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For many modern drug users, the concept of “recovery” can be life-changing. By breaking free from drugs and/or alcohol, addicts can live a healthy and productive life, free from the bondage of addiction. However, the process isn’t usually easy, and numerous addicts have to work at recovery many times before it sticks.

While the modern recovery movement has its roots in 1935, the year Alcoholics Anonymous was established, addiction treatment has been around since the 18th century. Treatment in the 1700s was typically focused on alcohol, the most prevalent recreational drug at the time. The widespread call against the consumption of alcohol became known as the temperance movement.


That’s not to say that alcohol was the only substance with which people over-imbibed in the 18th century. Laudanum, a tincture of morphine and alcohol, was widely used to treat a variety of ailments, from diarrhea and coughing to hysteria and insomnia. And, as morphine is a highly addictive opioid, the result was a large number of people living with laudanum dependency. At the time, however, the laudanum tincture wasn’t seen as a substance that required treatment.

Religion as a Catalyst of Recovery

18th-century culture was heavily focused on religion, so it’s no surprise that the temperance movement sprung from godly beliefs. Founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, called alcohol a public menace as early as 1743, declaring that “buying, selling, and drinking of liquor, unless absolutely necessary, were evils to be avoided.” Temperance remained a localized movement, however, until the 1820s.


Just over 40 years after Wesley declared alcohol to be “evil,” physician and educator Benjamin Rush would bring the concept of addiction into the mainstream. Rush’s “Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body,” published in 1784, argued that alcoholism is a disease requiring treatment. At the time, those with alcohol dependency were often confined to asylums or attended alcoholic mutual aid societies that were focused on overcoming the substance addiction.


Today, addiction treatment is much more nuanced, with options that include everything from informal 12-step recovery groups to hyper-focused, in-patient treatment at addiction centers. Addiction treatment has even crossed into the realm of social work. Substance abuse social workers serve as advocates for drug addicts and lend their support to community programs that focus on eradicating addiction. As addiction is a complex, large-scale issue, social workers are often imperative to the recovery process.

Parallels Between Modern and 18th Century Addicts

An epidemic of the modern age, opioid use has become increasingly widespread over the last decade. Opioids are the most common cause of drug-related deaths, and opioid overdoses cause about 78 deaths nationwide every day. No substance in the 1700s even comes close to causing that level of devastation.


For the majority of those addicted to opioids in the modern era, the journey of addiction began with pain management. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioid prescriptions peaked in 2012, with a prescribing rate of 81.3 prescriptions per 100 persons. Opioids are generally prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain, including post-surgery pain and chronic conditions.


Opioids were also used as a pain management technique in the 1700s, although laudanum was used in place of modern painkillers such as codeine and fentanyl. Notably, a number of prominent men of the era used laudanum to relieve pain, including Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson and Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.

Addiction and Treatment Across Populations

Alcohol abuse was typically seen as a lower class problem in the 1700s, most notably in England. There, the so-called “gin craze” caused an uproar among upstanding English citizens. In over-populated 18th century London, unemployment, and poverty were rampant, and a large chunk of the lower classes turned to gin to ease their minds. Public intoxication was rampant during this time, and English women turned to the bottle in droves.


Addiction is a problem that affects everyone, of every social class, age, and race. However, women may be at a higher risk of complications stemming from addiction, due to the simple factor of biology. Drug and alcohol use has been shown to have a direct impact on a developing fetus, making addiction even more dangerous for pregnant women. Birth defects, miscarriages, stillbirths, and developmental disorders after birth are just a few of the negative effects of drug and/or alcohol use during pregnancy.


While the stillbirth rate in the 1700s was higher than it is today, it’s impossible to tell how many of those births could be attributed to drugs or alcohol. What is certain is that addiction treatment, both in the past and the modern age, maybe even more imperative for women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant.

Final Thoughts

Addiction has been recognized as a social issue since the 1700s, but today’s addicts have a higher chance of recovery than those in the past. Modern addiction treatment can be tailored to an individual’s needs, depending on factors such as budget and the substance one is addicted to. Drug addicts in the 18th century had more of a one-size-fits-all option: An asylum or total abstinence was the only accepted forms of addiction treatment.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.