“Buried Alive in a Chemical Tomb”: The Story of the “Trip or Trap” Anti-Drug Playing Card Deck

Editor’s Note: From the Collections highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from publications and historical collections of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP). In this post, Points Managing Editor and AIHP Head Archivist Greg Bond investigates the story behind the unique “Trip or Trap” anti-drug playing card deck from 1970.

Trip or Trap Decl Cards
Playing cards from the “Trip or Trap” deck. Images courtesy of the Brodeur Playing Card Collection, American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.

“This Trip or Trap Card Deck is an attempt to educate through facts and ridicule,” wrote public health advocate Dr. Wayman Rutherford Spence about his anti-drug set of novelty playing cards. Published in 1970 by his business, the Spenco Medical Company, the “Trip or Trap” deck was one of many quirky Spenco products that combined humor with pop culture ephemera to educate the public about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and other intoxicants.

The “Trip or Trap” deck adopted a prohibitionist attitude towards drugs, demonized the recreational use of intoxicating substances, and denied the legitimate medical or pharmaceutical use of drugs like cannabis. On an informational card accompanying the deck, Spence explained that “drug abuse has many faces.” Using a common gendered understanding of substance abuse, he wrote that “it is the lady starting her day with a diet pill for a pick-up and ending it with a sedative for sleep, [and] it is the man habitually unwinding with several drinks.” He also linked together “the chain smoker unable to quit… the twelve-year-old experimenting with glue sniffing… the teenager smoking pot… and the hard-core addict shooting heroin.”

Despite the substantial variations among these very different drug-use scenarios, he wrote that each case represented “a threatened person retreating from reality.” Concluding dramatically, Spence informed users of the “Trip or Track” deck that “drug abusers are not blissfully composed, rather they are often deadened, deprived of personality, and all but buried alive in a chemical tomb.”

The “Trip or Trap” playing card deck is one of several hundred pharmacy-themed playing cards in the Donald Brodeur Playing Card Collection at the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy. This post is a short investigation into the story behind the “Trip or Trap” deck and its creator Wayman R. Spence, a now mostly forgotten drug warrior and public heath advocate.

Trip or Trap cards
Playing cards from the “Trip or Trap” deck. Images courtesy of the Brodeur Playing Card Collection, American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.

Each of the sixteen face cards in the “Trip or Trap” deck featured a colorful picture alongside a joke or pun discouraging drug use. As one newspaper explained in 1972, the cards intended to “arouse awareness through ridicule, satire, and humor” [1]. Several of the cards directly mocked people who used drugs. The ace of spades, for example, declared that “flower children + pot = blooming idiots” and the jack of clubs declared that “acidheads are hollow.”

Trip or Trap Marihuana card
Marihuana playing card from the “Trip or Trap” deck. Image courtesy of the Brodeur Playing Card Collection, American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.

Some cards joked about the consequences of drug use. The jacks in the deck had a particularly tough time. The jack of spades (“a bad trip is no picnic”) seems to have cut his arm off during an LSD trip, while the jack of hearts (“pot makes you sophisticated”) carelessly stabbed himself after smoking marijuana. Other cards simply punned about drugs. The ace of clubs quipped that users should “drink wet cement” to “get really stoned,” and the ace of diamonds joked that players should “sniff glue” to “keep a stiff upper lip.”

The numbered cards in the deck contained pictures and information about thirty-six different prescription and illegal drugs. The eight of hearts, for example, featured “marihuana” and listed fifteen slang names for the drug. Reflecting contemporary laws and policies, the card noted that marihuana had “no legal market” and no “medical uses.”

Trip or Trap card back
The colorful back of cards in the “Trip or Trap” deck. Image courtesy of the Brodeur Playing Card Collection, American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.

Wayman R. Spence and Spenco Medical Company

The “Trip or Trap” deck was one of many anti-drug public health novelty items marketed by Spence, who was Spenco’s President and its most enthusiastic salesman. A medical doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, Spence earned his medical degree from Oklahoma State University and subsequently completed his residency at Ohio State Medical Center. While in Columbus, he helped popularize the benefits of silicone padding, and he would eventually develop and sell numerous silicone-based products from bedding to footwear to bicycle clothing and accessories.

He first ventured into public health advocacy in 1967 after becoming the Director of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Holy Cross Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was a devoted anti-smoking advocate, and, to help educate the public, he invented an ashtray that graphically demonstrated the health effects of smoking. The “Lung Ashtray” featured a transparent replica of lungs mounted above a covered ashtray. As smoke curled through the ashtray, the lungs slowly developed deposits of oil, tar, and nicotine, visually depicting the damage that smoking could cause. Around the same time, he also invented a “smoking robot” that similarly educated about the dangers of smoking.

Spence quickly expanded his public health advocacy, and he soon established Spenco Medical Corp with headquarters in Waco, Texas. He eagerly harnessed the power of pop culture and youth culture to promote his messages. A 1971 newspaper article explained that the company marketed “books, charts, buttons, games, decals, balloons, and paperweights” with “information about drugs, drinking, or smoking.” In addition to playing cards and bingo games, Spenco also sold public health educational materials to schools and physicians. The company’s products included “Dial-a-Drink,” “Dial-a-Drug,” the “VD Dial,” and the “Drinking Clock” [2].

Spenco anti-drinking button
Spenco anti-drinking button, c. 1971. Image Source.

Spence told the Waco Citizen in 1972 that “the educational materials are aimed primarily at young persons and sold everywhere—even in head shops” [3]. A columnist in Illinois, meanwhile, explained that “the teen-age button fad is being used in the fight against smoking, drinking and drugs.” Spenco buttons recycled many of the quips from the “Trip or Trap” playing card deck but also expanded to include jokes aimed at other intoxicating vices like: “Drinkers Have Everything: halitosis, cirrhosis, pyschosis”; “any bum can drink… and most do”; and “The Family that Smokes Together Chokes Together” [4].

“Just Say No” vs. “Just Say Know”

It’s  difficult to judge the effectiveness of Spenco’s 1970s public health advocacy. Schools from New York to Wisconsin incorporated some of the company’s products into anti-drug, anti-alcohol, and anti-tobacco curricula, but students and drug users might not have taken some of Spenco’s more provocative products very seriously. As Jerome Beck argues in a classic 1998 article, educational programs about drugs and intoxicating substances have—since at least the late nineteenth century—fluctuated between prohibitionist and harm reduction strategies.

Beck explains:

Two fundamentally opposed perspectives toward school-based drug education have vied for legitimacy during the past century. Although each stance has been characterized by any number of names, they can essentially be juxtaposed as Just Say No versus Just Say Know. The first of these conveys a strict no-use or abstinence message regarding targeted substances or activities. In contrast, the second perspective focuses on fostering informed choices or decision making within a harm- or risk-reduction framework [5].

Historian Joseph Moreau further explains that, by the 1970s, many educators and policy makers had begun to rethink approaches to drug education and favored dropping the “scare tactics” and the “heavy handed moralizing” of the 1960s. He writes:

Simplistic efforts to deter drug use by inspiring fear were to be abandoned because they were doomed to fail with the new era’s savvier kids. While the goal of all instruction would be to discourage use, students had to be given the tools to make the right choices about whether, and under what circumstances, to take drugs. Creators of films, books, pamphlets, and other curricular materials began to… align… their messages with the new emphasis on “realism” [6].

Wayman Spence and his Smoking Robot
Wayman R. Spence demonstrates his anti-smoking smoking robot in 1971. Picture from the August 19, 1971, edition of the Waco Citizen.

Spence always seemed sincere in his efforts to combat the public health problems associated with drugs, drinking, and smoking, but many of his products—like the “Trip or Trap” playing cards—seem to have firmly rejected the “Just Say Know” realism approach to drug education.

In  1971, Spence told a Canadian reporter: “I’m no goody goody. But kids only see things as black and white, so you’ve got be a health patriot to get something like this across to them” [7]. A year later, he was more philosophical in an interview with his hometown newspaper. “If in some small way the firm can help solve the problems it is attacking,” he said, “the venture will have been a success” [8].

Despite his good intentions, his venture might have been more successful if some gray areas had tempered his company’s “black and white” understanding of public health issues like drug use. Spenco’s reliance on “ridicule, satire, and humor“ and sensationalist “scare tactics” that, for example, alleged drug users were “deadened, deprived of personality, and all but buried alive in a chemical tomb,” might, in the end, not have had the intended effects.


Postscript: In 1984, Spence sold most of Spenco, but he maintained control of the public health advocacy and education division of the company named Health Edco. Spenco is still in business and specializes in silicone and other cushioned footwear products. Health Edco is also still in business and continues to sell a variety of public health and educational tools, including numerous items for drug and alcohol awareness. Health Edco produces a variety of games and activities—but the company no longer sells the “Trip or Trap” playing card deck. Dr. Wayman Rutherford Spence died on December 8, 1998, at the age of 64.


References

[1] “Spotlighting a Unique Waco Business: Spenco,” Waco Citizen, August 10, 1972.

[2] “Dr. Spence Encourages Non-Smoking Through Toys,” Waco Citizen, August 19, 1971.

[3] “Spotlighting a Unique Waco Business: Spenco,” Waco Citizen, August 10, 1972.

[4] “Take it From Here,” Dixon (Illinois) Evening Telegraph, October 9, 1970.

[5] Jerome Beck, “100 Years of “Just Say No” Versus “Just Say Know”: Reevaluating Drug Education Goals for the Coming Century,” Evaluation Review 22, no. 1 (1998): 38.

[6] Joseph Moreau, “‘I Learned it by Watching YOU!’ The Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the Attack on ‘Responsible Use’ Education in the 1980s,” Journal of Social History 49, no. 3 (2016): 711, 716.

[7] Doris Clark, “Successful Living: A Canadian Social Worker Helps with Human Problems,” Ottawa Journal, January 12, 1971.

[8] “Spotlighting a Unique Waco Business: Spenco,” Waco Citizen, August 10, 1972.

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