Opium in an Age of Pleasure

In our latest episode, we heard from Goldie, a complicated woman struggling with escape – an escape from her past, from her pain and from her future. Goldie’s reliance on the drink and the pipe to help her find that relief is all too common a tale. This week, we decided to delve deeper into the history of opium, Goldie’s drug of choice, and explore the fascinating stories behind the drug and the women who relied on it.  


Common Antique Opium Pipe

 Opium can be traced back to around 3400 BC in Mesopotamia, where it was known as the “Joy Plant.” In 460 BC, Hippocrates aka “The Father of Medicine” declared that opium had no magical qualities but could be useful to treat ailments. With this new reputation, the drug was carried across trade routes all over the world, making its way to China in 400 AD.


East Asian Woman Poses with Opium Pipe

By the 1700s it was commonly referred to as laudanum and was an extremely popular painkiller. Of course not everyone who was taking it was using it to cure their headaches. In the 1800s the use of opium to take trips to *cough* pleasure town *cough*, became much more popular. The drug expanded out of Asia, eventually making its way to the United States in the 1850s. It was carried in the packs of the Chinese Gold Rush miners and railroad workers. The individuals crazy enough to brave America’s West needed to find peace somewhere amid the chaos. Opium provided an escape from the harsh reality of their lives.

While many of the initial users were men, women were in no way immune to the draw of this solace. From its introduction to America through the 1870s, opium use among women was common and quietly accepted. Sale of the drug was legal, and it was commonly prescribed by physicians to treat a wide range of “completely legitimate and in no way sexist”  illnesses, such as falling of the womb, female weakness, nervous weakness and hysteria *insert eye roll here*.

Women were prescribed the drug more often than men due to their inability to handle pain *continue eye roll here*. One doctor in 1871 described the typical opium user as “a lady of haut-ton, idly lolling upon her velvety fauteuil and vanity trying to cheat the lagging hours that intervene ere the clock…”


A Proper Lady Indulges

Of course not all female addicts were lolling on their velvet armchairs. A large percent of users were “weary sewing-women” or the women who were pushed beyond their limit in society’s unforgiving positions. This might have included farmers wives, seamstresses, prostitutes and perhaps a few golden-throat thieves. It is believed that opium was popular among women of all classes because it was easier to hide than an alcohol addiction, a perk that would become important as public opinion surrounding female opium use became increasingly negative.  

During the late 19th century, many factors, including blatant racism toward the minorities at the center of the opium trade, motivated the negative public perception. In 1890, a tabloid owned by William Randolph Hearst published stories of innocent white women being seduced by Chinese men. The United States began pushing messages that linked women using opium to dangerous sexuality. As history has shown, the slightest mention of female sexuality is often effective in sparking a political discussion. Thus the connection was extremely effective in advancing disgust for casual drug use. Campaigning continued and eventually, through various legislative acts, the United States banned the legal sale of narcotics.


Chinese Americans in an Opium Den

Further stigmatized, women addicted to opium had to learn how to live up to the latest acceptable standards of womanhood. Many went through the painful process of withdrawal, while others faced the dangers of illegal drug trade to supply their habit.

It would not be surprising to hear many stories from the opium era parallel that of Goldie. Unfortunately, not everyone had the benefit of a PleasureTown, a place where all people are free to follow their happy. But then again, as with Goldie, sometimes even that is not enough.

<special thanks to “Women and Addiction in the United States – 1850 to 1920 by Stephen R. Kandall>

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