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Opium Scale

by Christian Ortiz and Jalen Heyward

teak wood and brass opium scale, ca.1880
Unidentified Artist
Opium Scale, ca. 1880
Teak wood and brass scale
Private collection

The opium scale, likely from the 1800s is made of teak wood, sliding open to reveal two small metal plates. These two small plates are attached by strings to a metal crossbar, used to measure the opium. On the exterior, there are two beautifully carved elephants facing each other, surrounded by other geometric patterns. Elephants in Thai culture are a symbol of wisdom and strength and are also used in design for attracting wealth and good luck. In relation to the scale, the design likely signifies accumulation of wealth through opium trade, or it could be symbolic of how the scale is related to money.

Many of these opium scales made it to England during the 1850s and 1860s, and even the United States during the gold boom, attracting more than 300,000 poor Chinese migrants to the United States alone. In the United States or England, these scales could have been found in areas known as “opium dens,” predominantly Chinese areas common to drug sales.

Opium growth and use began in 3400 B.C. when the opium poppy was cultivated in Southwest Asia. The Sumerians referred opium as the “joy plant” and used the plant for a variety of things — the most common included pharmaceutical medication and recreational drug use. In Southeast Asia, the practice of mixing the opium and tobacco for smoking spread throughout the region, creating much higher demand for the substance. In the early 1700s, China released an anti-opium edict, causing increased importation of the plant.

About a hundred years later, when China reissued the prohibition with more clear guidelines, imports jumped from 200 to 4,500 chests annually. As a result, many countries began to grow and process opium to expand its availability, cultivating its spread along the Silk Road, eventually becoming a catalyst for China’s Opium Wars in the mid-1800s. At the time, the imports of opium had climbed to 70,000 chests annually.



“Investigations: Chinese Opium Scale.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

“Opium Throughout History.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Waley, Arthur. The Opium War through Chinese Eyes. Stanford, CA: Stanford U, 1995. Print.


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