origin of ‘pipe dream’ (unattainable or fanciful hope or scheme)


LONDON SKETCHES—AN OPIUM DEN AT THE EAST END - The Graphic (London) - 23rd October 1880

from The Graphic (London) – 23rd October 1880



The term pipe dream denotes an unattainable or fanciful hope or scheme.

Of American-English origin, it originally referred to the kind of visions experienced when smoking an opium pipe. This is clear from an early instance of pipe dream in an article about Rex Felix, the carnival king at the Mardi-Gras festival, published in the San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California) of 7th April 1894:

In his way Rex is said to be the embodiment of dreams, of pipe dreams and fantasies such as infest the opium-dazed brain of the smoker.

The term is first recorded in two articles dating from 11th December 1890. The first one, published in The Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), thus begins:

The Problem of Aerial Navigation Said to Be Solved—Hotel Visitors.

“When a man begins to talk about aerial navigation,” said E. J. Pennington of Mount Carmel, Ill., at the Grand Pacific yesterday, “he might just as well own up that he is crazy and a fit subject for the strait-jacket. It has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years, yet people don’t seem to be aware that it is an accomplished fact, and has been since 1852. There was a man of the name of Gifford in England who arranged an oiled silk balloon with a lifting power sufficient to counterbalance the weight of a steam engine, with boiler, coal, and all. The engine weighed 300 pounds to the horse power, and the propeller was relatively small. Yet, even with that, he made seven and one-half miles an hour.

The second article, from a special correspondent in Pine Ridge, was published in The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois):

Sunday is a quiet day here, no mails, no carriers, everything shut down. The reporters have been loafing around the headquarters of The Inter Ocean, smoking my cigars (without permission) and writing letters to their friends on stolen paper. The Herald has been busy grinding out poetry, which the Bee, Journal and Tribune sing. It is worse than fighting Indians to listen to—
     “All silent lies the village on the bosom of the vale,
      So I’ll squeeze another pipe dream, and grind out another tale.”

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