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Vin Mariani ad, via The Atlantic
Vin Mariani ad, via The Atlantic

5 Forgotten Drug Fads

Vin Mariani ad, via The Atlantic
Vin Mariani ad, via The Atlantic

Some drugs have dynamite PR. Methamphetamine pervades pop culture, iconized by a scowling Walter White and his pork pie hat. Crack cocaine, a mainstay of big-city life since the 1980s, remains in public consciousness with the help of hapless Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Even bath salts and their designer-drug consorts got some well-earned name recognition two summers ago, as sensational headlines howled of faces eaten and an imminent zombie apocalypse.

Other drugs are less fortunate. They wilt into obscurity, remembered only in the footnotes of old news articles. Let us take you through five of the world’s most bizarre and forgotten drug fads.

1. Vin Mariani

Before purified cocaine seeped into the American market in the late 19th century, a cocktail of red Bordeaux and coca leaf extract called Vin Mariani gained popularity across the United States and Europe. Pope Leo XIII awarded the coca-infused wine a shiny gold medal from the Vatican and the drink garnered celebrity endorsements from Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and Frederic Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty. Ulysses S. Grant even relied on that little extra kick while writing his post-presidential memoirs. (It obviously worked—Mark Twain lauded the memoirs as a “literary masterpiece.”) The original version of Coca-Cola, introduced in 1886, similarly touted itself as “the ideal brain tonic” thanks to its cocaine content.

2. Jimson Weed

Wikimedia Commons

Also known as Datura stramonium or "locoweed," Jimson weed has its roots in the fine arts. In Homer’s Odyssey, the nymph Circe poisons Odysseus’ crew with a potion of “malignant drugs,” which modern scientists have hypothesized to be stramonium. In the Léo Delibes opera Lakmé, the titular character uses Jimson weed in her suicide. And in Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, one historian argues, the slumbering Mars might actually be stoned from the Datura stramonium that appears to be painted in the corner. The plant, also used in ancient Chinese and Indian rituals as well as for asthma treatment, causes fever, dry mouth, and vivid hallucinations, all of which could last for hours or even days. Though Jimson weed isn't a popular drug in the 21st century, hospitals occasionally have to treat someone who has fallen for its spell.

3. Mescaline

Wikimedia Commons

Use of mescaline today is nowhere near as widespread as it once was—it’s difficult to synthesize and unable to compete with the more popular LSD. The psychedelic drug is the active amphetamine in the peyote cactus, which grows in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico and has held deep cultural significance for Native American groups for thousands of years. Each button on a peyote cactus contains a very small amount of mescaline and can be chewed, ground into powder, or soaked in water to produce a liquid. And though mescaline has abundant side effects—among them numbness, muscle twitches, intense nausea, and violence—it was popular amongst a wide spectrum of creative types. The drug has captivated everyone from Aldous Huxley to George Carlin to Melissa Joan Hart. Clarissa, explain yourself.

4. Toad-Smoking

Cane toad, via Wikimedia Commons

The compound bufotenin, found in the milky venom of many Bufo genus toads, can be converted into a form of the psychedelic compound DMT. These toads secrete their venom as defense against predators, but applying pressure to their parotoid glands on the back of their heads can also release the bufotenin, along with other toxic compounds. At certain concentrations, the venom can be fatal.

Australia imported the cane toad from Hawaii in 1935 to destroy rampant, destructive beetles. Decades later, daring Aussies began licking live toads to test their psychoactive potential. Americans also developed a taste for the dangerous secretion, particularly that of the Sonoran Desert toad, before discovering a far more efficient way to get high—by smoking its dried venom from a pipe. A 1994 L.A. Times headline sums up this fad neatly: “The quest for new highs has led some seekers to a new low.”

5. Quaaludes

'The Wolf of Wall Street,' Paramount Pictures

Quaaludes owe a big thanks to Martin Scorsese and The Wolf of Wall Street for lobbing them back into the national conversation this winter. Created in the 1950s by Indian researchers searching for a malaria cure, methaqualone offered a safer alternative to addictive barbiturates and became a popular sleeping pill marketed under various names. Quaaludes—a portmanteau for “quiet interlude”—was one such brand.

By the late 1960s, a black market flourished as college students began to abuse the drug. A decade later, Quaalude users began combining the potent drug with alcohol to “’lude out”—a practice which at best reduced stress and lowered inhibitions and at worst could lead to liver failure, respiratory arrest, or death. Indeed, the drug had tragic consequences: The beloved Freddie Prinze committed suicide under its influence and it was one of many substances found in 42-year-old Elvis Presley when he died. The DEA finally labeled it a Schedule I Controlled Substance in 1984.

Bonus: The Bananadine Hoax

If the prospect of scraping, boiling, and drying the insides of banana peels to yield a psychoactive drug called “Bananadine” seems like a real stretch, that’s because it is. Theories on this hoax’s origins vary, but most agree that its first written account was in a March 3, 1967 editorial for the Berkeley Barb, a Bay Area underground weekly. Columnist Ed Denson wrote that he had been “turned on to bananas” during a trip to Vancouver, offering up the instructions for extracting Bananadine as his “recipe of the week.” “This recipe has been hinted at in earlier literature, and the high is thought to be something like an opium high,” he wrote. That same issue of the Barb also contained a letter to the editor from an anonymous reader who claimed to have seen the Berkeley police “narco squad” sniffing around the produce section for suspicious-looking banana buyers.

Mainstream media outlets fell hard for the hoax. The University of Michigan’s student newspaper ran a story headlined, “Cheap ‘Trip’ Ticket, Students Say: You Can Fly High on Banana Peel.” By late March the New York Times and Wall Street Journal chimed in, reporting that an alarming number of hippies were tripping on banana peels. Finally, the FDA mounted what it called a “very complex” weeks-long investigation of Bananadine’s possible hallucinogenic or euphoric qualities, only to find that it had none. Subsequent studies, to the surprise of many, confirmed the placebo effect. Case closed.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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