Chinese Opium Dens and the “Satellite Fiends of the Joints”

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visits an opium den. Cinemax, 2014

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visits an opium den in The Knick. Cinemax, 2014

Dr. John Thackery passes through a number of dimly-lit opium dens in the heart of New York’s Chinatown during the course of The Knick. What were these dens really like—and who frequented them?

In the mid-19th century, the Chinatowns of America were largely isolated communities, populated by immigrants brought by labor brokers to work on the Central Pacific Railroad or other jobs. Many of these workers planned to return home after several years; there was little desire to assimilate. Scholar Gunther Barth has suggested that with the safety of a familiar culture came familiar vices.1

A large number of Chinese immigrants came from Canton, a region with a rich history of opium-smoking. As the Chinese presence spread east, opium dens cropped up in the Chinatowns of every major American city.

American Opium-Smokers Interior of a New York Opium Den/ Drawn by J.W. Alexander. [New York] : Harper and Brothers, Oct. 8, 1881. Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

American Opium-Smokers Interior of a New York Opium Den/ Drawn by J.W. Alexander. [New York] : Harper and Brothers, Oct. 8, 1881. Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

H. H. Kane wrote in 1882 that the first white American to smoke opium did so in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1868.2 Until then, opium smoking had been strictly confined to the areas of Chinese settlement. By 1875, the practice was widespread enough that San Francisco passed a law prohibiting opium dens. This ordinance was America’s first anti-narcotics law.

The San Francisco ordinance coincided with an increasing anxiety among whites in large urban areas that the low-paid Chinese would threaten wages and standards of living. At the time, the country was mired in a deep recession. The federal Page Act, passed the same year as the San Francisco law, similarly targeted Chinese immigrants, aiming to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.”3

Beginning with Virginia City the following year, local ordinances banning opium-smoking quickly passed across the U.S. These laws were largely ineffective. Law enforcement, focused on prosecuting Chinese dens known to attract white clientele, only drove whites deeper into Chinatown, and to smoke at higher rates.4

As opium use among whites increased, community leaders began to signal a concern about the morals of white women. Philadelphia missionary Frederic Poole cautioned that white women exposed by the Chinese to opium-smoking were at risk of “a life of degradation.”5 In 1883, Reverend John Liggins wrote of the dangers of the many New York City dens found in Mott and Pearl Streets (still the heart of Chinatown today), and quoted Kane that the habit, learned from the Chinese, contributed to “the downfall of innocent girls and the debasement of married women.”6 The same year, Allen S. Williams wrote in an early book on the opium-smoking habit about New York’s Chinatown dens:

Chinamen flit noiselessly by in ghostly, fluttering garments, and startle the Caucasian intruder by the very suddenness of their unsympathetic companionship…. the Chinese opium joint…is run for the sole purpose of pandering to a vicious taste whose indulgence is injurious to society.7

On the left coast, The Wasp, a popular San Francisco paper, sent two “reporters” to that city’s Chinatown in 1881, and published their findings:

In reeking holes ‘two stories’ underground, where the light of heaven and healthy atmosphere never penetrate, we found human beings living—if it may be called living, which is at best but an existence—as contentedly as rats in a sewer, whose habitation theirs so much resembles. The opium smokers’ resorts were among the first visited…a person once there, he may well desire to make himself oblivious of such surroundings and raise himself to a temporary heaven of his own, but how white men, and even white women, can bring themselves to descend to such filthy holes, where the reeking slime courses down the walls and the air is heavy with foetid odors, is a mystery to any well-regulated mind.8

The Wasp article offers an especially disturbing example of how many Americans implicated the Chinese as a group with standards and moral habits far inferior to those of whites. As early as the 1880s, opium dens run by the French and even white American-born women could be found in New York and Philadelphia, but the imagery continued to portray them as exclusively Chinese-owned and -operated. “It’s a poor town now-a-days that has not a Chinese laundry, and nearly every one of these has its lay-out [pipe plus accessories],” wrote one white traveler in 1883.9

Fig. 2—Smoker's Outfit. In Opium-Smoking in America and China.

Fig. 2—Smoker’s Outfit. In Opium-Smoking in America and China.

The framing of opium smoking as a Chinese problem continued as the century drew to a close. Temperance advocates and moral reformers identified opium smoking with indolence and passivity, qualities out of sync with a culture that emphasized hard work and a fast-paced industrial society. These kinds of characterizations became an important way to generate public revulsion for an immigrant group perceived to threaten both economic and social stability, and to gain traction for legislative action.10

The antagonisms toward the Chinese and attendant immigration restrictions resulted in a Chinese immigrant population that decreased by 1920 to less than half of what it was in 1890.11 The last opium den in New York was raided in 1957. Decades before, many of Chinatown’s dens, largely abandoned because of the rise of opium derivatives morphine and heroin, had all but disappeared.

References

1. Courtwright, David. Dark Paradise. Opiate Addiction in America before 1940. Cambridge: Harvard, 1982. 68.

2. Kane, H.H. Opium-Smoking in America and China. New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1882. 1.

3. Peffer, George Anthony. Forbidden Familes: Emigration Experiences of Chinese Women Under the Page Law, 1875-1882. Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 6 No. 1, Fall, 1986.

4. Courtwright, 79.

5. Courtwright, 78.

6. Liggins, John. The Spread of Opium-Smoking in America. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883. 20.

7. Williams, Allen Samuel. The Demon of the Orient and his Satellite Fiends of the Joints. New York: [the author], [1883]. 12.

8. The Chinese in California, 1850-1925.

9. Courtwright, 73.

10. Musto, David F. The American Disease. Origins of Narcotic Control. New Haven: Yale, 1973. 294-300.

11. Courtwright, 85.

More Music From Your Cash Register: American Pharmacy at the Turn of the Century

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

This is part of an intermittent series of blogs featuring advertisements from medical journals. You can find the entire series here.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 5, May 1917. Click to enlarge.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 5, May 1917. Click to enlarge.

By the late 1800s, a pharmacist (or druggist) stood at an interesting intersection in the marketplace. Both business person and medical professional, the pharmacist had to balance the responsibilities of dispensing medicine with the need to keep a business afloat.

This was in part due to changes in the field. As Gregory Higby explains in a Bulletin for the History of Chemistry article, “With most basic preparations now available from drug companies, anyone with enough courage and capital could open up a drugstore. The number of pharmacists grew enormously, and the quality of prescriptions dispensed declined accordingly.”1 Fortunately, this decline led to increased industry regulation.

The first pharmacy school in the United States, the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, opened in 1821, a year after the formation of the U.S. Pharmacopeia.2 By the end 1870s, state laws began regulating pharmacy throughout the Unites States, including state licensing exams for pharmacists.1 Not everyone attended a pharmacy school before taking the exam; a correspondence course option existed, as advertised in The Practical Druggist in 1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 2, February 1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 2, February 1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 22, number 2, August 1907. Click to enlarge.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 22, number 2, August 1907. Click to enlarge.

Drugs, too, came under closer scrutiny. In 1848, Congress passed the Drug Importation Act, which aimed to prevent the importation of tainted drugs from abroad. In 1906, Congress passed the Food and Drug Act, setting up the regulatory charge of the Food and Drug Administration and requiring the listing of alcohol and opiates on ingredient labels.3,4 In 1912, the Sherley Amendment prevented drug labels from including false health claims.3 Cocaine was available over-the-counter until 1916; heroin and other opiates could be sold legally in the United States until 1920.5,6

The pharmacy had “developed the warmth and hospitality of a country store,” with tobacco counters, home goods for sale, and, beginning in 1835, soda fountains.7 The soda fountain business turned pharmacy shops into social centers; as they grew in popularity, store owners added seats and tables, devoting large parts of the store to the soda fountain business (a trend that lasted into the 1960s).7

Enjoy these ads showing the wide variety of merchandise available to pharmacists, presented chronologically. Click on an ad to enlarge the image.

Ad published in Omaha Druggist, volume 7, number 1, January 1894.

Ad published in Omaha Druggist, volume 7, number 1, January 1894.

Ad published in Omaha Druggist, volume 7, number 4, April 1894.

Ads published in Omaha Druggist, volume 7, number 4, April 1894.

The cover of The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 3, number 1, January 1898.

The cover of The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 3, number 1, January 1898.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist  and Review of Reviews, volume 5, number 5, May 1899.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 5, number 5, May 1899.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 2, January 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 2, January 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 2, January 25, 1900.

Ads published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 2, January 25, 1900.

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

Ad published on the cover of 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.

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

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 45, November 7, 1904.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 45, November 7, 1904.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist, volume 22, number 2, August 1907.

Ads published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 22, number 2, August 1907.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 22, number 4, October 1907.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 22, number 4, October 1907.

Ad published in The Spatula, November 1910.

Ad published in The Spatula, November 1910.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist, volume 35, number 1, January1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 1, January 1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 2, February 1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 2, February 1917.

Ad published in the Omaha Digest, volume 32, number 4, April 1919.

Ad published in Omaha Druggist, volume 32, number 4, April 1919.

References

1. Higby GJ. Chemistry and the 19th-century American pharmacist. Bull Hist Chem. 2003;29(1):9–17. Available at: http://www.scs.illinois.edu/~mainzv/HIST/bulletin_open_access/v28-1/v28-1%20p9-17.pdf. Accessed August 21, 2014.

2. pharmacy. Encycl Br. 2014. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/455192/pharmacy/35617/History-of-pharmacy. Accessed August 21, 2014.

3. Food and Drug Administration. A history of the FDA and drug regulation in the United States. 2006. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/UnderstandingOver-the-CounterMedicines/ucm093550.pdf. Accessed August 21, 2014.

4. Baker PM. Patent medicine: Cures & quacks. Available at: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/Patent_Medicine.pdf. Accessed August 22, 2014.

5. Miller RJ. A brief history of cocaine. Salon. 2013. Available at: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/07/a_brief_history_of_cocaine/. Accessed August 27, 2014.

6. Narconon International. History of Heroin. Available at: http://www.narconon.org/drug-information/heroin-history.html. Accessed August 27, 2014.

7. Richardson LC, Richardson CG. The pill rollers: A book on apothecary antiques and drug store collectibles. Harrisonburg, Va.: Old Fort Press, 1992.

Item of the Month: A Compleat History of Drugs

Image

By Lisa, O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

In light of the recent National Drug Facts Week, it seems a good time to ask: what constitutes a drug? The answer has changed dramatically over time and place, as have the boundaries drawn between medicines, pharmaceuticals, and illicit drugs (an issue explored recently in a 20th-century context by Dr. David Herzberg’s lecture “The Other Drug War: Prescription Drug Abuse and Race in 20th Century America”).

Title page, Pomet, Compleat History of Drugs, 1725

Title page, Pomet, Compleat History of Drugs, 1725. Click to enlarge.

For the 17th-century French apothecary Pierre Pomet (1658-1699) the plant, animal, and mineral products considered drugs included a broad range of substances, from foodstuffs and materia medica with well-established uses in European pharmacopeias; to substances like tobacco, indigo, sugar, and opium, considered new and exotic by Europeans exposed to them through exploration and colonial expansion; and remedies from ground mummies to unicorn horns.

Such broadly ranging subject matter encompassing animals, spices, plants, dyestuffs, and the locales and methods of their production, makes Pierre Pomet’s an engrossing and appealing work. The volume featured here is the second (1725) edition of Pomet’s A Compleat History of Drugs in translation, first published in 1684 as Histoire Generale des Drogues and running to multiple editions over the course of the 18th century.

Pomet ran a well-regarded and fashionable apothecary store in Paris, and was appointed chief druggist to Louis XIV. His work drew its authority from his extensive travels in Europe, where he collected specimens, recipes, and knowledge. He comprehensively covered the new materials and medicines made accessible to European markets through Dutch, Portuguese, British, and Spanish expansion.

Indigo preparation, plate 35, Compleat History of Drugs

Indigo preparation, plate 35, Compleat History of Drugs. Click to enlarge

The volume emphasizes the exotic nature of these materials and their sources, demonstrating, as Sandra Sherman argues, the “cross-over” appeal of Enlightenment science to popular audiences, combining both utilitarian medical advice and vicarious access to stories and images of far-flung places and peoples.

Yet, one of the products most exotic to modern eyes, mummy, was in fact a well-established cure by the time Pomet was writing. The use of mummy was common in European medicine from the 12th century to at least the 17th century. In tracing the history of its use, Warren Dawson argues that the logic behind the use of ground powders ostensibly obtained from Egyptian mummies was based on the medical properties believed to be contained in natural bitumen (found in parts of the Middle East). The Persian word mumia was used to describe bitumen, an established component of ancient pharmacopeias. The resins used in embalming mummies had a bitumen-like appearance, and the word mumia began to be used to describe them and the bodies they preserved.

Mummy, plate 69,  Compleat History of Drugs

Mummy, plate 69, Compleat History of Drugs. Click to enlarge.

Over time, European apothecaries began using ground mummies instead of the (harder to source) natural bitumen and ascribing the efficacy of mumia for the treatment of wounds and tumors and numerous ailments, including gout and paralysis, to the properties of the dead body itself. The history of the use of human remains in medical treatments is a long and varied one, which continues to fascinate today.

You can find out more about Pomet and A Compleat History of Drugs online at Res Obscura and The Shelf, in  “The Exotic World of Pierre Pomet’s A Compleat History of Druggs  by Sandra Sherman, and Jordan Kellman’s  “Nature, networks, and expert testimony in the colonial Atlantic: The case of cochineal.”

Of Unicorns on Land and Sea

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

This spring the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that showcases the art and architecture of medieval Europe, is celebrating its 75th anniversary.  The most famous (and probably most beloved) items in the collection are the Unicorn Tapestries, the seven tapestries that tell the story of the hunt for this elusive animal.  A special exhibit about the unicorn is on display at the Cloisters through August 18th.

Unicorn horns and their purported medicinal uses are described in a variety of early books on drugs and natural history.  One of these, Pierre Pomet’s Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, & des mineraux… (Paris, 1694) contains a detailed section on the unicorn, complete with an illustration of the five types of unicorns:

Pomet (1658-1699), a druggist to Louis XIV, also maintained an apothecary shop in Paris.  His Histoire was first translated into English in 1712, and appeared in a second edition in 1725.  The book contains detailed information about plant-based remedies, but also describes the compounding of various cures made from parts of exotic animals, metals, minerals, stones, and a variety of other substances.  In the case of the unicorn, Pomet admits almost immediately that what is sold by apothecaries as unicorn horn comes not from a unicorn at all, but from a fish, the narwhal, whose attributes he describes later in the animal section of the book. Of course, Pomet was wrong to describe the narwhal as a fish, as it is really a species of whale and whales are mammals.

The horns of unicorns and narwhals were believed to be effective as an antidote to all kinds of poisons and to cure various unspecified plagues and fevers.  Some people wore the horns as protective amulets, while others collected complete horns as curiosities for display.  While Pomet offers many details about both unicorns and narwhals, he hedges his bets regarding their efficacy, explaining that while some people believe in their worth, “I shall neither authorize nor contradict, having never had sufficient Experience of it.”