What Is a ‘Pipe Dream’?
4 min read
Last Modified 20 December 2022 First Added 8 October 2021
A ‘pipe dream’ – thought to refer to the hallucinations caused by smoking opium – is an idea or fantasy that’s extremely difficult or impossible to accomplish.
The first appearance I could uncover of the term used in a comparable, though not identical manner to the way the phrase is used today is in Tales of Life and Death Volume 1 (1870) by Hon. Grantley F. Berkeley, a British politician, writer and sportsman.
Reason or other for dreading a tete-a-tete, lively in his remembrance – the unwelcome conclusion to his last night’s pipe-dream.
While we can see the meaning taking shape here, the story itself seems to refer to pipes of tobacco, rather than a pipe with any hallucinogenic properties. Indeed, while many etymological studies of the term seem to suggest it refers to the fantastical works of England’s Romantic Poets (Shelley, Byron etc.) who were renowned opium users, its rise to prominence in the USA in the mid-to-late 19th century is likely linked to the opium crisis that followed the Civil War.
The Civil War left a generation of Americans with long term pain conditions that doctors and surgeons increasingly sought to treat with morphine – the Smithsonian Magazine (January of 2018) featured the following story of a physician in New Orleans in 1870:
Physicians like Schuppert used morphine as a new-fangled wonder drug. Injected with a hypodermic syringe, the medication relieved pain, asthma, headaches, alcoholics’ delirium tremens, gastrointestinal diseases and menstrual cramps. “Doctors were really impressed by the speedy results they got,” says David T. Courtwright, author of Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America. “It’s almost as if someone had handed them a magic wand.
Not only did British and American capitalism thrive on the opium trade during the 19th century (with the British fighting two wars to essentially force China to legalise the opium trade), they also used it as a key pillar of the Chinese Exclusion Act as they attempted to blame the dangers of opium addiction on immigrant railway workers.
However, with opium dens proliferating throughout major US cities by the 1870s, it would make far more sense for the phrase to have developed independently in America than to reference a literary movement that would have meant little to them.
With the first use commonly attributed to a Chicago Tribune article in 1890 – including by the OED as follows:
1890 Chicago Tribune 11 Dec. ii. 9/3 It [sc. aerial navigation] has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years.
It must be noted that the phrase was already in such common use that it could be used in an 1884 speech to the House of Representatives by Hon. Frank Hiscock of New York:
But with zinc ore at $ 38 per ton , what have they to complain of , when only a few years ago $ 30 per ton would have been a ‘ pipe dream ‘ ? “
As with many idioms, it’s impossible to pin down an exact point of origin, but by the point at which common use spills over into written documents, and based on the historical circumstances of the period preceding that, it’s fairly safe to say that ‘pipe dream’ likely took on its recognised modern meaning in the mid-19th century in response to the America’s own opium crisis, though it may have evolved from similar colloquialisms in the UK.