History of intoxicants to be revealed by team at University of Sheffield

The forgotten history of how people ‘took to soft drugs’ in 17th Century Europe is set to be uncovered by a team of historians at the University of Sheffield.

Funded by the Humanities European Research Area (HERA), the research will focus on how tobacco, chocolate, tea, coffee and opium were first introduced to the population and how they became a common part of everyday life.

Professor Phil Withington, leading researcher from the history department at the University of Sheffield, said: “It is a great honour to be part of this collaborative project between leading historians at Sheffield, and to work closely with curators, teachers, and those involved in dealing with intoxicant-related issues.”

Working as part of a collaboration with Oldenburg, Stockholm and Utrecht, the Sheffield branch of the research will study the chronology and volume of new intoxicants coming into London from 1600 to the beginning of the opium wars in 1850.

The team will then work to reveal how the presence of opium impacted public spaces and social practices.

To do this documents of visual and popular print culture and customs and taxation records will be sampled every fifty years across the period.

Findings will then be compared to the other three European cities of the study – Amsterdam, Hamburg and Stockholm.

The project is also partnering with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Sheffield schools, and the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT).

UN-HABITAT will use the project’s results to help inform drug prevention and health and wellbeing initiatives.

The study will also be used in schools to raise awareness about new and old intoxicants and how lessons can be learned from history. An international conference for schools is going to be held in Amsterdam.

Speaking on the impact of the project, Professor Withington added: “This is the European part of a global story that is easily forgotten. We take our tobacco, our chocolate for granted, but how these intoxicants became part of European diets reveals so much about social identities and how tastes are shaped, valued, and criminalised in the past and present.”