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.

“FEAR Narcotic Drugs!” The Passage of the Harrison Act

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 6, March 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 6, March 25, 1900.

One hundred years ago today, Congress approved the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. The Act’s passage critically impacted drug policy for the remainder of the century, and the habits of physicians with regard to prescribing and dispensing medicine.

By 1900, use of narcotics was at its peak for both medical and non-medical purposes. Advertisements promoting opium- and cocaine-laden drugs saturated the newspapers; morphine seemed more easily obtainable than alcohol; and widespread sale of drugs and drug paraphernalia gained the attention of medical professionals and private citizens alike.1 State regulations failed to effectively curb distribution and use.2

Physicians and pharmacists recognized they had an image problem. In 1901, the American Pharmaceutical Association formed a committee to study the country’s drug problem and recommended the ban of non-medical drug use.3 The American Medical Association seconded the APA’s pitch and strongly advocated for federal legislation.4

Hamilton Wright. In Morgan, Drugs in America. A Social History 1800-1980.

Dr. Hamilton Wright. In H. Wayne Morgan, Drugs in America. A Social History 1800-1980, p. 99.

This groundswell in support of federal action among local medical professionals also had roots overseas. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, the U.S. inherited control of the Philippines, and with it a serious opium problem. An American missionary, Charles Henry Brent, convened a commission in 1903 that recommended narcotics be subject to international control.5 Roosevelt seized on these findings, recognizing an opportunity to improve relations with China. In 1908 he initiated an international conference in Shanghai to talk about the narcotics problem. The President sent Brent and Hamilton Wright, U.S. Opium Commissioner, to represent the U.S.6 Wright, an outspoken, charismatic, and controversial figure, was central to the eventual passage of the Harrison Act.

Passage of a federal law would not be easy. In April of 1910, at Wright’s behest, Representative David Foster proposed a bill banning the non-medical use of opiates, cocaine, chloral hydrate, and cannabis, with harsh penalties for violations. The purchase of patent medicines containing any of these ingredients would require tax stamps and strict record-keeping. Proponents of the bill stressed the link between criminalization and drug use. Despite Wright’s best efforts, the uncompromising Foster bill garnered strong resistance from manufacturers and druggists, and died in Congress.7

A clipping from the library's Healy Collection,  which contains 19th century images, mostly clipped from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and Harper’s Weekly. Click to enlarge.

A clipping from the library’s Healy Collection, which contains 19th century images, mostly clipped from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and Harper’s Weekly. Click to enlarge.

Two more international conferences followed, at The Hague in 1911 and 1912. Soon after, Wright renewed his commitment to pass federal anti-drug legislation. A new bill proposed by Tammany representative Francis Burton Harrison, again at Wright’s urging, looked very similar to the Foster bill. But after two years of negotiations in Congress, the final legislation incorporated several key compromises. Physicians could dispense medication to patients without record-keeping. Patent medicines with legal amounts of narcotic substances could be sold by mail order or in general stores. Cannabis and chloral hydrate were omitted from regulation. With these concessions, opposition from pharmaceutical and medical professionals softened, agreement was reached, and the bill was signed into law on December 17, 1914.8

The immediate impact of the Act’s passage was confusion. The law offered only vague implementation guidelines. Was it largely a taxation measure, or was it intended to monitor and regulate professional activity? The Act’s major ambiguity related to the authority of physicians to prescribe maintenance doses of narcotics to already-addicted patients. Two 1919 Supreme Court cases clarified the issue. U.S. vs. Doremus found the Harrison Act constitutional and validated the government’s ability to regulate prescription practices for addicts. Webb et al. vs. U.S. denied physicians the power to provide maintenance doses.

The Supreme Court decisions forced addicts to locate new sources. They turned to the black market, where they paid top dollar. Petty crime increased.9 Penalties for violation of the Harrison Act were harsh. In the early years of the law, conviction numbers were relatively low—most years fewer than 500—but by 1919, the year of the Supreme Court rulings, convictions showed a marked upward trend. By 1923, convictions were approaching 5,000 per annum.10

The effect of the legislation on addicts was not viewed unsympathetically by the medical establishment, or even by law enforcement. Even the head of New York’s dope squad, Lieutenant Scherb, seemed concerned: “Many of [the addicts] are doubled up in pain at this very minute and others are running to the police and hospitals to get relief….the suffering among them is really terrible.”11 Beginning in 1919, authorities and public health officials cooperated to develop 44 addiction recovery facilities. These new facilities were short-lived, and most had closed by 1921. Unpopular with the public, many shut down because the lion’s share of patients found themselves back on the streets again.

NYAM holds a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from 1926-1927 illustrating that drug abuse was still front and center in America’s mind well after the Harrison Act’s passage.12 Most articles framed narcotic users as criminals: what was once a legal pastime was now seen as a major threat to American society. One clipping quotes Harvey Waite of the Association for the Prevention of Drug and Narcotic Addicts of Michigan: “Drug addicts are a menace to the peaceful citizens of the United States because from them come the most notorious criminals and lawbreakers.”

From the library's scrapbook of 1926-1927 newspaper clippings. Click to enlarge.

From the library’s scrapbook of 1926-1927 newspaper clippings. Click to enlarge.

The Harrison Act’s most lasting impact was in how it shifted the public conversation from a discussion about regulating a legal activity to eliminating an illegal one. The Act would form the cornerstone of all drug legislation to come, including the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.


1. Musto, David F. The American Disease Origins of Narcotic Control. New York: Oxford, 1999. Pp. 3-8.

2. Morgan, H. Wayne. Drugs in America. A Social History 1800-1980. Pp. 101-102.

3. Morgan, p. 102.

4. Musto, p. 56-57.

5. Courtwright, David T. Dark Paradise Opiate Addiction in America before 1940. Cambridge: Harvard, 1982.

6. Morgan, 99-100.

7. Musto, 47-48.

8. Morgan, 106-108 and Musto, 59-61.

9. Hodgson, Barbara. In the Arms of Morpheus. The Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine, and Patent Medicines. Buffalo: Firefly, 2001. P. 128.

10. Erlin and Spillane, pp. 44-45.

11. The New York Times, April 15, 1915.

12. [Narcotics]. Clippings from newspapers from Dec. 1926-Sept. 1932. [New York?, 1926-1932]. 3 v. Email history@nyam.org to request.