The Mysteries of the Opium Den (part 2/2)

Read first: A Short History: The Opium Den (part 1/2)


Opium Den London East End, 1874, Wellcome Gallery



Opium kits were cumbersome and too big to carry around and addicts often wanted a private spot to smoke so a den was the place to go.

There was a big difference in the smoking of opium between the elite members of societies and poorer workers. The very rich often had a private smoking room in their own house and a servant who prepared the opium for them. Opium dens catered to all layers of society, but differed highly in furnishings and attendants. High-end opium dens had elaborate beds, intricately carved opium kits and many female attendants who prepared the pipes. In cheap opium dens, smokers lay on a mat or shared beds and brought their own kits. Often attendants helped to prepare the pipes because the preparation of opium for vaporisation was a bit difficult. These lower-end establishments catered more often to foreigners than high-end ones.

Opium smokers lay on their side while preparing and smoking opium. An opium kit consisted of a tray, a pipe, an opium box, a lamp and utensils to prepare the opium. If they were rich enough, they laid down on a bed that provide quiet and privacy as opium users were sensitive for loud noises and stress. An opium bed had three raised sides that ensured there was no draft to stir the flame of the opium lamp and interrupt the smoking.

They rested their head on a hard, thick pillow. An opium pillow was often made from wood, leather or porcelain. Wooden and leather pillows were rectangular and looked like simple neck supports while the porcelain ones had elaborate designs. Pillows in the shapes of cats, angels or even babies were quite popular. Even though porcelain is hard, after a few smokes from the opium pipe the smoker would feel like their head was laying on a cloud. The cool porcelain would have been a nice relief for the heated skin. Square ceramic opium pillows were produced in China and often exported to commercial opium dens in overseas Chinese communities in North America or Europe. One end is often decorated, the other end has an opening where the smoker could store his wallet. Once all valuable items were inside, the aperture side was pushed against the wall while the head rested on the pillow. This way valuables were stored safely while the owner was intoxicated.

Opium pipes were made in many kinds of materials and in elaborate or simple designs. Apparently smokers had personal opinions on the best taste of opium with pipes made of certain materials.



But British authorities did know about opium addiction and its dangers to society, even though they continued their opium trade in the East. Money trumped morals, at least until they started to worry about opium’s evils affecting their own people. They tried to contain opium smoking by issuing ethnic restrictions on its use so the white population was not contaminated by the habit. Because of the low status of Chinese and Indian immigrants, their habits and opium dens were portrayed in the media as places of vice, deadly overdoses, violence and gambling which could corrupt the white population. These portrayals sketched London as the hotbed of opium smoking in Europe, which was almost a complete fantasy written to scandalise the Victorian population and polarise opinions on ‘yellow peril’. To scare people away from opium abuse, European and American authorities enforced a full ban on opium. Crackdowns ensued and the social habit of smoking opium fell into decline.



Nowadays, it is very hard to find an original opium pipe or opium kit. An enormous amount of opium kits were destroyed during crackdowns on addiction in the West and in China. What remains of opium smoking are mostly old, private opium kits brought from Indochinese colonies, the furnishings of dens, like beds and pillows, and romanticised tales and horror stories of this oriental habit.

(This blogpost was also published on SERES Collection: A SHORT (BUT IMPORTANT) HISTORY ON OPIUM DENS)


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