The power of the poppy: Exploring opium through "The Wizard of Oz"

By Mallory Warner
Botanical model of Papaver rhoeas, the common poppy, late 19th century, used at the University of Minnesota Pharmacy School.

"And now my beauties, something with poison in it I think, with poison in it, but attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell . . . poppies, poppies, poppies will put them to sleep."
—The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz (movie, released 1939)

"Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep. . . . "If we leave her here she will die," said the Lion. “The smell of the flowers is killing us all."
—Excerpt from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (book, published 1900)

Scan of page from book. Illustration in black: Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Dorothy. Behind them, a large red poppy.

Both the book and the film The Wizard of Oz feature iconic scenes of Dorothy, Toto, and the Cowardly Lion (the only flesh and blood members of the gang), lulled to sleep by a field of poisonous poppies.

A deadly flower might seem curious at first, but poppies, of course, are no ordinary bloom. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, grew up and lived in a world where the poppy and its derivative, opium, would have been a common part of everyday life. Opium use in the U.S. peaked in the late 19th century, just around the time Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In 1914, only five years before Baum's death, the U.S. passed legislation to control the distribution of opium and coca. While we can't know for sure, these concerns over opium may have inspired the famous scarlet field. The objects below explore the power and seduction of the poppy for turn-of-the-century Americans.

Left: Model of red flower with large petals and small black beads inside. Green stems with spikes. Right: White jar with lid and poppy illustration.

Poppies have been known since ancient times to be the source of opium, a "milk" produced in their seed pods. Opium is one of the world's oldest known medicines and arguably one of the most important, used for pain relief and as a sleep aid. In a time before synthetic medicines, pharmacy students of the late 19th century studied medicinal plants which were the source of most drugs. Oversize botanical models like the one above were used in the classroom. This model depicts Papaver rhoeas, the common poppy, a close relation to Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.

Left photo: tall, yellow box with text "Laudanum" with illustration of cherubs. Beside it, a wide-shouldered bottle with brown liquid and label matching box. Right: tall yellow/orange box with text Dr. LeGear's Colic Remedy" and image of horse. Beside it, clear glass bottle with cork stopper.

Opium made up an important part of the official pharmacopoeia in Baum's time, available in a range of derivatives such as morphine and heroin and preparations including laudanum, a solution of opium in alcohol. The potent combination packed a punch in many patent medicines. Growing up as a sickly child, Baum may well have been treated with laudanum and likely knew first-hand of its sleep-inducing power. Before widespread drug regulation or labeling, addiction became a growing problem.

Long wooden rod with openings at each end and a doorknob-like appendage. Small glass container with metal base.

In the mid-19th century, the smoking of opium resin was introduced in the U.S. Along with growing medicinal use, this helped fuel a marked growth in opium imports between the 1840s and 1870s. Previously limited to Asia, opium smoking came to be associated with Chinese immigrants and inspired anti-immigrant sentiments, especially in the western United States. Images and descriptions of opium dens tied the practice to gangsters, prostitution, and the underworld.

Pencil drawing of man lying on his right side with something in his mouth.

Fears of growing addiction led to opium restrictions early in the 20th century, and efforts to control narcotic use continued throughout the century. Nevertheless, opiate abuse is once again a nationwide problem. Though today’s opioid crisis echoes concerns about opium addiction in Baum’s time, many modern opioids—oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and pethidine (Demerol)—are synthetic or semi-synthetic and cannot be derived directly from the poppy. With the current threat separated from the poppy itself, we can view the field of flowers as a fairy-tale fancy, where earlier Americans might have seen a well-known fear.

Graphic with image of Ruby Slippers and Scarecrow's black hat

Mallory Warner is a curatorial assistant in the Division of Medicine and Science. She has also blogged about how to mend a broken heart in history. (Take note, Tin Man.)

Update: Thanks to you, our Kickstarter campaign to "Keep Them Ruby" was a success and we have the support we need to conserve and display Dorothy's Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Stay tuned for updates on the project with our monthly newsletter. The Ruby Slippers return to display on October 19, 2018.