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How Profits From Opium Shaped 19th-Century Boston

In a city steeped in history, very few residents understand the powerful legacy of opium money.

In the early 1800s, the Brits controlled 90 percent of the Chinese opium trade. But within the 10 percent of business handled by Americans, Perkins and his brother James had the largest share. They owned at least seven ships, and held interest in others. The ships sailed from Massachusetts shores to Turkey, where they bought opium; from Turkey to China, where they sold the drug; and from China to Boston, loaded with tea, porcelain and silk.

Perkins and Co. alone created fortunes for a network of in-laws, nephews and cousins, says John Rogers Haddad, a professor of American Studies at Penn State University.

"That company generated a tremendous amount of revenue and profit," Haddad says.  "Multiple people, not just Thomas Perkins himself, were made millionaires by the trade."Of course, not everyone struck it rich trading in opium. It was a competitive, highly volatile market. But those who worked for Perkins and a few other firms became the city's elite — otherwise known as Boston Brahmins. The Cabots, Cushings, Welds, Delanos (the grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Forbes all built fortunes on opium.

"That money changes the face of Boston and makes it possible for Boston to develop a reputation as one of the world's true civic cities," said Salem State University historian Dane Morrison.

In a city steeped in history, very few residents understand the powerful legacy of opium money.

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