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]


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]


“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


[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.

78 Years of Anonymity

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) celebrates June 10 as the anniversary of its founding. But why and how did the organization form?

As William L White explains in Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, A.A.’s founding occurred soon after the end of Prohibition, a time when there were a lack of places for alcoholics to turn to for help. Most institutions specializing in sobriety closed during Prohibition, and those still open were available only for the upper echelons of society. Overcrowded hospitals and sham home cures only worsened the problem. With the repeal of Prohibition and the start of the New Deal, the time was right for A.A.¹

Alcoholics Anonymous can trace its roots to the Oxford Group, a spiritual movement begun in the early 20th century looking to heal the world “through a movement of personal spiritual change.”¹ In 1934, Bill Wilson (known as Bill W.), a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, heard about the Oxford Group from a member who had stopped drinking with the group’s support. After experiencing a spiritual awakening (which may have resulted from hallucinogenic medications) while at a New York hospital to treat his alcoholism, Bill W. started attending Oxford Group meetings.¹

AlcoholicsAnonymousIn 1935, Bill W. met co-founder Dr. Robert Smith (known as Dr. Bob), an alcoholic trying to remain sober with the help of the local Oxford Group in Akron. The date of Dr. Bob’s last drink—June 10, 1935—marks the founding of A.A, which formally separated from the Oxford Group in 1937 (New York) and 1939 (Akron).¹ In 1939, A.A. published Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism. The book listed and explained A.A.’s 12 steps for the first time. As White notes, it also “broke the mold on earlier books by writing, not only about alcoholism, but to alcoholics.”¹ And by alcoholics, laying out its central tenets in a way that makes it clear that the authors had been through a great deal before regaining sobriety:

“If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution. We were in a position where life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: one was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help. This we did because we honestly wanted to, and were willing to make the effort.”²

Today, we know even more about recovery from alcoholism. Treatment options still include support groups like A.A., and now also incorporate medications and behavioral therapies, often used simultaneously. In addition, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s (NIAAA) National Epidemiological Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions found that some people with alcohol dependence may recover without treatment.³ And researchers have identified genes that can both increase and reduce a person’s likelihood of becoming dependent on alcohol.4

The landscape of alcohol recovery has greatly altered since June 10, 1935. And yet tenets first written down in 1939 retain significance for A.A.’s more than two million members.5

For more on alcohol dependence, visit the NIAAA’s site Rethinking Drinking.

1. White, W. (1998). Slaying the dragon: The history of addiction treatment and recovery in America. Bloomington Ill.: Chestnut Health Systems/Lighthouse Institute.

2. Alcoholics Anonymous: The story of how many more than one hundred men have recovered from alcoholism. (1939). New York: Works Pub. Co.

3. In this issue. (2006).Alcohol Research & Health, 29(2), 72–73. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh29-2/71-73.htm

4. NIH Fact Sheets – Alcohol Dependence (Alcoholism). (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://report.nih.gov/NIHfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=23

5. A.A. General Service Office. (n.d.). A.A. at a Glance. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from http://www.aa.org/pdf/products/f-1_AAataGlance.pdf