You find the strangest things at your local flea-market if you look hard enough. Like this oddity which I found last week.
Made of porcelain, and about the size of a tissue-box, this object is covered over in Chinese characters, with a hole at one end, and circular designs at the other. I recognised it at once for what it was, having seen many in antiques shops and museums in Asia – a 19th century Chinese opium pillow!
“It’s a WHAT??”
You heard me! It’s a Chinese pillow!
Now I hear you – ‘Them crazy orientals, how on earth are they expecting to sleep on that!?’
Well actually, hard pillows have quite a history in China. Made of wood, woven reeds, leather, or in this case, porcelain, they were long, rectangular objects used by people to rest their heads on while sleeping at night, or napping, during the day.
“But why?” I hear you ask.
Pillows served a dual purpose in China in centuries past. They weren’t just for sleeping on, they were also used for storage. Gold, coinage, silverware, jewellery, or anything important (like special documents) could be put inside the pillow. This could then be closed, or put in such a position as to be inaccessible to anybody except the user. This ensured the security of valuables while a person slept. This porcelain pillow has a slot at one end, to allow the admittance of a wallet, coin-pouch or bank-notes, so that they would be kept safe while the pillow was in use.
In the days before strongboxes, safety-deposit boxes, banks and personal safes, hiding your valuables inside your pillow and sleeping on it was the most secure way to protect the items you treasured when you weren’t awake or around to keep an eye on them all the time. They were so commonplace that even today, antique ones can be purchased for next to nothing.
Antique Hard Pillows. What are they made Of?
It depends. Wood, woven reeds or cords, leather, and porcelain were the most common materials. Each one had its advantages and disadvantages. Wood was flammable and easily damaged. Woven pillows could come undone due to wear and tear. Leather pillows were more expensive, but the trade-off for a higher price was greater comfort.
Porcelain pillows were mass-produced in China in their millions in the 1800s, and exported to expat Asian communities all over the world. Although breakable, the hard material used to make them would last forever, and the cool touch of porcelain would’ve been refreshing in the hot, muggy climates of southeast Asia where many of these pillows ended up. The porcelain also lent itself to artistry, with pierced sides and colourful blue-and-white decorations painted on the panels, to make the pillows more desirable. Not all pillows were meant for storing things – some were sealed at both ends and were meant merely for sleeping or resting on.
Is it really called an ‘opium pillow’?
Yes. Yes it is. Although they could be used by anybody who wanted something to sleep on, these porcelain pillows – hard-wearing and cheap to manufacture – were largely produced for people who ran opium dens. The robust pillows could withstand thousands of uses. They were easily cleaned, had an in-built storage compartment, and were easy to keep clean. This is why they were ideally suited for old-fashioned opium dens, where the smoker typically smoked opium while lying down.
So how do these things work?
When a smoker entered a den, he would put his valuables into the pillow, shove one end up against the wall next to his opium-bed, then lie down, resting his head on top of the pillow to prevent the pillow’s contents from being stolen.
Smoking opium actually takes a long time. First, the bead of opium must be heated to make it pliable. Then it must be ‘threaded’ into the hole in the bowl of the opium-pipe using a pin or needle (the heated opium is too sticky and hot to touch with fingers). Then the bowl must be held over a lit opium lamp to warm the opium so that it produces the vapours which are then inhaled by the smoker. Since this was most easily achieved while lying down, reclining on an opium bed, dens required pillows on which smokers could rest their heads.
Fabric pillows stuffed with straw or feathers or wool or whatever, would be too easily damaged, easily soiled, and would wear out faster. Hence the choice for porcelain pillows which were, as I said previously – tougher, stronger, easier to wash and less susceptible to wearing out.
Once the pipe had been prepared and the smoker had laid down, it was important to keep the bowl of the opium pipe warm. If it was not, then the bead of opium inside the bowl would cool down, solidify…and be impossible to smoke. By keeping the pipe low, and its bowl over the top of the small opium-lamp (which existed for heat, rather than light), it was possible to keep the opium in a smokable consistency. As the opium heated up, fumes would come off of the opium, which could be inhaled by the smoker, but only for as long as the pipe remained warm.
“Given the History of Opium, I imagine they’re Very Common?”
Oh yeah. VERY common! You can find them extremely easily in Southeast Asian countries, in particular China, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia…in fact most countries in Southeast Asia. For fairly obvious reasons, they are less common in Western countries, but you can sometimes come across them in antiques shops featuring Asian antiques. Mind you, they’ll be much more expensive.
“That’s cute! I want one! How much?”
It really depends. For cheap ones, go to Asia. They’re so plentiful there that they’re really not worth much. They can be picked up for anything from $20.00 to about $70.00, $100 at the most, although I reckon it’d be rare for you to pay THAT much.
“Do they come in Different Sizes?”
Oh sure they do! The one I have is probably medium-sized. I have seen ones which were smaller, and more ‘blocky’, and I have seen others which were two or three times the length of mine. Obviously, the larger, or more decorated ones tend to cost more, either due to rarity, or higher quality in decorations and design.
Do They only come in Blue and White?
No! They come in all kinds of colours. While white is the most common, accented with blue, I have also seen ones which were yellow, and even green! Some had scenes and artwork painted on the panels in a multitude of colours. Red was a common all-over colour, although this seems to have been reserved for pillows made of wood, leather or fabric, rather than those made of porcelain.
“Do People Collect These Things?”
Good question. I have no idea. I know of at least one museum in Malaysia which has an extensive collection of these pillows as part of the local Straits Chinese or Peranakan museum, and I know that collecting antique opium paraphernalia is definitely a thing, so possibly collectors do exist, but I’ve never heard of opium pillows being an area of active collection.
“Where can I find out more about these things?”
Look up websites dealing with the history of, and paraphernalia concerning, the smoking of opium, or the history of the opium-trade. Alternatively, you could check out websites specialising in Asian antiques. Information does exist, but it may take a while for you to find it.