Opium U? Univ. of Idaho Gets Big Collection Of Opium-Smoking Paraphernalia

Sep 26, 2012

The "world's most comprehensive collection" of opium smoking paraphernalia has a new home. It's at the University of Idaho. A writer and collector, originally from San Diego, donated the exquisite antiques.

It's taking weeks to carefully unpack and catalog all the opium smoking implements and accessories. Collector Steven Martin estimates he donated at least 1,000 pieces... ceramic opium pipe bowls, ornamented heating lamps, traveling kits, scrapers, old photographs and mug shots.

Martin is working together with University of Idaho curator Priscilla Wegars. She admires an elaborately decorated, 19th century Asian pipe bowl. Clearly some upper class drug users indulged their habits with style and pizzazz.

"There's all kinds of crazy shapes out there..." says Martin.

Ceramic opium pipe bowls; the center one has a toad design.
Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

Steven Martin, no relation to the comedian, says his expansive collection started with a spur of the moment souvenir purchase of an opium pipe just over a decade ago.

"I had what I like to call a collector's epiphany," he says. "I really became obsessed with it from that moment. I decided I had to collect more."

Back then, Martin was a Bangkokum-based freelance writer. He often took jobs updating travel guidebooks.

"So my collecting meshed with my work. I was able to travel around and look at antique shops in different cities in Southeast Asia."

Martin says he also visited rustic opium dens in the name of research, possibly the last in existence.

"I did around that time start experimenting with opium smoking myself. At the time I was able to rationalize it as research for my collection."

In his new memoir titled "Opium Fiend," Martin describes a long slide from occasional experimenting to addiction. Near the end, he says he was smoking 30 to 40 pipes a day. He kicked the habit in late 2007 by checking himself into a Buddhist monastery that specializes in narcotics rehab.

Even before, Martin started thinking about where to donate his opium smoking paraphernalia. Some institution in San Francisco? Or maybe turn it into a for-profit attraction in Las Vegas?

"I did around that time start experimenting with opium smoking myself," explains Steve Martin. "At the time I was able to rationalize it as research for my collection."

But he says he fairly quickly decided to send the forbidden treasures to the University of Idaho. Here's why. He came across an archaeology book edited by the university's Priscilla Wegars that included a chapter about opium smoking artifacts.

"I was very, very impressed by what knowledge they were able to glean from these mere shards that they were pulling out of the ground here in Idaho and other parts of the Western U.S. I knew that they would take my collection seriously."

He was correct. Curator Wegars showed eagerness to add Martin's ornate objects to a research collection of artifacts related to Asian immigration to the American West.

"It is amazing how quiet the room becomes when you hold up an opium pipe, an opium pipe bowl and have the lamp there and start to demonstrate how this was used," Wegars says. "People are fascinated."

Wegars says the university previously acquired a few opium smoking accoutrements from archaeological digs at Western mining ghost towns. Those objects are very plain and utilitarian compared to the newly donated paraphernalia.

Opium could be legally imported into the U.S. until 1909. Some communities in the U.S. Northwest could and did outlaw it by local ordinance earlier. Wegars says this led to police raids on so-called "opium dens" where Chinese were arrested and paraphernalia was seized, but Caucasians in attendance often managed to escape.

Wegars says the university did seek permission from the top before accepting the Martin collection.

"We did get an opinion from the attorney general in Idaho. Because it was for teaching, research and study purposes and would be securely housed at the University of Idaho, it would be okay for us to have it."

And besides, Wegars and Martin say most objects in the collection are no longer functional.

The antique drug paraphernalia will not be on public display except when portions get loaned out to museums. The collection will be open to scholars and researchers by appointment.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network