Opium Paraphernalia as used by Chinese in North America

The photos on this page are not of items in my collection but are used here for clarification purposes.

The fancy layouts you see in various sites on the internet are examples of "opium art" or as used by wealthy users in China and perhaps by some wealthy users elsewhere. In North America most opium pipes were ordinary bamboo pipes with little or no adornment. They had plain saddles and perhaps a bone or ivory ring at each end. Bamboo was used because bamboo absorbed resins from the opium vapour and became "cured" quickly. Look at all the pipes in this group of men arrested in the USA for opium use. You see they are holding bamboo pipes with nothing fancy about them at all.

If you look at the opium lamps on the table in this picture, you see glass cones. There are no fancy metal oil containers on the bottom of these lamps. The oil container was a glass bulb inside the glass lampshade. This is common to almost all pictures showing lamps as used in North America. Look at the lamps shown in this picture of a deputy sheriff posing with confiscated periphernalia. The pipes shown are ordinary bamboo pipes, as well.

The above photograph shows several bamboo scales. Most Chinese carried these scales from the gold rush days on. They were used to weigh small quantities of gold in making purchases as well as other items and may quite well have been also used in weighing opium. However, most experts agree that they were not primarily used for opium, so they should not be called "opium scales" by collectors, simply scales that may have been used to weigh opium.They have been called "opium scales" because they were commonly found in the opium dens since most Chinese carried them for other purposes, and they were thought to have been opium paraphernalia by law enforcement people who were raiding the dens. In some photographs of opium dens, you see them hanging on the wall along with other items that were not used specifically with opium.

The Chinese who worked in the gold fields and railroad camps are much more likely to have used these scales to weigh opium and various sources indicate that much more opium was used in these camps than in dens. I'm not sure what a can of opium would have cost in Canada, but in the USA it cost between $6 and $12 whereas a Chinese worker may have made $1.00 a day. It is most likely they pooled their resources to purchase a can, then shared it, and weighed out portions on these scales. In fact, this may have been well known at the time and may have led to the confiscation of these scales as opium paraphernalia when found by authorities. The opium, being sticky, was put on a small piece of playing card or a piece of an opium can before being weighed. These were called "funs trays" and were about 1" square. Here is a photo of a "funs tray" from Montana, made from a piece of opium can. Few have been found in North America and Australia, more have been found in New Zealand. A copy of the AACC newsletter arcticle on funs trays found at China Gulch, Montana can be downloaded at Chinese in Montana. This article explains the origin of the name "funs" and provides further information.

So, the use of a particular set of scales for weighing opium is arguable, and as they were not primarily used for that purpose, they shouldn't be called "opium scales" but more simply just "scales".

In looking through dozens of photos taken inside opium dens in North America and also one or two photos of confiscated opium paraphernalia I have never seen any of the brass bottom lamps, only the all glass lamps with the glass peanut oil container inside. I believe the brass lamps as found in North America are normally Chinese oil lamps used for lighting. As is the case with the scales, these brass lighting lamps may be used with opium. In the camps men would use whatever they could obtain. Perhaps the opium dens only used the all glass lamps which were manufactured to be used as opium lamps and this is why only these seem to appear in the photographic record.

Fancy trays with inlaid mother-of-pearl are called "opium trays" and are often shown with other trays in photographs of fancy layouts and sometimes for sale on Ebay. I suppose they are called "opium trays" because these trays were used in fancy opium layouts in China and are also part of opium art. I've never seen any of these trays in photographs of opium dens and opium paraphernalia as seen in North America. They were simply mostly plain wooden or metal trays pressed into service for opium layouts. Again, the mother-of-pearl inlaid trays may have been used by wealthy Chinese anywhere, but are not commonly seen in photographs taken in North America.

As is reported in books on opium use, during the gold mining and railroad building eras, the Chinese workers smoked opium as a relief from the arduous work. Also, as a rule there were no women. As is pointed out in the Little Book of Opium, addiction does not mean a person cannot carry out his or her work. The problems for addicts come when the substance is illegal and expensive.

Roy, the other collector whose collection is shown on this site, has recovered a large number of brass opium cans from one gold mining site on the Fraser River in British Columbia. Some of these can be seen in his collection shown on this web site. These have also been recovered in the gold mining regions in Australia. You don't see these cans in photos of layouts taken in dens because the opium was supplied by the operators of the den in small quantities at the time the opium was being used. I believe that by far the majority of opium was smoked outside of dens by ordinary Chinese workers and they bought it in these cans and took it with them or had it brought into the sites with supplies.

The following photograph of a typical opium can with label is from an Australian collection. (I have not copied the photo, only linked to it in their site.)

This label is on a can found near here. It is currently in another collection. The label was put on by a shop whose name was at the top and is now too broken up to be readable, but the rest of the label says: "Honorable patrons: we guarantee that this is the real product or we replace it. Genuine aged opium. _____ shop, Victoria." Many thanks to CINARC for the translation.