Check out this fascinating trove of images depicting opium addiction from our friends at Dangerous Minds.
Opium gained its notoriety in the 19th-century with the advent of global trade and mass migration. Across Europe, upper-class writers and artists indulged their fancies by taking laudanum or eating opium leaves and pellets. The calming, soporific qualities of the drug were used in numerous medicines to treat babies, children, and adults. From teething problems to nervous disorders—opium was the medicine of the masses.
The word opium has a complex history that can often be misrepresented to mask racist and xenophobic fears. In the 1920s and 1930s, many writers of popular pulp thrillers (like Sax Rohmer) regularly featured villainous oriental types who intoxicated innocent blonde damsels with opium before selling them on to the horrors of “white slavery.”
From the 1850s on, the opium den spread across the world as a seedy place of refuge for commoner and lord. In Europe opium was viewed as a potentially liberating and creative touchstone. In America, it was seen as an evil and degenerate drug that led to vice, squalor, poverty, madness and death.
However, it should be noted that when the use of opium and the opium den was most prevalent or most virulent—depending on your view—that both America and Europe were at the peak of an industrial, social and cultural revolution. Opium did not appear to make people slackers. Even a fictional hero like Sherlock Holmes indulged in the occasional pipe—all in the line of duty, of course.
By the 1900s, the opium den was no longer quite so ubiquitous. There were dens still to be found in most cosmopolitan cities like New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris, but opium was now mainly a fashionable prop for the bohemian, artistic, and literary class to indulge. Those who wanted a real kick sought opium in other forms—first as morphine then as heroin.
In a rather horrific twist of fate, morphine was originally considered to be the cure for opium addiction. In the late nineteenth century, morphine pills were introduced to China to help cure opium addicts. These pills were called “Jesus opium” as they were given out by missionaries. This “cure” was also sold in America right up until the 1906 U.S. Pure Food and Drug Addict which meant drug content had to be specified and banned the sale of products with false claims.
Opium addicts and opium dens became a fixture of Hollywood movies and pulp fictions. In Hollywood, these low-rent places were often depicted as some kind of exotic harem, with scantily-clad women draped over cushions, while eunuchs looked on and a nefarious hand-rubbing villain cackled. The reality was far more disappointing and seedy. Dens were airless, usually windowless spaces with air vents and doors sealed with blankets to prevent the telltale smell of opium smoke from escaping. They were also makeshift, as they had to be easily dismantled or rearranged in case of a police raid.
An Opium Den, Chinatown, San Francisco, California, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views
An opium den in Shanghai
“White Women in Opium Den, Chinatown, S. F.: From Album of views of California and the West, Canada, and China”
China, Opium smokers by Lai Afong, c1880
Smokers in Old Kolkata 1945. A little snooping in Chinatown will turn up the little opium dens stuck down an alley (not recommended without police escort). Actually, the smokers shown in this picture do it legally. Each den is licensed for so many pipes. Each pipe costs a rupee, a phial of opium five rupees. Average smoker consumes a phial a day and there are about 186 pipes licensed in Calcutta.
Photographer Brass’s self-portrait in a Parisian opium den, 1931
Opium party in Paris, photographed by Brassai
Pets often became addicted to opium by inhalation of the fumes. An addict and his cat in San Francisco.
An opium den in a boarding house in San Francisco, circa 1890.
A movie version of an opium den from 1918.
A more traditional opium den in Singapore, 1941
An opium den in San Francisco, circa 1890.
Opium den 1920’s New York.