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How the Drug User Became a Junkie

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. Her dissertation examines the emergence of addiction recovery communes in post-World War II United States, and centers the political activism of self-identified ex-addicts in the national struggles over the possibilities and boundaries of radical participatory democracy in the long 1960s. Welcome to Points, Jordan!

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Yet a look at the term’s genealogy, along with its close associate, “dope,” reveals surprising conceptual and practical links to an industrializing Gilded Age and Progressive United States, a time when the most familiar “junkie” was the “junk man” who worked in the flourishing trade of old and discarded items, as American consumers and producers piled up more trash than ever before. Traces of this lineage appear even today, like in the character Bubbles from the famous HBO show The Wire, depicted as a “junkie” in both senses. 

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“From Scrap to Money,” Afro-American, Dec. 18, 1948

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“Bubble’s Depo” in The Wire, Season 4, 2006

The “junkie” of the 1870s to 1930s has some striking parallels to his counterpart in the 1940s and 1950s. First, they provoked moral panic among urban elites for their alleged (and, sometimes, quite real) links to crime and juvenile delinquency in the city. People in the junk trade were often associated with theft and burglary, like Peter Merry, “known to the police as ‘Junky,’” who was arrested in a secondhand clothing store for attempting to sell clothing he had stolen out of a man’s home earlier that day. Steamship and railroad companies accused “the so-called ‘junkies’” of rampant “theft and pilferage” in the Port of New York, despite the junk dealers being “licensed to trade in supplies and materials discarded by ships.”[3] Urban child-protection associations warned against junk dealers’ bad influence on poor children, some of whom had been arrested for stealing goods out of vacant homes and railroad merchandise cars in order to satisfy the demands of “the ‘junkies’… always ready to drive a bargain with the youngsters.”[4] One 1927 sociologist’s account of urban boy-gangs described “junking” as a type of gateway drug—it was “one of the first steps in the gradual process leading to the complete demoralization of the gang boy.”[5] The author also worried about the families and cultures in which these boys were raised, since the “general point of view of the parents in these communities seems to be that thievery from a railroad is not wrong because it is a big corporation.” This account gives voice to a more general fear among elites that “junkies” blurred the line between legitimate and illegitimate economic activity, endangering young people and law-abiding citizens, and promoting a worldview at odds with a well-regulated United States. 

Second, “junkies” were often the same ethnic and racial minority groups with whom urban elites associated urban vice, drug use, and the “dope traffic.” Historian Carl Zimring notes that Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants dominated the junk trades—which their critics used against them by equating the “dirty work” (both in labor and morals) of junking with foreignness and racial otherness.[6] In response, junk dealers marketed themselves as “waste industries,” in an effort to shake off the volatile “junk” label in favor of one tied to 1920s conservation and industrial efficiency campaigns. Still, as Progressive-era municipal codes and policing practices moved gambling, saloons, brothels, and drug dealing into black and ethnic immigrant sections of the city, so too did they force junk peddlers and lots into those same zones. In fact, in the 1940s and 1950s, it was only urban black newspapers like Baltimore’s Afro-American and the Chicago Defender that still used “junkie” to refer to the “humble junkman,” an “independent businessman” in the “gigantic wheel of American industry.”[7] The activity that decision-makers identified as criminal and parasitic was seen by marginalized communities as creative entrepreneurship, a means of making money in a system whose major profit opportunities were often denied to them—an argument also used in relation to the illicit narcotics and vice trades.  

In fact, the ambivalent role that “junk” and “junkies” played in modern industrial life is a persistent thread during the Progressive era, a time when the terms began to shift meaning from informal junk dealing to illicit drug use. This era posed pressing questions for regulators and junkmen alike: Who would distinguish between goods of legitimate commerce and mere detritus? Who would verify the integrity of new technologies and chemicals in a rational, safe marketplace? The junk trade’s critics accused dealers of exploiting unknowing customers; goods from junk lots didn’t come with quality guarantees—the very same charges held against makers of narcotics-filled patent medicines in the early 1900s, leading to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. In the middle of a free-wheeling marketplace, legislators and regulators began to draw a hard line between “safe” and “toxic” goods, legitimate medicines and dangerous drugs. Regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration sprung up alongside new narcotics-focused branches of the Treasury Department, imbued with new powers from the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. 

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1890s Coca-Cola advertisement

Of course, turn-of-the-century consumers had ways of making distinctions themselves. They often labeled goods of dubious quality as “junk” (plated jewelry, for instance), and cure-alls that haphazardly combined alcohol, heroin, cannabis, and other narcotics as “dopes.” Whether something was for pleasure or medicine was up for debate. Famously, Coca-Cola’s early recipe contained cocaine, and was originally sold as a wellness drink.[8] One of its knock-off competitors even marketed a product called “Dope.”[9] However, regulatory oversight of goods like sodas, and policing of criminalized goods like heroin, placed the two in different legal and cultural worlds, where previously they had occupied shared—if contested—space. By the 1930s and 1940s, the main types of “dope” and “junkies” were illicit drugs and drug users. Popular detective fiction weeklies like Flynn’s and True Detective Mysteries frequently printed tales about “junkies” on the run from the law, and newspapers tracked the success of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in controlling the “traffic in dope.”

Examining the evolution of the word “junkie” allows us to see how the Progressive effort to regulate the marketplace by cracking down on sketchy consumer goods coincided with—or perhaps depended upon—the erection of barriers between “good” and “bad” products, legal and black market businesses, and responsible and reckless consumers. There was a time when “junkies” interacted with substances in perfectly legitimate ways. While it isn’t the case, of course, that drug addiction isn’t a real phenomenon, or that there aren’t potential hazards to consumers in unregulated markets, the fierce moral charge associated with “junkies” and “dope” today comes from earlier ideas about how to make American industry and consumer culture more livable and safe. 


  1. “Bottomless Pit of Drug Addiction,” Norma Lee Browning, Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 20, 1949, pg. B6.

  2. “Shadow on the Path: Shocking Expose of Narcotics Addicts and the Billion Dollar Dope Racket,” Chuck Davis, The Chicago Defender, Dec. 9, 1950, pg. 12.

  3. “Caught Trying to Sell Loot,” New York Times, Dec. 13, 1906, pg. 16; “Harbor Thieves Cause Big Loss,” New York Times, Aug. 1, 1926, pg. XX8.

  4. Annual Report, New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 27th Edition (1902).

  5. F.M. Thrasher, The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago (1927), p. 149.

  6. Carl Zimring, “Dirty Work: How Hygiene and Xenophobia Marginalized the American Waste Trades, 1870-1930,” Environmental History, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan. 2004), pp. 80-101.

  7. “How the Junkman is Backbone of a Thriving Industry,” Afro-American, Dec. 18, 1948.

  8. Hunter Oatman-Stanford, “Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda Pop,” Collectors Weekly, Apr. 10, 2014.

  9. Staci Rogers, “What Doesn’t Kill You Only Makes You Stronger: How the Temperance Movement Helped Make Coca-Cola,” Historia, Vol. 19 (2010).



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