Allow us for a moment to set aside the horrors of drug addiction and bask in the illusory splendor of 19th-century opium pipes. We were first turned on to the nice side of heroin by Alessandro, Principe Ruspoli, Ninth Prince of Cerveteri, last summer while researching our series on the 12 original playboys of the jetset sixties. If you missed Dado the first time around, you’ll want to take a few minutes to watch his delightfully infectious endorsement of the practice.

Today, though, we’re only concerning ourselves with the pipes. As historian Stephen Martin explains, “In no other addictive substance did man’s quest for mood-enhancement reach such artistic heights.” The pipe pictured here is of the ceramic/red-copper variety, made in Southern China in the early 1800s. While it is technically a water pipe, it is decidedly not the bong you bought from your friend’s older brother in 10th grade. In fact, it’s technically not even an opium pipe.

Here’s why…

At some point in the mid-1800s, people realized that burning opium was wasting opium—and wasting opium is just about the last thing you want to do when you’re addicted to opium. Enter: the vaporizer.

Ingenuity knows no bounds when it comes to ingesting morphine better, as demonstrated by the opium pipe-bowl which, when met with custom-made lamps vaporized the matter rather than burning it. The bowl was shaped like a doorknob and was adorned with dragons, phoenixes, animals and symbols representing longevity, wealth and happiness. Words and phrases were often painted along the top, like this one, reading “The clay bowl is better than gold and jade.” (Translation: “Opium use is better than being wealthy.”)

Second translation: enabling looks a whole lot less evil when inscribed in porcelain and water-buffalo horn.

Man smoking opium with two females in India, 1910.

One quickly realizes the importance of being horizontal after smoking opium. Thus, the opium bed.

Opium den in lower Manhattan, 1915.

Opium kit.

—C.B.S.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • C. Brian Smith