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JIM’S BLOG

Thanksgiving Trivia

It’s time for our annual Thanksgiving trivia raffle. This started out as a family tradition in our house, a way to pass the time while prepping Thanksgiving dinner. It’s turned into something that’s been a lot of fun over the years… and very educational! All you need to enter is to comment on this blog
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Lowe’s Exclusive Christmas Pieces

One of the advantages I have as an artist is I’m not bogged down with a lot of formal training. I never went to art school, so I never learned the rules. Consequently I use color in a way that most trained artists would find odd. I’m not afraid to put a pink next to
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Victorian Collection

Here’s something I’m pretty excited about, a collection inspired by the treasures (or at least they were treasures to me!) I found in my Grandmother’s attic. I love the patterning, it’s based on old wallpaper samples. And the glitter comes from a collection of antique Christmas cards she kept in an old shoe box. Funny
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Disney Princess Surprise

I love surprises, finding something unexpected or unusual. They keep us on our toes and stimulate the imagination. And if nothing else they’re just plain fun! One of the ways I like to create surprises in my art is with color, a splash of bright purple where you wouldn’t expect to see it… or maybe
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Halloween Project

Here’s something fun for fall. It’s a small art project you can do on your own…or better yet with friends! You don’t have to be a great artist, or even a good one. All you need are a few ingredients you’ll see in the video, a little patience, and maybe a touch of personal flair!
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The Dark Side of Folk Art

There’s always been a dark side to folk art. And when you think of America’s first folk artists, the early settlers facing an uncertain life in an unknown wilderness, I’d say that’s pretty understandable! They existed on the edge of civilization, in harsh conditions where life and death were daily considerations, often beyond human control.
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Ft. Belvoir Jim Shore Event

I’m looking forward to my signing event this Sunday, Oct. 8 at the Ft. Belvoir Exchange at Ft. Belvoir, VA. It’ll only open to active and retired military personnel and their families so it’s a little bit different from my normal signings. But I love these military events and try to do at least one
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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The stop motion animated Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a tradition in my home. And with good reason! It first aired in 1964 and is the longest running, highest rated holiday special in television history. We try to watch it every year, and we haven’t missed many. It gets everyone in the proper
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Fall Is A Time For Color

Don’t get me wrong, I love Summer.  It’s one of my top 4 seasons of the year!  But it’s now past Labor Day and it’s time to start thinking about Fall.  The days are a little bit shorter, and while there’s no nip in the air just yet, everything growing seems to be riper by
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How Jim Got Started

A lot of people ask me how I got my start. Here’s a short video with the Reader’s Digest version. I should probably make up something a little bit more dramatic, with villains and monsters and maybe a laser sword of two. But until then the real story here will have to do!
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White Woodland

My White Woodland collection is near and dear to my heart.  I love the subtle color palette, it seems to compliment and emphasis the complexity of the designs.  Here I am talking about new additions for this Christmas season.  Take a look and let me know what you think!
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Meet Jim At A Signing Event

I love to travel. I never get tired of it and I always seem to learn something new on every trip. It doesn’t matter if it’s my tenth time to Disneyland or the first time to Banff, it’s all great. There’s always something interesting to do or fun to see. So I get excited when
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Hallmark Holiday

There are certain staples in the Christmas season, things we do every year to make the holidays bright. Decorating the tree, get togethers with family and friends, candlelight services and the like. The sort of things memories are made from. And one of those things, at least for me, has always been a shopping trip
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Margaritaville by Jim Shore

Who doesn’t love Jimmy Buffet? I know I do! I was recently asked to collaborate on his Margaritaville line and jumped at the chance. Here’s a short video shot in my South Carolina studio (a.k.a. Margaritaville North) talking about the collection. Let me know what you think! And for the sharp-eyed among you, there’s a
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St. Francis

My art can go in a lot of different directions. I find inspiration most everywhere, from Christmas to Angels to flowers and nature to Disney and Peanuts. There’s an emotional spark, a connection in what I try to do and it can take many different forms and cover a lot of different subjects. And I
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An Exciting Weekend

It’s a busy weekend for me with plenty of frequent flyer miles.  First, I’m off to California for my appearance at the D23 Disney Fan Event at the Anaheim Convention Center (click here for more details) then back to the East Coast for my Christmas in July Show on QVC Sunday morning at 1am ET. 
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4th of July Highlights

Wow! What a great 4th of July! Here’s a few pictures of family and friends celebrating at our house. It was a great time had by all…maybe enough to hold us all over to Christmas! Or maybe Thanksgiving. Well…at least ‘til Halloween!
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My Special Day…

I guess it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a man with a wife and five daughters doesn’t have any secrets. I’m not complaining, God knows I wouldn’t trade with anyone. But it’s hard to be mysterious or take on airs with so many eyes on you and so many cell phones in the world. Even my
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My Favorite Holiday – 4th of July

Over the years my work has become associated with Christmas. That’s understandable, I do a lot of Christmas art. In fact in my career I’ve designed over 3,000 different Santa Clauses! Because of that people think I’m some sort of Christmas nut… waiting all year for that one special day to come around. Now don’t
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Sleeping Beauty

I’m a sucker for romance. And of course I’m a big Disney fan! Here’s a short video combining the two. It’s a description of my new Sleeping Beauty design shot in my kitchen in South Carolina by my daughter Robin. There, now it combines 4 or 5 of my favorite things!
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15th Anniversary Santa

Time is a funny thing.   Sometimes it seems like it’s standing still, and other times you look back and wonder where it’s gone.  We can lose track of things, not remembering or appreciating the constant growth and change that comes over time.  My dad had a saying, “The best time to plant an oak tree
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Pineapples

Here’s one of my favorites! Pineapples have been a symbol of hospitality dating back to Colonial times. I’ve used that idea to create several different decor pieces through the years, they’re great for hostess or housewarming gifts, or just for display! Here’s a short piece on my latest, including a brief history of how pineapples
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Ft. Bragg Sculpture Dedication

This week I had the honor to attend the dedication of a statue I created for the Headquarters, United States Army Special Operations Aviation Command at Fort Bragg, NC. I was literally surrounded by heroes, brave men and women who’ve dedicated their lives and given so much to keep us safe and free. It was
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Davy Jones

I had a great time at Disney World last week, thanks to everyone for coming out! It was quite a crowd! And there was a lot of buzz about Pirates of the Caribbean! Understandable with a new movie coming out and the 50th anniversary of the ride this summer. I’m looking forward to both! Here’s
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Happy Mothers Day

Mother’s Day is a pretty big deal around our house, a great excuse to get the whole family together. And it’s a chance to celebrate the love, patience and sacrifice that only a mother can give. No one knows us like our mothers! Thank God! Here’s a short Mother’s Day video shot by my daughter
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Meet Figment

I’ll be traveling to Disneyworld this week, May 12-13, for some special signing events and the debut of my new Figment design. This one is really special to me, he’s the personification (if you can say that about a dragon!) of creativity and imagination, things we probably all should use more in our lives. Plus
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15th Anniversary Heartwood Creek

Here’s a short video shot in my studio discussing a pair of new designs commemorating the 15th anniversary of my Heartwood Creek collection. These pieces have some pretty interesting elements geared specifically to the occasion, take a look and let me know what you think. And just so you know I look exactly the same
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Happy Easter!

Easter is a time of hope, of promises fulfilled and redemption of the spirit. It’s a season on quiet reflection and joyous commemoration. In short, it’s glorious! Here’s a short video describing how our family celebrates. If everything works out, and we remember to turn on the sound on the camera, I hope to have
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Open the Door to a Beautiful Surprise

Doors are always intriguing. You never really know what’s on the other side. Sometimes it’s a beautiful new adventure or experience… and sometimes not so much. But you never know until you open them! Here’s a short video of me talking about my new door collection. I really like the concept, and I love how
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See How A New Peanuts Design Begins

Here’s a Peanuts project I really had some fun with! And we thought it would be interesting to give everyone an inside look at how we do things at my studio. It’s a look at my design process, how I approach new art, with a little drawing lesson thrown in. Thanks to my daughter Robin
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Happy St. Patrick’s Day

There are places that don’t disappoint… that live up to the hype. The Grand Canyon is like that, every bit as beautiful in person as it is in your imagination. And Jackson Hole too, with landscapes and vistas that take your breath away. But for living up to expectations there’s no place like Ireland. It’s
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Jim Shore Disney Princesses

Everybody has a favorite Disney Princess, a heartfelt heroine who sparks great memories of summer afternoons in dark theaters. Magical moments filled with laughter, adventure and learning important life lessons when it counts the most. We’ve watched them together and they’ve become part of our shared experience. They illustrate the values we admire, the evil
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Jim’s Jambalaya Recipe

I grew up in the South and spent a lot of time as a young man along the Gulf coast.  I wouldn’t change a thing, that life has really suited me, so many wonderful things that I’m grateful for every day.  The people, the history, the climate… and most of all the food!  One of
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Jim Shore Ocean Wonderland

I guess with a family name like Shore I was destined to love the sea. Over the years it’s been a great source of inspiration, and it’s always been a favorite theme in my work. And I guess I’m not alone! When I travel to events around the country, even landlocked places like West Virginia
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Jim Shore and Coca Cola Partnership

I’m happy to announce a new collaboration with Coca Cola! I’ll be doing a series of Coke designs featuring iconic images from their advertising through the years. Polar Bears, Penguins and Santas… stuff that’s right up my alley! This will be fun! Coke is a household name all over the world, a brand people know
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Shows Next Week

Next week starts off pretty busy. First off, on Monday beginning at 12 pm ET, we’ll have our next Inner Circle of Friends Fireside Chat. These chats are always great fun, a chance to exchange ideas and talk about new designs and directions. And I’m particularly looking forward to this one! I have a few
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Peanuts Partnership

Peanuts is a tradition in my house, the first thing I look for in the morning paper and must-watch TV whenever it’s on.  The characters, like Snoopy and Woodstock here, are so familiar!  They’re friends who make us laugh, touch our hearts and sometimes make us look in the mirror.  It’s humor with a foundation
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A Gift For My Valentine

My mother collected roosters. We had a house full of them, everything from a rooster lamp to rooster baking dish to rooster curtains in the kitchen. We even had a big carved rooster on the porch. When the wind blew hard he’d fall over and block the front door. So when I was a kid
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It’s A Small World Collection

I don’t really remember the first time I saw the It’s a Small World ride…or heard that song! Seems like I’ve been singing it all my life. I know the ride was developed for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and opened up in Disneyland a couple of years later. Since then it’s delighted millions
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Inner Circle of Friends Fireside Chat

I’m looking forward to our next Inner Circle of Friends Fireside chat, this Monday, January 30 at 7pm ET. Please join us if you can, these are always a good time, always a great chance to discuss a wide range of subjects… everything from design concepts, to my 15th anniversary with Heartwood Creek to pizza
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Jim Shore Heartwood Creek 15th Anniversary

2017 marks the 15th anniversary of my Heartwood Creek collection and my relationship with the wonderful people at Enesco. Here’s a short video of me telling the story of how it all began. Maybe not too short! I do love to talk! But I think you might find it interesting, or at least amusing. It’s
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Valentine’s Day

True story, I once gave my wife Jan an ironing board for Valentine’s Day. A hand-held vac for Christmas. Probably the worst was when I gave her, literally, “the kitchen sink” for her birthday. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as romantic as the next guy. I’m an artist after all! But when it came to
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Jim’s Favorite New Products

I like to surround myself with color, particularly this time of year when the days are short, the nights are cold and things can look pretty bleak. So I keep some small designs around the studio, accents with a dash of color that bring a smile and and a gentle reminder that spring is just
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Jim’s New Year’s Resolution

I was never much for New Year’s resolutions. I always figured if something needed doing you just did it! You didn’t wait around for special occasions or some extra incentive stamped by the date. If it had to be done it had to be done. I’ve taken on a lot of issues that way in
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Jim’s Story

I never had any formal artistic training. And I’m not sure it would have helped! You might call me self-taught, though I don’t know that’s really accurate. The truth is I was born with a God-given creativity that I think is more-or-less unteachable. It’s difficult to explain, but from a very early age it was
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Merry Christmas

Christmas at our house is about family, the blessing of being together. And with six kids and more grandkids than we can keep up with Jan and I are very much blessed. I love all the preparation and excitement, the shopping and wrapping and baking… the look of wonder on the kids’ faces (and sometimes
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Winter Wonderland Collection

I love every single piece in my line. It wouldn’t be there otherwise. But I have to admit some pieces are special, they just seem to “work.” I get a lot of comments about those special designs and I love to hear that feedback. Over the years I’ve heard a lot about The Real Meaning
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Jim Shore’s Fireside Chat

I’m looking forward to our first ever Circle of Friends fireside chat, this Wednesday, December 14th at 8pm ET. We’ll be talking about the new Inner Circle program, a few last minute gift ideas for the season, and maybe give a sneak peek at some new designs for 2017. But what I’m really looking forward
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Jim Shore’s Granddaughter’s School Report

I’ve seen my art displayed in a lot of wonderful places…fine homes and fabulous cathedrals, some art museums and a few state capitols. There’s even a piece or two in the White House! But this is really special! Here’s my granddaughter Lilah preparing for her school report on Christmas in Russia using one of my
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Jim Shore’s Hallmark Exclusives

There are certain staples in the Christmas season, things we always try to do to make the holidays bright. Decorating the tree, get togethers with family and friends, candlelight services and the like. The sort of things memories are made from. And one of those things, at least for me, is always a shopping trip
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Inner Circle

Here’s something I’m pretty excited about. This month we’ve kicked off a special program for our Circle of Friends called the Inner Circle and I think it’s something you’ll really like. First off you’ll get the kit I talk about in this video, it’s got exclusive items drawn from this Circle of Friends Woodland Santa
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Jim’s Cranberry Sauce Recipe

There’s a special magic about Thanksgiving. Some say it’s all about great food. The more high-minded will say it’s about shared memories with family and friends. I’m in the middle and feel strongly both ways! With that in mind here’s a cranberry recipe my mother used to make. And her mother before her. My family
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Angels

There’s only one constant at my studio. No matter what else I’ve got going on, no matter the season or my mood, I’m always working on an Angel. Angels are a staple in my art, over the years I must have created thousands. It’s a subject I love, an image that keeps inspiring, and an
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Jim’s Baby Crib Project

My dear friends Doug and Christie just had a baby! Here’s a little something I put together for the new arrival. I love this sort of project,working with old bits and scraps, adding a few elements and a little imagination to create something beautiful that will be treasured for years to come.
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Jim’s Secret Chili Recipe

There’s nothing like a hot bowl of chili. It’s a real family favorite, and almost as much fun to make as it is to eat. Here’s a short video of me in the kitchen making a batch from my secret recipe. Take a look and give it a try. I think you’ll like it! See
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Patriotism

  Like I say in this video, I love history. Particularly American history. It’s personal to me, a source of joy and pride for me and my family. And I’m not alone! I have the good fortune to travel a lot, doing shows and signing events across the country. And with the internet I can
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Halloween Decorating – DIY Pumpkin

Here’s a fun Halloween project just in time for the season. What I love about this one is you don’t have to be some sort of master craftsman to make something the family can display and enjoy for years! It’s easy! Take a look. I think you’ll get a kick out of it. And I
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Purity & Purpose in Quilting Traditions

Over the years my wife Jan and I have built up a wonderful collection of antique quilts. I keep them close by in my studio to use for reference or inspiration in case I get stuck on an idea or feel the need for a creative boost. They’ve become a pretty substantial part of my
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The Rose Collection

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a time to reflect on the gut-wrenching struggle faced by the women and men facing this terrible disease. And a time for all of us to search our hearts and minds to find a way to help. The fight is personal, we all know someone or some family
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Meeting Friends On The Road

Some years ago my wife Jan and I were at an art show in Tennessee, trying to sell a few pieces and make a few connections. That’s how we made our living back then and it wasn’t particularly easy or glamorous. Believe me, I know all about being a starving artist! Now the headline artist
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Magical Partnership

The name Disney conjures up great memories, summer afternoons in dark theaters filled with laughter, adventure, classic songs… and learning important life lessons from a cricket or a bear. Everybody loves Disney, the stories are part of who we are, our shared cultural heritage. For more than 10 years I’ve been honored to work with
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Few people’s views on drugs have changed so starkly as those of Aldous Huxley. Born in 1894 to a high-society English family, Huxley witnessed the early 20th-century ‘war on drugs’, when two extremely popular narcotics were banned within years of one another: cocaine, which had been sold by the German pharmaceutical company Merck as a treatment for morphine addiction; and heroin, which had been sold for the same purpose by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer.

The timing of these twin bans was not coincidental. Ahead of the First World War, politicians and newspapers had created a hysteria surrounding the ‘dope fiends’ whose use of cocaine, heroin and certain amphetamines allegedly showed that they had been ‘enslaved by the German invention’, as noted in Thom Metzer’s book The Birth of Heroin and the Demonization of the Dope Fiend (1998).

As the rhetoric of eugenics flourished during the interwar years – both from the mouth of Adolf Hitler and from Huxley’s older brother, Julian, the first director of the Paris-based UNESCO and a notorious eugenicist, Aldous Huxley imagined the use of drugs by government entities as a nefarious means of dictatorial control. In Brave New World (1932), the fictitious drug soma is doled out to the populace as a means to keep them dumbly happy and sated (‘All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects,’ Huxley wrote), and the book makes multiple mentions of mescaline (which at that point he had not tried but clearly did not approve of), which renders his character Linda stupid and prone to vomiting.

‘The dictatorships of tomorrow will deprive men of their freedom, but will give them in exchange a happiness none the less real, as a subjective experience, for being chemically induced,’ Huxley later wrote in The Saturday Evening Post. ‘The pursuit of happiness is one of the traditional rights of man; unfortunately, the achievement of happiness may turn out to be incompatible with another of man’s rights – liberty.’ Hard drugs were inherently tied up with politics in Huxley’s early years, and to be a proponent of cocaine or heroin was, in many ways, to be aligned with Nazi Germany in the eyes of politicians and leading newspapers.

But then, on Christmas Eve 1955 – 23 years after the publication of Brave New World – Huxley took his first dose of LSD and everything changed. He loved it. It inspired him to write Heaven and Hell (1956), and he introduced the drug to Timothy Leary, a vocal political advocate for the therapeutic benefits of mind-altering drugs. Eventually, Huxley would align himself with Leary’s hippie politics – in ideological opposition to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign and the Vietnam War – in large part due to his now-positive experience with such drugs.

In his novel Island (1962), Huxley’s characters inhabit a utopia (rather than Brave New World’s dystopia) and gain serenity and understanding by taking psychoactive drugs. Whereas in Brave New World drugs are a means of political control, in Island, they are ‘medicine’.

What explains Huxley’s changed perspective – from seeing drugs as an instrument of dictatorial control to a way to escape from political-cultural repression? Indeed, in the grander picture, why are drugs universally despised at one time, then embraced by intellectuals and cultural influencers at another? Why do we have an almost decadal vogue for one drug or another, with popular drugs such as cocaine all but disappearing only to pop up again decades later? Above all, how are drugs used to affirm or tear down cultural boundaries? The answers colour nearly every aspect of modern history.

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Drug use offers a starkly efficient window into the cultures in which we live. Over the past century, popularity has shifted between certain drugs – from cocaine and heroin in the 1920s and ’30s, to LSD and barbiturates in the 1950s and ’60s, to ecstasy and (more) cocaine in the 1980s, to today’s cognitive- and productivity-enhancing drugs, such as Adderall, Modafinil and their more serious kin. If Huxley’s progression is to be followed, the drugs we take at a given time can largely be ascribed to an era’s culture. We use – and invent – the drugs that suit our culture’s needs.

The drugs chosen to pattern our culture over the past century have simultaneously helped to define what each generation has most desired and found most lacking in itself. The drugs du jour thus point towards a cultural question that needs an answer, whether that’s a thirst for spiritual transcendence, or for productivity, fun, exceptionalism or freedom. In this way, the drugs we take act as a reflection of our deepest desires and our inadequacies, the very feelings that create the cultures in which we live.

To be clear, this historical investigation predominately concerns psychoactive drugs. It accounts for a large family of drugs embracing LSD, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, barbiturates, anti-anxiety medications, opiates, Adderall and the like, but not anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (Advil) or pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol). These pharmaceuticals are not drugs that alter one’s state of mind and are consequently of little use when making sociocultural analyses.

The drugs up for discussion also cut across boundaries of law (just because a drug is illegal does not preclude it from being central to a cultural moment) and class (a drug used by the lower class is no less culturally relevant than drugs favoured by the upper class, although the latter tend to be better recorded and retrospectively viewed as of ‘greater cultural importance’). Finally, the category of drugs under scrutiny cuts across therapeutic, medical and recreational usage.

To understand the way we create and popularise drugs to match the culture we have, consider cocaine. Readily available at the turn of the 20th century, cocaine was outlawed in 1920 with the passing of The Dangerous Drugs Act in the United Kingdom (and in 1922 in the United States under the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act). Cocaine’s initial popularity in the late-19th-century was in large part due to ‘its potent euphoric effects’, according to Stuart Walton, an ‘intoxication theorist’ and author of Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication (2001). Cocaine, Walton told me, ‘helped potentiate a culture of resistance to Victorian norms, the abandonment of rigorous civility in favour of an emergent “anything goes” social libertarianism in the era of the Jugendstil, and the rise of social-democratic politics’.

Once Victorian moralism had been overcome, social libertarianism had vogued, and secularism had its sharp uptick in the period after the Second World War, cocaine generally fell out of style with white European-American culture. Until, that is, the 1980s, when cocaine had new cultural questions to answer. As Walton explained to me: ‘Its return in the 1980s was predicated on precisely the opposite social tendency: iron conformism to the dictates of finance capital and stock-trading, which underscored the resurgence of entrepreneurial selfishness in the Reagan and Thatcher period.’

Another instance of drugs answering cultural questions (or problems) concerns women who became addicted to barbiturates in 1950s suburban America. This was a population that faced a bleak, oppressive culture, now infamous through the works of Richard Yates and Betty Friedan. As Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique (1963), such women were expected to have no ‘commitment outside the home’ and to ‘find fulfilment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love’. Frustrated, depressed, neurotic, they numbed themselves with barbiturates so as to fulfil norms there was as yet no licence to buck against. In Jacqueline Susann’s novel Valley of the Dolls (1966), the three female protagonists dangerously come to rely on stimulants, depressants and sleeping pills – their ‘dolls’ – in order to cope with personal decisions and, especially, sociocultural boundaries.

But the solution provided by prescription drugs was not the hoped-for solve-all. When drugs are unable to fully answer the cultural questions at hand – in this case, how suburban American women might escape the crippling dullness that so often characterised their lives – alternative drugs, often seemingly irrelevant to the situation at hand, tend to present themselves as potential solutions.

LSD spoke to unmet needs that affected not only suburban housewives, but also gay, or sexually confused, men too

Judy Balaban began taking LSD in the 1950s when she was still in her 20s, under the supervision of a medical doctor. She had a seemingly perfect life: the daughter of the affluent and respected president of Paramount Pictures, Barney Balaban, she had two daughters, a sprawling home in Los Angeles, and a successful film-agent husband who represented and befriended Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck and Marilyn Monroe. She counted Grace Kelly as a close friend, and became a bridesmaid at her royal wedding in Monaco. It would have seemed crazy for her to admit it but, beneath it all, Balaban felt deeply dissatisfied with her life. Her equally privileged friends felt the same. Polly Bergen, Linda Lawson, Marion Marshall – all actresses married to famous film agents or directors – complained of a similar, underlying dissatisfaction with life.  

With limited options for fulfilment, clear cultural expectations, and the dreary outlook of living life on antidepressants, Balaban, Bergen, Lawson and Marshall all began regimens of LSD therapy. Bergen told Balaban in Vanity Fair in 2010: ‘I wanted to be the person, not the persona.’ LSD, Balaban wrote, afforded the ‘possibility of a magic wand’. It was a more effective ‘answer drug’ to the problems at hand than antidepressants had been. Many of Balaban’s culturally disenfranchised peers felt the same way: between 1950 and 1965, a reported 40,000 people were treated with LSD therapies. It was legal, but unregulated, and nearly everyone who tried it swore to its efficacy.

LSD spoke to unmet needs that affected not only suburban housewives, but also gay or sexually confused men too. The actor Cary Grant, who was housemates with the handsome Randolph Scott for several years and was married to five different women for an average of five years each (often while living with Scott), likewise found release through therapeutic LSD. Grant’s film career would have been destroyed had he been seen publicly as homosexual; like many of the suburban women of his time, he found that LSD afforded a much-needed escape valve, a way of sublimating sexual anguish. ‘I wanted to rid myself of all my hypocrisies,’ he said, somewhat subtly, in an interview in 1959. After going to more than a dozen LSD therapy sessions administered by his psychiatrist, Grant admitted, ‘at last, I am close to happiness’.

But sometimes, instead of people finding drugs to answer their cultural questions, cultural problems are manufactured to sell pre-existing drugs.

In the case of today’s most popular drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Ritalin and Adderall, their wide availability has led to a significant increase in ADHD diagnoses: between 2003 and 2011, there was a 43 per cent rise in the number of schoolchildren in the US diagnosed with ADHD. It’s unlikely that those eight years coincided with a massive spike in US schoolchildren manifesting ADHD: it is much more plausible that the presence of Ritalin and Adderall – and their savvy marketing – grew in that period, leading to greater diagnosing.

HRT, first used to ease the menopause has been expanded to include transgender and androgen replacement therapies

‘[I]n the 21st century, diagnoses of depression have risen dramatically, as have those of post-traumatic stress disorder and attention hyperactivity disorder’, writes Lauren Slater in Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century (2004). ‘[I]ncidences of certain diagnoses rise and fall depending on public perception, but also the doctors who are giving these labels are still doing so with perhaps too little regard for the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] criteria the field dictates.’

That is to say, today’s drug-makers have helped to create a culture in which people are perceived to be less attentive and more depressed in order to sell drugs that might answer the very problems they’ve manufactured.

Similarly, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), deployed to ease discomfort during the menopause, and in which oestrogens and, sometimes, progesterone used to be injected to artificially boost a woman’s hormone levels, has since been expanded to include therapies for transgender people and also as an androgen replacement, in which male ageing can theoretically be delayed via hormone treatment. This desire to constantly expand the uses and necessity of drugs speaks to the way in which culture is created (and bolstered) by the drugs at hand.

Clearly, the causal motion swings both ways. Cultural questions can popularise certain drugs; but sometimes popular drugs end up creating our culture. From rave culture booming on the back of ecstasy to a culture of hyper-productivity piggybacking on drugs initially meant to help with cognitive and attention deficits, the symbiosis between chemical and culture is evident.

But while drugs can both answer cultural questions and create entirely new cultures, there is no simple explanation for why one happens rather than the other. If rave culture is created by ecstasy, does that mean ecstasy is also ‘answering’ a cultural question; or was ecstasy simply there and rave culture blossomed around it? The line of causality is easily blurred.

A corollary can be found in the human sciences where it is extraordinarily difficult to categorise different types of people because, as soon as one starts ascribing properties to groups, people change and spill out of the parameters to which they were first assigned. The philosopher of science Ian Hacking coined the term for this: ‘the looping effect’. People ‘are moving targets because our investigations interact with them, and change them,’ Hacking wrote in the London Review of Books. ‘And since they are changed, they are not quite the same kind of people as before.’

This holds true for the relationship between drugs and culture as well. ‘Every time a drug is invented that interacts with the brains and minds of users, it changes the very object of the study: the people who are using,’ says Henry Cowles, assistant professor of the history of medicine at Yale. On this reading, the idea that drugs create culture is true, to an extent, but it is likewise true that cultures can shift and leave a vacuum of unresolved desires and questions that drugs are often able to fill. 

Take the example of American housewives addicted to barbiturates and other drugs. The standard and aforementioned causal argument is that they were culturally repressed, had few freedoms, and so sought out the drugs as a way to overcome their anomie: LSD and later antidepressants were ‘answer drugs’ to the strict cultural codes, as well as a means to self-medicate emotional pain. But, Cowles argues, one might just as easily say that ‘these drugs were created with various sub-populations in mind and they end up making available a new kind of housewife or a new kind of working woman, who is medicated in order to enable this kind of lifestyle’. In short, Cowles says: ‘The very image of the depressed housewife emerges only as a result of the possibility of medicating that.’

Such an explanation puts drugs at the centre of the past century of cultural history for a simple reason: if drugs can create and underscore cultural limitations, then drugs and their makers can tailor-make entire socio-cultural demographics (eg, ‘the depressed housewife’ or ‘the hedonistic, cocaine-snorting Wall Street trader’). Crucially, this creation of cultural categories applies to everyone, meaning that even those not using the popularised drugs of a given era are beholden to their cultural effects. The causality is muddy, but what is clear is that it swings back and forth: drugs both ‘answer’ cultural questions and allow for cultures to be created around themselves.

Looking at the culture of today, perhaps the biggest question answered by drugs are issues of focus and productivity – a consequence of the modern ‘attention economy’, as termed by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Alexander Simon.

Modern drugs of choice permit users to stake more of their emotional worth and happiness on work

The use of Modafinil – intended for treating narcolepsy and misused to stay awake and work longer – and the abuse of other prolific, attention-deficit drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin for similar reasons reflects an attempt to answer these cultural questions. They’re widely used, too. In a Nature magazine survey in 2008, one in five people said they’d tried cognitive-enhancing drugs at some stage in their lifetime. And according to an informal poll in The Tab in 2015, the highest rates of abuse occur at the most academic institutions: students at Oxford University abuse cognitive-enhancing drugs more than students at any other university in the United Kingdom.

These cognitive-enhancing drugs help ‘disguise the banality of work in a double sense’, says Walton. ‘They goad the user into a distractive state of high excitement, and simultaneously persuade him that it must be his success at work that allows him to feel so elated.’

In this way, modern drugs of choice not only keep people at work and make them more productive, they also permit them to stake more of their emotional worth and happiness on work, thereby reifying its importance and justifying the time and effort spent. These drugs ‘answer’ the cultural prescription of more work and more productivity not just by allowing users to focus better and stay awake longer, but also by making them less miserable.

The flip side of the cultural productivity imperative is a demand for heightened convenience and ease of leisure in daily life (think of Uber, Deliveroo, etc) – a desire that is sated by dubiously efficacious drug-like experiences such as ‘binaural beats’ and other cognitive-altering sounds and ‘drugs’ that can be accessed easily via the internet. (In the case of binaural beats, one can listen to melodies that allegedly put the listener in ‘non-ordinary states of consciousness’.) But if today’s drugs mostly answer the cultural needs of the attention economy – focus, productivity; leisure, convenience – they also alter what it means to be oneself.

Critically, it is the way in which we now take drugs that shows the shift in the notion of the ‘self’. So-called ‘magic-bullet drugs’ – one-off, limited-course drugs designed to treat highly targeted problems – have given way to ‘maintenance drugs’ – eg, antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills that must be taken in perpetuity.

To be oneself is to be drugged. The future of drugs is likely an extension of this

‘This is a big shift from the old model,’ says Cowles. ‘It used to be: “I am Henry. I am ill in some way. A pill can help me get back to being Henry, and then I’m off it.” Whereas now: “I am only Henry when I’m on my meds.” Between 1980, 2000, and now, the proportion of people on that kind of maintenance pill with no end in sight is just going to keep going up and up.’

Might maintenance drugs then be the first step in drug use that permits a post-human state? Although they don’t necessarily fundamentally change who we are – as anyone who is on daily antidepressants or other neurological medications knows – there is a certain cloudy feeling or dullness that begins to redefine one’s most basic experiences. To be oneself is to be drugged. The future of drugs is likely to be an extension of this.

Here, it is worth stepping back. Over the past century there has been an intimate interaction between culture and drugs, each informing the other, exemplifying the cultural directions in which humans have wanted to go – be it rebelling, submitting or moving entirely outside of all systems and constraints.  Taking a good look at what we want today’s drugs and the drugs of tomorrow to do provides an idea of the cultural questions we are looking to solve. ‘The traditional model of drugs that do something active to a passive user,’ says Walton, ‘will very possibly be superseded by substances that empower the user to be something else entirely.’

Surely, this possibility will come to pass in some form or another in a relatively short time – drugs allowing a total escape from the self – and with it we will see the new crop of cultural questions that are being raised, and potentially answered, by drugs.

Patterns of drug use over the past century gives us a surprisingly accurate insight into wide swaths of cultural history, with everyone from Wall Street bankers and depressed housewives to college students and literary scions taking drugs that reflect their desires and answer their culture’s issues. But the drugs have always reflected a simpler, consistent truism. Sometimes we have wanted out of ourselves, sometimes we’ve wanted out of society, sometimes out of boredom or out of poverty; but always, whatever the case, we have wanted out. In the past, this desire was always temporary – to recharge our batteries, to find a space away from our experiences and the demands of living pressed upon us. However, more recently, drug use has become about finding a durable, lengthier, existential escape – a desire that is awfully close to self-obliteration.

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Cody Delistraty

is a writer and historian based in New York and Paris. He writes on literature, psychology and interesting humans. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among others. 

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