The 1950s are often idolized as a relatively pure era in self-image and fiction: People were friendly and helpful and knew how to behave, children did not need to have fear of stranger-danger, the streets were clean, the family was intact (The manly man is working and protects his lovely girly housewife which life goal is the family), the black p...(ooops, erase erase erase).

One part I am interested in is how far the presented image was based in reality. Many drugs were already readily available (morphine which is used to suppress pain is not much different from heroin, in fact heroin was produced first from morphine). We have now the ability to check for traces of substance abuse in hairs and other body tissue from dead people and I would like to know if there have been papers about historical drug abuse and how the different epochs compare to each other (especially such epochs which present themselves as having no drug problem at all).

How common was secret drug abuse of illegal substances in the 1950s?.

Another question which directly comes from the first: Alcohol and cigarettes were legal, widespread, cheap and often socially expected in one way or other. There were also many drugs easily available and legal which are harmful and addicting if taken frequently, e.g. codeine (as cough medicine). The problem is that a dead female beautiful A+ pupil in a toilet with a needle in the arm is much more prone to enrage people than a silently dying anonymous person with lung cancer in intensive care.

If we add all numbers of substance-abuse related deaths without looking at the legality (so alcohol, cigarettes and legal drugs included) how many people died of it in the 1950s compared to the following periods?

ADDITION: Mark C. Wallace asked for the country. I choose the USA because it served as role model after the war and was embraced by political conservatism throughout Europe.

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    @MarkC.Wallace There are countries that are not America?
    – SPavel
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 16:29
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    You seem to have multiple questions here. Also, how can you differentiate deaths from lung cancer caused by smoking,( when the 50's didn't even acknowledge that as valid), vs other lung cancer deaths such as coal miners, asbestos exposed workers,returning soldiers exposed to who knows what nasties, ect. Same is true for alcohol.
    – justCal
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 16:38
  • @user2448131 The question is twofold because I am both interested in the effect of legal and illegal drugs during the era. And as I am only interested in the substance-abuse cause (in contrast to other environment influences): We have now pretty much medical data how the death rate increases by the use of specific drugs. Compare that to the sold cigarettes and alcohol and you should get a pretty good estimate how many people were killed. I could do it myself, but I would like to avoid original research if someone else already did it. Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 16:52
  • @SPavel 1950s West Germany was in fact also an extremely conservative country under the Adenauer era, so the question would have fitted for it, too. Mind you, Cold War was beginning and the mental borders were rising, so Marks question is fully valid. The USA is a better indicator because it suffered not so much under the war circumstances (no malnutrition, no hardship/losses of the civilian population, all the bad circumstances influencing the life expectancy). Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 17:02
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    WWII brought a lot addicts home, amphetamines and barbituates were widely used to keep soldiers awake for fighting, and to sedate them to counter the affects of the amps (and to eliminate stress) Also morphine addiction was somewhat common. In addition to the soldiers, pharma companies began to market these same meds to housewifes like miltown and librium, aka "mothers little helper." See - nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMbkrev0809177#t=article
    – ed.hank
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 17:03

3 Answers 3


In the 1950s, drug abuse took place day and night in millions of middle-class bathrooms. The medicine cabinets of average white Americans featured dangerous, highly addictive, 100% legal drugs prescribed by the family doctor. By the time "bennies" and "black beauties" helped destroy Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland, and well before Seconal and Nembutal did for Marilyn Monroe, many a good suburban host was expected to have something much kickier than Miltown for guests suffering vapors or insomnia.

For a start, see this chart - from an article on Pub Med.

  • 2
    Finally an answer attempting to include relevant data... +1
    – Brian Z
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 12:27
  • On some days I'm nearly convinced that the Internet is actually the lynchpin of a global conspiracy to undermine critical thinking skills.
    – K. Madelyn
    Commented Jan 19 at 9:41

Well, drugs and drug abuse has been around since the beginning of man, of that I am positive. In the Victorian era, for instance, addiction to laudanum was a major thing. Mary Todd Lincoln (the First Lady) was said to have been so addicted.

As far as the American 50's, according to a blog I read the wide-spread drug abuse of the 60's was the direct result of the behind-the-scenes drug use of the 50's. The Beat Generation (aka Beatnicks) were the abusers of the 50s.

WWII caused a boom in the development of pain killers. The drugs of choice of the 50s appear to have been Marijuana, Heroin and LSD. Their main usage demographics, however, were mostly inner-city and the so-called Jazz-scene.

The blog is pretty enlightening and finished with several citations. Well worth a read.

My Google search terms used here was "drug use in the 50s"

  • 3
    The Cross and the Switchblade which claims to be a true memoir of a Christian pastor working in 1950's New York City, mostly with Black and Puerto Rican teens, tells of the use of Marijuana, Heroin, and Barbiturates (goofballs).
    – Mike
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 0:32
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    also the massive addiction of housewifes in this era to amphetamines, barbituates, miltown, librium, etc. This was the start of pharma companies as we think of them today with marketting and advertising, etc... and they massively pushed their products. You could get a prescription for amphetmine just to lose a couple pounds, or a prescription for barbituates because you were a light sleeper. Addiction to pharmas was not widely understood or acknowledged at that time. "Mothers Little Helpers" replaced the laudanum/opium of the victorian housewifes.
    – ed.hank
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 17:15
  • @ed.hank exactly. But that wasn't part of the bigger widespread culture so contemporary personal reports are likely to just miss it
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 13:47

Two short answers:

1) By today's standards, "not a lot."
2) By the standards of the preceding decades, "a lot." That's because the 1950s represented the "dawn" of today's drug culture.

"Conservative 1950s" describes only the adult culture of the time. That's because the adults had lived through the deprivations of the the Great Depression, and the hardships of World War II, and didn't want to "rock the boat." But in their heart of hearts, they strove, and succeeded in providing less "deprived" childhoods for their children.

These children responded by creating a looser, wilder, subculture. It exploded in the 1960s when these children became young adults, but this was "incubated" in the 1950s. These children were mentored by a handful of "countercultural" adults of their parents' age called the Beat Generation, sometimes referred to as "Beatniks." According to Wikipedia:

"Central elements of Beat culture are rejection of standard narrative values, spiritual quest, exploration of American and Eastern religions, rejection of materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration."

That's why the drug culture, as we know it today, got started in the 1950s. It was produced by what John Kenneth Galbraith called the "Affluent Society," which started after World War II in America, and continued with minor interruptions (1973-74, 1979-82, 2008-2009) to this day.

The drug culture was shared in Europe, with a time lag, because Europe also shared in the American affluent society. Asian countries didn't "catch up" with regard to affluence and drug use until much later.

  • 2
    "Asian countries...." I presume you have heard of the Opium War.
    – fdb
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 18:53
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    This answer would be enhanced with sources.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 18:57
  • @Bregalad: I had two main citations. The "Beat Generation link, and John Kenneth Galbraith's "Affluent Society" for background information. In the last paragraph, I was alleging the Affluent Society in "cause and effect." As usual, this (and other) conclusions are mine, not someone else's and therefore are not sourced.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:00
  • @fdb: I was talking about modern times. Many Asian countries still have draconian penalties for drug use. The Opium War. 175 years ago, was not a "choice." It was the removal of said draconian penalties in China at gunpoint.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:03
  • Given the huge amphetamine problem we have in SE Asia, I think we caught up. :-(
    – Jos
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 3:08

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