Opium dens of 1889 San Francisco in photos

Jeff sends us these 1889 opium den photos, noting, "Unlike some guerrilla photogs of the era who would barge into dens with their new-fangled flash tech, snap a shot, and flee, these shots were taken by someone who had clearly established a connection with the users."

San Francisco Opium Den Photos circa 1889 (Thanks, Jeff!)


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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. … 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!

  8. 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.

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