Updated: Aug 29
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.
I recently had occasion to think about an interesting diversion in my very early dissertation research. I was reading Martin Booth’s history of cannabis, and he mentioned “The Arabian Gunje of Enchantment,” produced by the Gunjah Wallah Company of New York. While the focus of my dissertation has slowly moved the research out of the 19th century, my deep personal interest in candy, coupled with a recent trip to a Massachusetts dispensary, gave me reason to revisit this mysterious “hasheesh candy.”
As a diligent drug scholar, and as someone who lives in neighboring New York state (whose state legislature still seems intent on pushing forward with legalizing marijuana), I decided to visit a couple of dispensaries on the way from Albany to Boston to check out the scene. I found myself fascinated by the edibles, and considering their popularity, I was reminded of my previous dissertation diversion, which made me want to know more about the Gunjah Wallah company.
There wasn’t much to find. But what I did find made me rethink that blurry line between medicinal and recreational classifications of cannabis. Without extensive resources to undertake thorough research in the archives, I was able to find a number of advertisements and references to the Hasheesh Candy in the published record available digitally on the web.
From Vanity Fair, 20 September 1862
The earliest ads for the “Hasheesh Candy” appear in 1862 editions of Vanity Fair. A series of very brief ads touting “a most wonderful Medicinal Agent for the cure of Nervousness, Weakness, Melancholy, Confusion of thoughts.” The Gunjah-Wallah Company gave its address as 476 Broadway in New York.
By 1863, the company appears to have moved to 36 Beekman St. and its advertisements become more extensive and descriptive. In December of 1863, The Baltimore Sun ran a full column advertisement on the second page that described the product as “the theme of Song and Story among the Turks, Arabs, Persians and Hindoos… for the first time introduced [to the U.S.] in a medicated and agreeable form. A most delightful exhilarant confectionized [sic].”
After a lengthy list of medicinal applications, the description moves to orientalist visions of the east, inviting potential customers who have “read oriental stories and felt a longing to enjoy such inspiration and such visions of celestial beauty… try it, try it, and life will seem a blessing, its changes like pleasant dreams.”
The makers of modern versions of cannabis confections don’t purport to transport users to mythical versions of far off empires. Still, the cannabis infused versions of popular candy brands that proliferated early on in Colorado’s experiment with legalization, with punny names like “Buddah Finger” or “Keef Kat,” clearly suggested an interesting trip, and, it should be noted, maintain remnants of that same orientalist imagery.
Due in part to a mini-explosion of ER visits (and a full-blown moral panic) due to mistaken dosing of these potentially misleading labels, pressure has built to regulate labeling requirements. While some products maintain “appealing” marketing, many product’s labels (including many sold in Massachusetts) don’t say much of anything beyond documenting the contents (often down to the specific crop of a given strain). At first glance, they appear to be, like the “The Arabian Gunje of Enchantment” was advertised to be, a medicine.
And in the 1863 ad in the Sun, the advertiser is keen to point out (quite far down the lengthy column) that their interest in promoting their product was not the “enhancing influence upon the mind,” but in its “valuable [healthful] properties.” The writers suggest that overuse could result in some negative effects and that “specific directions accompany each package” to guide users on appropriate dosing. The ad appeared with a few “testimonials” from physicians hailing the usefulness of the candy in affecting the cures advertised.
By 1866, the company appears to have come under fire in the context of the emerging anti-quackery movement in the burgeoning medical profession. In that context, efforts to remove these products from the market occurred alongside a more concerted effort to regulate food and drug labeling.
But the product appears to have persisted, making another appearance in print (as mentioned by Martin Booth) in an 1894 treatise on drug “habits” by George Wheelock Grover. After seeing a sign advertising the candies on the “main business street” in Baltimore, Grover described the initially euphoric but potentially deleterious effects of the candy over the course of an afternoon. The work of Adam Rathge has discussed the role of “proving” by physicians in the 19th century on this forum and in his dissertation.
In 2019, we’re still (though under very different circumstances) struggling to balance availability of all sorts of therapeutic drugs (but notably cannabis) with the potential for non-medicinal use. But even as the stigma of non-medical use continues to fade, producers and retailers of these products will still face significant regulations on marketing and advertising.