a hand to her mouth in shocked fascination.
Picked up on Broadway was not a news item, however, but a cleverly presented advert for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a ‘herbal’ tonic for women (which incidentally contained a rather heady 20.6% alcohol, a not unusual constituent of late 19th-century medicinal ‘tonics’). The text went on to explain that had the lady in the story – once a successful employee of a New York publishers – used Pinkham’s Compound she would now be sitting happily in her office, ‘a well woman’. A similarly-constructed advert of the period, for Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets, positioned the pellets as alternatives to women’s too-frequent recourse to addictive ‘headache powders’. (An interesting reversal of the trend was an 1890 advert for Duffey’s Pure Malt Whiskey, presented in the form of a conversation with a doctor who advised women to keep up their strength with the whisky between meals – an advert that didn’t escape the attention of temperance activists.)
The figure of the lady slumped on the pavement in Picked up on Broadway mirrored the ‘unfeminine pose’ often used by Victorian temperance authors. Rachel McErlain in Women and Alcohol: Social Perspectives (2015) contends that images of drunken women being carried from public houses on stretchers, for example, ‘shock[ed] the viewer … [and] reinforce[d] the message that female intoxication [was] dramatically different from normative feminine bodily practice’. The depiction of the woman collapsed on the pavement could be a powerful shaming practice, drawing attention to the drinking or drug-taking woman as deviant, but also capitalising on the public appetite for sensation. Adverts such as Picked up on Broadway, or those for Dr. Pierce’s Pellets, could serve a double purpose: critiquing the behaviour of the modern woman and at the same time selling a product to the reader. I’d be interested to know how far 19th-century readers of these ads actually considered the problem of drug use or drinking in any depth, or if – like those being pleasingly shocked by images of more modern New Year’s Eve debauchery – it was simply a brief bit of entertainment.