We’re used to thinking of drug use in the context of subversive counter-culture, a tool of exploration, indulgence, and self-destruction that demonstrates the outsider’s contempt for social and legal norms. Drugs call up images of Hunter S. Thompson, not ladies in aprons. The ongoing exhibition at the Wellcome Trust, 'High Society', explores the long history of drug use, and a video posted on the Huffington Post website last week of an American fifties housewife on acid raises some interesting questions about how we view its more recent history. Though the notorious 1936 film, 'Reefer Madness', paints a portrait of young men and women corrupted by marijuana, it leaves aside the topic of drugs use by the established and mainstream citizenry.
What could be more mainstream than the domestic home to which the husband returns after a long day spent accumulating wealth, where children watch television and grow into the next generation? The housewife is the icon of this domesticity, she protects it and is protected by it, and she needs her wits about her. A stereotype, she is servile and unimaginative, uninterested in challenging authority of any kind. It was this strength of faith in the normality and mainstream purity of the domestic woman that prompted some 1956 researchers to test the effects of LSD on a housewife. ‘My husband is an employee here,’ she says, ‘and he told me they were looking for normal people, and I volunteered.’
Today’s domestic home is not only less socially rigid, but it is also full of drugs of different kinds. Added to this, the scientific community seems to be at odds with government policy over which drugs damage society and should be illegal, and which offer medicinal benefits. All of which would seem to show that the issues we face over drug use today are much more complicated than those in the past.
The idea of a simple drug past may be due to our flawed social memory, and our misconceptions about the history of drugs. Mike Jay, one of the curators of the High Society exhibit now on at the Wellcome Trust, offered some insight. ‘Amphetamines and sedatives like valium were aggressively marketed at housewives in the 1950s and 60s by the pharmaceutical profession - there are many amazing trade ads to be found in the medical journals of that period - while the same substances were at the same time seen as "problem drugs" when used by "delinquent" young males for "kicks".’
Aside from advertisements targeting women too tired to do their housework, there are even more, targeted at men and women – but mostly at women – aiming to lose weight.
Then there are those targeted at nurses who enjoy getting pervy attention from their patients.
According to Jay, the cultural history of domestic drug use goes back further. ‘Interestingly, for most of the 19th century, the 'typical' image of the drug addict was the solitary, neurotic, middle-class or upper-class lady. It was only in the early twentieth century that the young male became the archetypal 'drug fiend'. I discuss this briefly in the High Society book, and it's explored in one of the artworks in the exhibition, Tracy Moffat's Laudanum.’
You can see 'Laudanum' and the rest of the High Society exhibition at the Wellcome until the end of February. Visit www.wellcomecollection.org.
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