Opium and the Urbanization of America

The nineteenth century marked a transitional period for America. The country became increasingly urbanized. Population in the cities became increasingly more dense as these urban centers became more and more industrialized. The advent of the skyscrapers, arrival of a coast to coast train system, and the invention of steamboats allowing for upstream travel in the country’s waterways. These are only a few innovations that contributed to a complete shift in overall American lifestyle, culture, and economy. This increase in physical mobility also meant an increase in social and economic mobility.

The country was transitioning from an economy based on agriculture to an economy based on industry and consumer goods. America experienced a population demographic change. Citizens began to move from the farmlands into more densely populated urban centers. Urbanization brought people from different walks of life into one place. Groups with different races, ethnicities, religious beliefs all shared a small space. This inevitably lead to friction among groups that had previously rarely interacted with one another.

Urbanization increased jobs, and facilitated an easier distribution of ideas, goods, and services. Drugs were no exception to this. The prevalence of cities naturally increased the usage of certain drugs because they were now more accessible and easier to distribute. The following paragraphs will explore the Chinese immigrant experience during the nineteenth century.

Chinese immigrants were met with serious setbacks to their assimilation. The prevalence of opiate usage among Chinese immigrants further complicated this process. Chinese immigrants were further dehumanized and subjugated as a result.

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The nineteenth century brought about changes in medicine and drug policy as well. Leading up to this time period there were few laws or regulations on drugs. Opiates were considered an essential ingredient in many medicines. Medicines that contained opiates provided the user a sense a pleasure, relief of pain, decreased blood pressure, drowsiness among many other effects (NZ Drug Foundation). In Britain, leading up to the nineteenth century opiates were used to treat diseases such as cholera and dysentery that would have otherwise been detrimental to the afflicted. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the drug became extremely popular in Britain. It transitioned from an effective medicine to article of daily consumption for many British elites. The dangerous effects of the drug and addictive nature of opiates became more apparent as people began to indulge in opiates more frequently.

In 1822, De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” marked one of the first major publications detailing the struggle of being addicted to opium(Day 1868: 77). Despite the realizations of a few about the dangers of opium, the drug remained popular for some time. However, the drug did not gain popularity in America until later. Opiates would eventually become popular in America among many soldiers and women. Many soldiers became hooked on opiates after being given morphine to relieve pain from injuries sustained at battle. Morphine was invented during the mid nineteenth century and allowed for opium to be injected intravenously (Casey 1978). The ability to inject this new opiate into the bloodstream meant that the effects of the drug could be felt instantaneously. Morphine became an essential part of treating the grotesque injuries that occurred so often during the American Civil War. In addition to this, many physicians prescribed women with opiates to treat menstruation (Casey 1978). This in many cases lead to a dependency on the drugs. These two groups certainly struggled with addiction on opiates. However, the drug did not have a negative social connotation. Americans were not patronized or scrutinized for their use of opiates. During the nineteenth century China experienced a lot of political and economic distress. In the 1840’s the Chinese lost the “Opium Wars” to Britain under which they experienced much loss (Kane 1882: 116). This occurred at the same time that the California Gold Rush was beginning. Tales of the promise and opportunity in America made their way to China. America seemed to be an excellent escape from China’s generally poor living conditions.

This caused a significant amount of Chinese citizens to immigrate to America and specifically California. Racism towards these immigrants made it difficult to access the opportunities that they expected. Work, along with adequate housing and living conditions were difficult to come by. Chinatowns emerged as a response to the lack of opportunity due to racial discrimination. Chinatowns were small areas within a city highly concentrated with Chinese immigrants. By occupying a small area they were able to build some semblance of a community with their own culture. Chinatowns allowed these immigrants some refuge from the racism to which they were subjected. Smoking opium was very popular in China and thus among these immigrants. Chinatowns became hubs for opium dens, typically basements in which a group of people distributed and smoked opiates (Kane 1882: 12). In the eyes of many Americans, these opium dens were a an explicit counter culture and a threat to American ideals. Many Americans feared that Chinese opiate smokers were corrupting American men and women into a life of depravity. (Kane 1882: 2) Homosexuality, prostitution, and general perversion were all negative connotations attached to the Chinatowns and these opium dens. The opium user became part of the identity that the American public associated with the Chinese. Opiates could be taken in a variety of ways.

While white Americans were getting opium via morphine and other drugs, the Chinese smoked the opiates. This is important to note, because despite Americans essentially taking the same drug, the negative stigmatization was only attached to the Chinese race and their consumption of the drug. In fact, Americans believed that the drug only intoxicated “orientals” and had little effect on English and American races. (Kane 1882: 8). This claim illuminated in Kane’s “The Opium-Smoker in America and China”, is of course completely unfounded. However, it shows how racial stereotypes affected the way people interacted with and discussed a drug. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, Americans had generally understood the negative side effects that were associated with opiate usage. Horace Day’s “The Opium Habit: With Suggestions as to the Remedy” was released in 1868 and described the struggles of opium addiction among Americans and offers suggestions as to how to cope with and be cured from the addiction. However even within this book, the language changes when referring Chinese. The Chinese opium addict appears “appalling” and “awful” to Day (Day 1868: 263). There was a distinct difference in the way opium was discussed in terms of its usage by white Americans versus the Chinese. This serves to show that the issue did not lie in the drug itself.

Rather, Opium was used as a vehicle under which racism towards Chinese could be justified. Academics would lean on pseudo scientific statements and observations to further justify their racism. For example, in the “Opium-Smoker in America and China” Kane states that the first white man did not smoke opium until 1868, and the second until 1871. While this claim may or may not be true, it seems highly unlikely given the prevalence of the drug previous to this. Kane matter-of-factly makes this statement to show how rare the drug was among the white American community before the emergence of Chinatowns. Thus, the reader can imply that any white American habitually smoking opium does so because he was lured in to do so by the Chinese immigrants. Kane describes Chinatowns as filthy and “pestilential” where opium dens were extremely popular. (Kane 1882: 2). He explains that opium dens were also hubs for other vices such as prostitution. Americans were consistently warned against getting lured into these dens. The attached picture shows anti-Chinese sentiments during the later parts of the nineteenth century. The four panel picture represents a Chinese man acting violently, aggressive, and deviant. In the picture, the chinese man commits assault, theft, and smokes the opium drug. Each picture is accompanied with a facetious statement denoting how trustworthy or acceptable the Chinese man’s behavior.

“They are peaceable”, “they are clean”, and “they are honest” were the quotes that accompanied the pictures of their deviant behavior. The quotes represented sentiments from white American defenders of the Chinese immigrants. The pictures accompanying the quotes served to show how incorrect it was to assume these positive qualities from the Chinese. The cartoon exemplified the prevailing stereotypes; that Chinese were less civilized and a threat to American values. As a group they were dehumanized, and thought of as an “other”. While racist sentiments existed outside of the correlation between opium and the Chinese, the presence of Opium only amplified racial stereotypes. The stigmatization of Chinese immigrants lead to changes in policy and legislation. The first wave of Chinese immigrants primarily came to San Francisco, California and thus this is where the first Chinatowns emerged (Kane 1882: 10). The aforementioned aversion to Chinatowns and fear associated with opium dens lead to legislation in San Francisco. In 1875, San Francisco passed an ordinance banning opium dens in the city. This was the first piece of legislation in the country to put any kind of ban on opiates.

The San Francisco Chronicle directly references the fear of the Chinese luring in respectable white men and women into these opium dens as reason for the new law (San Francisco Chronicle 1875). “These places are frequented not only by the vicious and depraved, but are nightly resorted to by the young men and women of respectable parentage.” (San Francisco Chronicle 1875). Opium and its connection to the Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century shows the intersection between race, drugs, and policy. Prevailing racism against Chinese immigrants contributed to a change in the way for opium. A drug that was once heralded as a life-saving medicine had completely transformed into a vice that was a nuisance to society and a threat to American morality and values. This shift in opium’s identity lead to a change in opium legislation. Laws were passed forbidding opium usage and opium dens as a result. Chinese immigrants certainly altered the way opium was thought about in America. Perhaps more importantly, opium changed the way Americans viewed and accepted Chinese immigrants. Americans used opiate smoking to justify their outward racism and systematic subjugation of Chinese immigrants during the nineteenth. American media and academics warned of allowing the Chinese to corrupt American citizens with their opium smoking. This completely discounted the agency of the American citizens and their equal propensity to indulge in illicit drugs. The issue was not with the opium and drug culture itself, but rather with the Chinese immigrants.

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Opium and the Urbanization of America. (2022, Jul 26). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/opium-and-the-urbanization-of-america/

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