Opium was introduced to China by Western European countries in the 1700's in an
attempt to force China to open up to international trade.  Just like coffee, tobacco,
and alcohol, opium was a legal and addicting drug.  It is derived from the poppy and
is a thick gooey black substance.  When a flame is held close to the goo, it bubbles and
produces a smoke, which is inhaled.

A typical opium smoking session involves placing a small ball of the black goo on the
platform of the clay pipe bowl and holding the bowl over a flame.  As it bubbles and
smokes a small hole in the pipe bowl platform allows the smoke to pass through the
bowl and into a tube to the smoker's mouth.  Smoking a bowl of opium has the same
muscle relaxing effects as drinking a couple of beers.  It also causes the smoker to
feel a sense of calm and can even create drowsiness.

Opium was legal in the US until 1881.  The law making opium illegal was not passed
because of the drug's addicting qualities, but as part of a concerted effort by the U.S.
Legislature to drive the Chinese out of the country.

Although addiction was always a possibility, local Chinese elders have indicated that
most opium smokers were not addicts.  Smoking a bowl of opium after a hard day
working on the railroad or at a laundry was very similar to you or I having a beer after
a hard work day; just a means to relax.  I suspect that alcohol addiction was just as
prevalent among the Caucasian population as opium addiction was among the

The 1987 excavation of San Luis Obispo's Chinatown turned up evidence of opium
smoking.  Broken brass opium containers were recovered as were ceramic pipe bowls,
brass connectors used to attach the bowls to the smoking tube, and the various parts
of opium lamps (see below).

Pipe bowls were found in several styles and a variety of colors.  In the
photo, the top row shows the various circular types of bowls.  They are of
gray stoneware and earthenware.  The holes you see are where the brass
fitting was attached, which connected the bowl to the smoking tube.  A
tiny hole on the top of each bowl (see bottom row, second from right) is
where the ball of opium was placed.  Over time the small hole would burn
out and the owner was forced to either buy a new pipe or repair the old
bowl by drilling out the center and inserting a plug with a new burn hole
(two bowls in the top row contain such repairs made from pieces of white porcelain).

The bottom row shows the variety of fluted and angular bowl types.

Often the bowls had Chinese characters and designs stamped or etched on the sides or
base.  A careful examination of this photo might reveal that the second bowl on the
bottom row has two rows of characters.  Most often these characters indicate the
manufacturer, however, occasionally they include uplifting words or phrases.  
Designs on the bowls range from simple geometric patterns to Chinese good luck
symbols and even mythical creatures.

Some bowls are wheel thrown with the center carved out. Some are pressed into
molds with the top made of a separate piece attached with slip or with a welded coil.
Often the inside walls show the fingerprints of the makers.
Site maintained as a public service by Archaeological Research, PO Box 1353, Lucerne, CA 95458.
History and Prehistory of Lake County
and Beyond
Wu Bowls
Opium Use
Historic Features

The opium lamp consists of a small glass oil reservoir which sits on a glass base and
is topped by a small glass disk used to hold the wick.  The reservoir is often a very
delicate cut-glass piece.  The reservoir often held peanut oil.  Over this sat a glass
chimney with a hole just above the wick holder.  When lit, the lamp's flame rose to the
height of the chimney where the pipe bowl would rest for proper burning.
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
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