The Making of an Underground Market: Drug Selling in Chicago, 1900-1940

By Spillane, Joseph | Journal of Social History, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Making of an Underground Market: Drug Selling in Chicago, 1900-1940


Spillane, Joseph, Journal of Social History


Historians understand marketplaces to be the kinds of "space" which illuminate social and economic relationships. Taken together, the diverse transactions of the marketplace show how terms such as "community" and "neighborhood" are given meaning through daily activity. Studies from diverse settings have also demonstrated that marketplaces are institutions which bring into focus the relationship of one part of a city to the larger whole. This article suggests that the same appears to be true for illicit drug marketplaces, which have been highly visible centers of economic exchange in twentieth-century United States' cities. Although contemporary drug markets sometimes appear to be defining features of modern urban life, the identification of drug selling with particular city neighborhoods is a phenomenon as old as legal prohibitions on specific substances.

Despite the obvious importance of drug marketplaces, the social scientific literature of the twentieth century paid insufficient attention to drug selling as work, or as economic enterprise. Instead, scholars have employed several traditional analytical frameworks, including: the sociological view of drug selling as deviant behavior; participation in the drug market as a manifestation of addiction and the addict's "hustling" lifestyle; or drug marketplaces as a reflection of individual and community pathology, or more recently, of "underclass" formation.(1) In each instance, drug marketplaces are meaningful only as extensions of certain moral, social, or ecological conditions. Even when the organization of drug distribution has been the object of historical investigation, prominent organized crime figures responsible for large-scale importation and wholesale distribution rather than retail level sellers have drawn the most attention.

Recent scholarly work from a number of disciplines suggests a new framework for historical analysis. One line of contemporary research employs a "market approach" which incorporates social and cultural context, and the ways they change over time. Vincenzo Ruggerio and Nigel South prefaced their 1995 study of European drug markets by describing illicit drugs "simply as commodities" which "shape and are shaped by demand and supply, exchange and consumption."(2) Another line of contemporary research takes an ethnographic approach to the participants in drug markets. Representative studies include Patricia Adler's work on upper-level drug dealers in California, and Terry Williams' more recent ethnographic study of street-level cocaine sellers in New York City.(3) Historical research into other forms of illicit enterprise also suggest ways in which drug markets might be apprehended. As Mark Haller observed, "in order to understand such activities . . . it is necessary to ask the same sorts of questions that would be asked concerning any other retail business activity."(4)

This article examines the evolution of drug distribution in Chicago between 1890 and 1940. Few legal restrictions on the drug supply existed at the start of this period, but growing concerns over the popular use of opiates and cocaine led to efforts at limiting access. By the first decade of the twentieth century, a broad coalition of Progressive reformers in Chicago were able to curtail sharply the legal supply of "dangerous" drugs. As the legal supply of opiates and cocaine shrank, public pressure and law enforcement drove the drug marketplace into Chicago's well-known vice districts. Here, a collection of independent entrepreneurs created underground drug distribution networks serving customers from throughout the city. For a few, drug selling yielded enormous rewards and a measure of status in underground Chicago. For most drug sellers, their occupation brought a small measure of economic reward, always tempered by the risk of victimization or arrest. With the closing of Chicago's "Levee" district, and the end of sanctioned vice, the drug trade moved into the Black Belt neighborhoods of the South Side. …

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