Opium in the Library: A ‘Smorgasbord’ of Twentieth-Century Understandings of Addiction and Drug Use

By Hannah Johnston, Library Volunteer

“For sale in the open market — misery, degradation, crime, shame, disgrace, and untold suffering — who’ll buy, who’ll buy? … All the world, apparently.”[1] In her 1927 New York American article, “Disgrace and Crime Sold Openly in the Opium Market!”, Winifred Black bemoaned the toll that the opium trade and widespread use of the drug took on the American people.[2] She cautioned readers grimly of the fate of opium smokers, warning that using the drug would lead them to become “flitting shadows of men.”[3]

Dunham_Clippings_1927_BlackArticle_watermark

Winifred Black’s article in the February 22, 1927 New York American. NYAM Collection.

Black’s alarming article sits with hundreds of companions in a handmade, three-volume collection of clippings of news articles about narcotics dating from 1926–1932. The articles may have been collected by Lawrence Boardman Dunham Sr. (1882–1959), who was heavily involved in efforts to stem New York City’s drug trade in the 1920s and 1930s.[4] The collection was acquired by the NYAM Library in 1950.

More than fifty years later, in 2013, Thomas Reed donated an assortment of his own. Aptly titled Smorgasbord for Newcomers, and compiled in the 1970s by Reed and his colleague Herschel Kaminsky, the four-volume collection contains various photocopied writings and pieces pertaining to New York’s controversial Addiction Services Agency (ASA) from 1967–1975.[5] Founded in 1967, the ASA coordinated and operated drug rehabilitation programs in the city.[6] The Smorgasbord covers the Agency’s history, therapeutic approaches, legal battles, and much more.[7] Together, the narcotics article clippings and the Smorgasbord showcase the changing ways the U.S. handled and conceptualized opioid use and addiction, and demonstrate how these kinds of collected materials are exciting historical artifacts in and of themselves.

Lawrence Boardman Dunham’s apparent understanding of the drug crisis of the 1920s and 1930s, as evidenced by the clippings he chose to collect, was colored by a morality-based concern for the consequences of drug use and the drug trade.[8] The articles expressed concern and even outright fear over specific drugs — morphine, heroin — as well as over the vague but terrifying catchalls “narcotics” or “dope.” Writers stressed the threats drugs posed to society, particularly noting the supposed relationship between drugs and criminal activity. Just one day after her “Disgrace and Crime” article, Winifred Black published again in New York American on the issue of opium, this time warning the public of addicts themselves. She asserted that “[many] of the most brutal murders in America have been committed under the urge for morphine.”[9]

To the modern eye, these articles seem highly sensationalized, but their use of what we might today see as fear-mongering suggests a vested interest in prevention (as opposed to treatment) of addiction, particularly through the “education” offered by the articles. “Ignorance is the ally of the Drug Menace,” quipped an article in the Boston Daily Advertiser. “Knowledge is its enemy — the ONLY enemy which can scotch the serpent, and, some day, slay it!”[10]

Dunham_Clippings_1927_FearNarcoticsArticle_watermark

“FEAR Narcotic Drugs!” in the February 23, 1927 Boston Daily Advertiser. NYAM Collection.

In the intervening years between the sensational news stories of the narcotics clippings and the politically fraught world of the Smorgasbord, New York City saw numerous political as well as medical changes in the way drug use was understood and managed on a citywide level. In 1944, at the request of Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia (for whose first mayoral campaign, it should be noted, Dunham was the campaign manager), a committee formed by the New York Academy of Medicine released a report on “The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York.”[11] Although the LaGuardia Report debunked claims that this particular drug caused “delinquency” and crime, it confirmed larger-scale prevailing ideas about drug use even as it refuted them — namely its social nature.[12]

This continuity with the world of the narcotics clippings, however, contrasts with the apparent growing government interest in more deeply understanding drugs — in particular opioids —  and those who used them. The contents of the Smorgasbord reflect this ongoing shift. In particular, the first volume of the Smorgasbord reveals the ways the Addiction Services Agency engaged with changing views of addiction — while many powerful figures in the early years of the agency clung to moral and social understandings of opioid addiction, the document makes clear the growing trend towards understanding addiction as a physiological affliction.[13] Reed and Kaminsky’s collections reveal an agency with changing and conflicting ideas, motives, and goals in the growing opioid crisis of the 1960s and 1970s.

The narcotics article clippings from Lawrence Boardham Dunham and the Smorgasbord are wonderful and rare sets of materials. Both collections offer a snapshot of the country’s (and particularly New York City’s) understanding of narcotic drugs. However, the collections also reflect the positions and motivations of the individuals who compiled them. As modern readers, we can learn much from them — both from what is in them and from what has been left out. The clippings and the Smorgasbord can show us how the U.S. grappled with addiction at different points in the 20th century, but can also reveal the ways in which the compilers’ own thoughts and feelings influenced the stories they put together.

This blog post was written in anticipation of The New York Academy of Medicine’s upcoming Opioid Symposium on Friday, September 20th, 2019. See more details and register here. You can also “adopt” the two works featured in this blog post, which will help ensure their care and preservation. See more information about this here

References

[1] Winifred Black, “Disgrace and Crime Sold Openly in the Opium Market!”, New York American, February 22, 1927, from [Lawrence Boardman Dunham clippings and correspondence albums], Dec 1936 to Sept 1932, Volume 1, Manuscripts, New York Academy of Medicine Library, New York, NY.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Description for [Lawrence Boardman Dunham clippings and correspondence albums].

[5] Thomas Reed and Herschel Kaminsky (compilers). Smorgasbord for Newcomers, circa 1967–1975, Volume 1, Manuscripts, New York Academy of Medicine Library, New York, NY.

[6] “A Political History of the Addiction Services Agency,” Smorgasbord, Volume 1, Part ii, 23.

[7] Reed and Kaminsky, Smorgasbord.

[8] [Lawrence Boardman Dunham clippings and correspondence albums].

[9] Winifred Black, “Opium Held Accountable for All Drug Addict Evils,” New York American, February 23, 1927, [Lawrence Boardman Dunham clippings and correspondence albums]. It should be noted that Black, along with many of her contemporaries, use the word “opium” seemingly to refer to opioid drugs such as morphine as well as or instead of pure opium itself.

[10] “FEAR Narcotic Drugs!”, Boston Daily Advertiser, February 23, 1927, [Lawrence Boardman Dunham clippings and correspondence albums].

[11] Mayor’s Committee on Marihuana. The marihuana problem in the city of New York : sociological, medical, psychological and pharmacological studies.  Lancaster, PA: The Jaques Cattell Press, 1944.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “A Political History of the Addiction Services Agency,” Smorgasbord, Volume 1, Part ii.

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About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, which includes the Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health and the history of the book. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curatorial and conservation professionals, and the general public. The Center’s Library is one of the largest medical collections in the United States open to the general public, to whom it has been available since 1878.

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