From Medicine to Moral Panic: The History of Poppers | History Hit

From Medicine to Moral Panic: The History of Poppers

A selection of poppers
Image Credit: UK Home Office, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alkyl nitrites, more commonly known as poppers, have been widely used as a recreational drug since the 1960s. Originally popularised by the gay community, poppers are known to induce euphoria, cause a dizzying ‘rush’ and to relax the muscles.

Though they are sold openly in some countries, usually in small brown bottles, the usage of poppers is legally ambiguous, meaning that they are often sold as leather polish, room deodorisers or nail polish remover. In the European Union, they are banned altogether.

However, poppers weren’t always used recreationally. Instead, they were first synthesised in the 19th century by French chemist Antoine Jérôme Balard before later being used as a treatment for angina and period pains. Later, poppers were caught up in the moral panic associated with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, being falsely accused as the possible source.

Here’s the fascinating history of poppers.

They were first synthesised in the 1840s

Antoine-Jérôme Balard (left); Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton (right)

Image Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (left); G. Jerrard, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons (right)

In 1844, French chemist Antoine Jérôme Balard, who also discovered bromine, first synthesised amyl nitrite. To do so, he passed nitrogen through amyl alcohol (also known as pentanol) to produce a liquid which emitted a vapour that made him ‘blush’.

However, it was really the Scottish physician Thomas Lauder Brunton who, in 1867, recognised that amyl nitrite vapour could be used to treat angina instead of traditional therapies – which included bleeding the patient to reduce the sufferers’ blood pressure. After conducting and witnessing a number of experiments, Brunton introduced the substance to his patients and found that it relieved chest pain, since it causes blood vessels to dilate.

Other uses included combatting period pain and cyanide poisoning; however, it has been largely discontinued for the latter purpose since there is a lack of evidence that it works, and it comes with an associated risk of abuse.

It was quickly realised that the substance was being abused

Though alkyl nitrites were used for legitimate medical conditions, it was quickly realised that they also caused intoxicating and euphoric effects.

In a letter to Charles Darwin in 1871, Scottish psychiatrist James Crichton-Browne, who prescribed amyl nitrites for angina and period pain, wrote that his “patients grew stupid and confused and bewildered. They have ceased to give prompt intelligent and coherent answers to questions.”

Angina treatments, room aromas and leather cleaners: or a recreational drug?
Listen Now

They were originally activated by being ‘popped’

Amyl nitrites were originally packaged in a delicate glass mesh called ‘pearls’ which were wrapped in silk sleeves. To administer them, the pearls were crushed between the fingers, which created a popping sound, which then released the vapours to be inhaled. This is likely where the term ‘poppers’ came from.

The term ‘poppers’ was later extended to include the drug in any form as well as other drugs with similar effects, such as butyl nitrite.

They were first adopted for recreational use by the gay community

Black and white photograph of the interior of the mixed gay and straight bar the Garden & Gun club, c. 1978-1985.

Image Credit: College of Charleston Special Collections, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By the start of the 1960s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States ruled that amyl nitrite wasn’t dangerous enough to require a prescription, meaning it became more freely available. Only a few years later, reports that young, healthy men were misusing the drug emerged, meaning that the requirement for a prescription was reintroduced.

However, by then, poppers were firmly embedded in queer culture for their ability to enhance sexual pleasure and facilitate anal sex. To get around the re-introduced FDA requirement for a prescription, entrepreneurs started modifying amyl nitrite to fit in small bottles, often disguised as room deodorisers or nail polish remover.

In the late 1970s, Time magazine and The Wall Street Journal reported that along with being popular in the homosexual community, popper usage had “spread to avant-garde heterosexuals”.

They were erroneously blamed for the AIDS epidemic

During the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, widespread usage of poppers by many people who also suffered from HIV/AIDS led to theories that poppers were causing, or at least contributing to the development of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that occurs in people suffering with AIDS. In response, the police conducted a number of raids and seizures of poppers in primarily LGBTQ+ affiliated venues.

However, this theory was later disproved, and by the 1990s, poppers were popular again amongst the queer community, and more widely embraced by members of the raving community. Today, poppers remain popular in Britain, though debates as to whether they should be banned are ongoing and controversial.

Lucy Davidson