Opium in the West
This photograph of a Chinese man smoking opium with his cat in San Francisco became a best-selling souvenir postcard of that city.
Americans smoke opium in a Chinese-run opium den in New York City's Chinatown in 1925.
A rare close-up photograph of an opium smoker in action preparing a "pill" of opium for the pipe. The photo is said to have been taken in New York City in the 1920s.
A woman smokes opium in the privacy of her own home in San Francisco circa 1920.
An opium den on Pell Street in New York City's Chinatown featuring bunks in which smokers could recline. This photo seems to have been posed -- possibly after the den was raided by police. The pipes that the women are holding are missing their bowls.
Opium smoking in Denver, Colorado, in the late 19th century. A reclining smoker watches while another decorates the walls with scrolls. Walls of opium dens were usually covered to prevent drafts from causing the lamp to flicker.
An adolescent boy smoking opium in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1880s.
A Chinese opium smoker in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1880s.

The importation of opium smoking in the Chinese manner to the West came with some of the thousands of Chinese sojourners who arrived in California during the Gold Rush that began in 1848. Within twenty years, recreational opium smoking (as opposed to the already established practice of taking opium in medicinal elixirs) had spread over much of North America. Similar migrations of Chinese to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa brought opium smoking to these places, but the habit failed to catch on with non-Chinese. The Chinese style of opium smoking arrived in Europe for the most part with Europeans returning home from their colonies in Asia or from treaty ports on the China coast. Only in France did opium smoking take hold in Europe, and the photographer Brassai captured images of an opium-smoking session in his famous photographic study of Parisian nightlife. The existence of opium smoking in London was, and continues to be, highly exaggerated. The complete lack of photographic evidence of opium smoking in London strongly suggests that tales of posh debauchery in London's Limehouse district are nothing more than literary fantasy.

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