Drug (M)use: Drugs as a Means of Inspiration from 19th-Century Europe to 1960s America

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Timothy Cole Hale. This post is an abridged version of a paper that he will present as part of the panel, “A Century of American Drug Use: Psychoactive Drugs Among Native Americans, Hippies, and the Working Poor,” at the 2021 virtual conference of the American Historical Association next Tuesday, April 20th, at 1:00 PM Eastern. To read the full paper, please visit his website.

Left Brain v. Right Brain
Left Brain vs. Right Brain. Image courtesy of Tumisu from Pixabay.

Opium and Nineteenth-Century Europe

In his 1995 book, Night, English poet and essayist Alfred Alvarez, traces the emergence of opium as a source of artistic inspiration to the Romantic Era. Since the positive effects of the drug include an immediate sense of euphoria and numbness soon followed by severe drowsiness, it is no coincidence that the narcotic became popular at a time when writers were obsessed with dreams and nightmares. These writers believed that the dreamworld provided new experiences and new places that they could incorporate into their work. [1]

Thomas De Quincey, perhaps the most outspoken opium addict of the era, first popularized the drug in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey believed that inspiration could transcend from the dreamworld into reality and he wrote that, “If a man could thro’ Paradise in a Dream & have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when awoke—Aye!” [2]

In 1804, Friedrich Sertürner identified morphine as opium’s most active ingredient, and, with the arrival of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-nineteenth century, injecting morphine became the most popular ingestion method. It is impossible to quantify the popularity of opium—especially as soldiers began returning home from the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s—but the drug was especially prevalent among artists and writers of Bohemian Paris.

The Pleasures of Opium
Drawing of the “Pleasures of Opium” by illustrator Willy Pogany from 1908 edition of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Image courtesy of Internet Archive.

And opium became the perfect substance for rebelling against the bourgeoisie, as the drug causes users to become isolated and withdrawn in their thoughts, often making it physically impossible to contribute to conversations or productivity of any sort. Opium use provided a sense of camaraderie among Bohemian users who fashioned themselves as fighting against traditional literary, art, and social norms. But what may have begun as rebellion had a side effect: the dreamworld and deranged senses provided users with fodder for their art.

Read more

“The Adventurous Tasters,” a Story for Fat Tuesday

Editor’s Note: Today’s timely Mardi Gras-themed post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).

The place: Paris. The year: 1850. “It was mardi-gras, and copious libations of flaming punch had prepared the natives for anything or everything.” So began a tale reprinted widely by newspaper editors across the globe. 

(Here in the United States, Mardi Gras 2021 surely will be the soberest on record, New Orleans itself having condemned “superspreader” crowds, called off parades, shuttered bars, and banned most alcohol sales.)

An illustration of Fat Tuesday revelers from the 1859 book Les Rues de Paris [Streets of Paris].

In 1850, though, the local Parisians were the type to spend a lot of time hanging out at a café. So that’s where they were on Mardi Gras, drinking punch (likely made of rum) at a café just up the block from an apartment where a physician lived with his family. 

This physician had received an excellent imported shipment of cannabis extract, and he was keen to share it for recreational use on this most celebratory and hedonistic day. The drunken revelers were willing participants—”adventurous tasters”—living in the same city at the same time as that famous literary circle, the Club des Hashischins. The doctor showed up with 15 grains, or about 1 gram, to distribute at the café. “Not more than a single grain was given to each,” read the article. Some swallowed it like a pill, while others smoked it or smeared it on a cigarette paper to smoke with tobacco. One grain was dissolved in a glass of Curaçao for the “master of the house; [but] his two young and handsome daughters were forbidden to taste of the drug.” 

Of course one of the daughters found a way to sample the cannabis; it would hardly have been a story otherwise. After about 45 minutes, the girl shrieked and “was suddenly struck with delirium and hysterical movements of a very alarming appearance,” according to the article, which went on to describe her ordeal:

Read more