Ether for Every Occasion: Wedding Nights, Frolics, and Flammable Binges

The First Use of Ether in Dental Surgery By Ernest Board, 1846.
(Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0)

Derived from ethyl alcohol, ether was a sweet-smelling, colorless liquid that came into medical prominence in the nineteenth century. When vaporized and inhaled, it produced varying degrees of unconsciousness. First employed as a general anesthetic by American doctors in the 1840s, its popularity quickly spread to Victorian England. But ether wasn’t only used during surgeries. It was also used recreationally, as well as to address myriad calamities of life in ways that ranged from the mundane to the outright creepy.

The 1897 edition of A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence reports the case of a newlywed Victorian lady who went into hysterics whenever her husband tried to initiate sex. As a result, the consummation of their marriage was “long delayed.” According to the report:

“The difficulty was at length overcome by the administration of ether vapor. She recovered consciousness during the act of coitus, and there was no subsequent difficulty in intercourse.”

The administration of nitrous oxide and ether by means of Clover’s ether inhaler and Hewitt’s nitrous oxide stopcock.
(Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0)

When inhaled in small amounts, ether had the same effect as nitrous oxide. It produced a brief sense of exhilaration which prompted many to use it recreationally. “Ether parties” and “ether frolics” came into fashion, wherein guests would sniff ether together to get high. In a report in the 1878 edition of the American Journal of Dental Science, a doctor by the name of P. A. Wilhite claims that during the 1830s:

“There was hardly ever a gathering of young people that did not wind up with an ether frolic…Some would laugh, some cry, some fight, and some dance, just as when nitrous oxide is inhaled.”

Vapour or ether inhalation apparatus.
(Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0)

In addition to being used in its vaporized form, ether was also enjoyed as a liquid. It was both less expensive and more potent than alcohol. It was also extremely flammable. There are many reports of fires started by ether drinkers. But that wasn’t the worst of it. An ether drinker’s breath could also become flammable. An 1878 edition of The Popular Science Monthly reports a case in which “the vapor of ether, in the breath of an ether-drinker, caught fire.” As the article states:

“The drinker, in this instance, was reported to be always taking ether, when one day, after swallowing a quantity, he went to light his pipe, and the fire caught his breath. A person near held the burning man down, and poured water quickly into his mouth by which the flame was put out, and no great harm was done.”

There’s no doubt that, when used to alleviate pain during surgery or childbirth, ether was a godsend to denizens of the nineteenth century. As for its other uses—whether recreational or, ahem, matrimonial—I’ll leave you to be the judge.

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Work of Art, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

Barceloux, Donald G. Medical Toxicology of Drug Abuse: Synthesized Chemicals and Psychoactive Plants. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

The Popular Science Monthly, Vols. XIII-XX. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1878.

Taylor, Alfred Swaine. A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence. Philadelphia: Lea Brothers & Co., 1897.

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ellen
ellen
1 year ago

Hmmmm… well, that’s one way to calm down those wedding night jitters! :D

Anne
Anne
1 year ago

Fascinating post! Charlotte Bronte considered using this method so a dentist could do something with her teeth. But then she heard one could say just about anything while under its influence and that was that.She kept a good trip on herself,( except when writing!) Rev Bronte was a strong advocate for its use during childbirth; but many clergymen were not. That is until Queen Victoria used it during one of her deliveries and praised it. That was the end of the debate! It’s amazing how many ways there was to get high back then! lol

Wendy
Wendy
1 year ago

This was a very interesting article! Though I must say that I will never understand how people are in such need to dope themselves up in order to have a good time. To each his own, but I mean, if you need to take drugs for recreational purposes, I don’t think that’s something to brag about!! I’m far more likely to respect someone who takes life as it comes, and doesn’t need (or want) to obliterate their ability to think and act responsibly and appropriately!

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