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Dalnavert on Drugs: Dalnavert Museum explores medicinal attitudes in the Victorian era

Dalnavert on Drugs: Dalnavert Museum explores medicinal attitudes in the Victorian era


Every Sunday at 1:30pm the Dalnavert Museum and Visitors Centre at 61 Carlton Street invites visitors to explore and examine how medicinal times have changed, especially when it comes to household medications and supplements. 

Called Dalnavert on Drugs, this tour explores the societal and medicinally acceptable norms of the Victorian Era. It demonstrates how attitudes have changed and how medical advancement and Federal oversight has helped to protect us from chemicals that 19th century people would not have thought twice about ingesting. 

This tour promises to be highly engaging and educational and a great insight into Victorian era thinking and societal issues. 

One of the themes that becomes obvious throughout the exhibit is the ignorance people had towards drugs and what they were putting in their bodies. 

Ines Bonacossa is the collections registrar and tour guide for the Dalnavert on Drugs Tour, she describes the situation. “They talked about patent medicine and what that meant was that the name was patented. There was absolutely no obligation whatsoever to list the ingredients. Many of the medications had alcohol and all kinds of herbs including cocaine, morphine, and opium.” 

Lack of regulation created a market where snake oil salespeople could make a great deal of money. If a tonic was sold and there were a couple of people in your social circle that said it worked that was proof enough for many. The product was considered even more trustworthy if there was an MD at the end of the seller’s name. “It was very easy for anybody to add the initials MD after their name. Once you did that, whatever product you were selling had automatic credibility,” explains Bonacossa. Many of the creators of these tonics had no medical training. There was no way at the time that credentials could be verified, so people took the MD as legitimate. 

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The Dalnavert on Drugs tour also deals with social issues regarding attitudes towards alcohol and tobacco in the Victorian era, especially when dealing with the difference in genders. As Bonacossa explains, “Men were allowed to drink…it’s not like women did not drink… but they were seen as degenerate if they did so. There were those that felt that maternal instincts should have prevented them from engaging in that kind of behavior.” 

The tour is set up in a way that people move from room to room in the Dalnavert house. As they tour the house, issues such as medicines for ailments, the use of hard drugs such as opium, and medical aids for raising children are discussed. 

The tour offers an interesting look at attitudes of the past and the ignorance and gullibility of society during the Victorian era. 

With the benefit of advancements in medicine and regulatory bodies such as Health Canada, it is far too easy for us to judge with our 21st century view of the world. The tour makes the point that because people did not know what was in the medicines, the fact that the tonics seemed to work was enough. It begs the question, if we were around in the 19th century, would we not be tempted to use these same tonics to deal with sickness and pain? 

The Dalnavert on Drugs tour is limited to those ages 16 and up, and the tour group is limited to no larger than five people.  

To register for a tour, go to the Dalnavert Museum’s website.  

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