Opium dens of 1889 San Francisco in photos


14 Responses to “Opium dens of 1889 San Francisco in photos”

  1. Doug Nelson says:

    I blame “Once Upon a Time in America” for a lot of our idealization of opium dens.

  2. KWillets says:

    How little has changed. Nowadays the city pays for the drug dens, but apart from that it’s quite similar. Here’s a blog that covers the current version: http://www.bluoz.com/blog/ .

  3. hijukal says:

    Jason Kottke over at kottke.org recently posted a link to a great article at Vanity Fair, where a guy tries to hunt down a modern-day opium den:


  4. hijukal says:

    … and now I finally follow the link to look at the rest of the pictures, and I see he references that same article in the very first line!

  5. lookbackmaps says:

    Here’s the source of this photo: http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/tf600008t5/ from the Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks Documenting San Francisco History and Law Enforcement from the Bancroft Library. Search “opium” on that page for more photos from that time.

  6. avraamov says:

    perhaps the third hat is the photographer’s.

  7. Roy Trumbull says:

    One should remember that drug use wasn’t native to China. If you look up “Opium Wars” you’ll find the western powers (mainly Britain) had a lock on the distribution of opium and were forcing it on the Chinese.
    Further if you look up “Treaty Ports – China” you’ll find that any economic distress we have from China is fair payback for what we did to them in the 19th century.

  8. teleny says:

    Remember that quite a few of these photos were deliberately staged to show how ‘wretched’ the opium addict was. From what I know of London’s opium scene, quite a few of these ‘dens’ were simply Chinese social clubs, with chess, mah-jongg, and so forth, with opium merely a sideline, like wine, or tea.

  9. dculberson says:

    For some reason the phrase “opium den” conjures up images of opulence and luxury. These photos dispel that notion.

  10. dculberson says:

    Just read most of the Vanity Fair article. Good stuff! He also apparently had the ‘opulent’ idea, and wonders where he came up with it. Ahh, cultural memory.

  11. Tdawwg says:

    these shots were taken by someone who had clearly established a connection with the users

    As in, “look at that flying pink faerie with the tripod-object that he’s pointing at us.”

    And would one have barged in, snapped a shot, and left? I don’t think portable, lightweight, on-camera flash equipment existed then, a la Weegee or Larry Fink. Weren’t they using flash powder, etc.? Flash bulbs didn’t come in until the ’20s.

  12. amycamus says:

    There’s a really fantastic 19th century map of San Francisco’s Chinatown that shows what businesses – including opium dens – were in which buildings. It’s hanging in the men’s restroom of the bar at the Huntington Hotel on Nob Hill.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Nearly every photo I’ve seen of people smoking opium has the subjects laying down while smoking. Does it really make you that lazy or is it just a traditional method of ingesting?

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