It was an honour for the Wellcome Collection to join Intoxicating Spaces and a group of eminent scholars for an online workshop that took place on 21–22 January 2021 on Modes of Persuasion: Humour and the Promotion and Control of Intoxicants Past and Present. The workshop was originally suggested by Angela McShane while she was head of Research Development at Wellcome Collection. It was a good choice of subject, as the humorous treatment of stimulants and narcotics by promoters and controllers is a significant theme in the Wellcome collections. The main aim of the event was to show how playfulness, levity, satire, and wit have historically been used to inform campaigns and communications around licit and illicit drugs.
The River Thames as it flows through London is tidal, meaning twice per day part of the riverbed is exposed for a few hours. This area, known as the Thames foreshore, is a rich archive of (among other things) the remnants of two millennia of the city’s relationship with intoxicants. From tobacco to sugar to opium, the river delivers evidence of how they were imported, refined, sold, and consumed, but it is an archive like no other.
At 9pm on 24 November 1793, two policemen called Dickman and Bergström arrested an unknown man on the Högbergsgatan for smoking tobacco and being drunk. Called to the police chamber in Stockholm the following day, the man was fined five riksdaler, and his identity was established as John Carl Åman, a journeyman shoemaker.
In several Dutch books, plays, and poems written between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, coffeehouses are portrayed as spaces in which rational and civilised conversation took place. According to these texts, the people (more specifically, men) who visited these spaces did so to study, write, and discuss politics. This, we are told, encouraged them to be more civil and well-mannered, which in turn promoted the adoption of these qualities and behaviours across society as a whole. What we see here is the so-called ‘verburgerlijkingshypothese’ – or, in English, the ‘civilisation hypothesis’ – in all its glory. However, because these cultural processes are described in fictitious works, they don’t necessarily conform to reality ‘on the ground’. To find out what really went on in the coffeehouses of eighteenth-century Amsterdam, I did some research in the notarial records of the Amsterdam City Archive, a wide range of judicial documents prepared by the city’s legal scribes. And that’s where it gets interesting…
Thinking about intoxicating spaces, apothecary shops are probably not what first springs to mind. Yet, these places are very relevant in discussing the assimilation of new intoxicants into European diets. It may seem strange to us today, but they virtually all started out as medicinal drugs. For example, sugar was believed to remedy coughing and to support the stomach, kidneys, and bladder, amongst others. Similarly, tobacco could be applied for many different conditions ranging from scurvy and tetanus to epilepsy and constipation. Moreover, it could be applied to cure wounds and was believed to have a preventative effect against the plague. Opium, coffee, tea, and cocoa were used just the same as panaceas for many ailments. The opium poppy’s bulbs and their sap were famous for their ability to induce sleep and to calm children. Tea and chocolate would even arouse lust, while coffee was regarded as an anti-love elixir.