From Heart Medicine to Party Drug: A Brief History of Poppers

How amyl nitrite morphed from angina medication into the UK's favourite legal high.

26 May 2021, 8:30am

I vividly remember a friend telling me that poppers make your arsehole relax. I did not believe her – as far as I was aware, poppers were used for an instant high and nothing more. I was wrong. Famously, poppers cause your smooth muscles to relax, making your blood vessels dilate, which helps to facilitate both vaginal and anal sex. As a result, poppers have long been associated with gay nightlife.

The last decade has seen much back-and-forth around the legality of poppers, which still differs vastly around the world, and recent attempts to ban them in countries like Australia have been met with criticism from the LGBTQ+ community for being discriminatory.

“Poppers are probably more gay than not,” Adam Zmith, author of Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures, tells me over email. “The original substance, amyl nitrite, was manufactured and sold for medical reasons, but at some point in the 20th century men who had sex with men began to sniff poppers on a community-wide scale.”

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But what happened between and after those two points? Let’s jump into the timeline of poppers and the doctor who got us to start sniffing them!

1867

Thomas Lauder Brunton was a British physician who played a “major role in establishing pharmacology as a rigorous science” during the 19th century. While he didn’t invent amyl nitrite – the basis for what we call poppers today – he did pioneer their use in whiffing it to treat angina (chest pains).

The late 1800s/early 1900s

Following Brunton’s discovery, amyl nitrite was sold as a medicine. “There were plenty of other purposes listed in early guides about amyl nitrite for pharmacists,” Zmith explains. “Even relieving seasickness.”

1930s – 1950s

It’s hard to pin down when exactly everyone realised huffing amyl nitrite could induce pleasure. Zmith asks us to think of those, “probably somewhere between the 1930s and 50s”, who possessed the stuff for medical reasons but found that it also gave them pleasure.

“Imagine someone sniffing, feeling the head rush, turning on, and even realising that this vapour helped to open their bumhole for sex,” he says. “Poppers were invented in that unknown, timeless bedroom.”

1960s

Nitro glycerine replaced amyl nitrite as the treatment for angina, and medical demand for poppers decreased. Meanwhile, poppers became one of many drugs of choice for GIs during the Vietnam War; they were easy to get hold of, the bottles were light, and they were labelled as an “antidote to gun fumes”.

As with most drugs used during the war, soldiers returning to the US took the use of poppers home with them.

1969

After everyone started sniffing poppers recreationally and having lots of fun and sex, the US Food and Drug Administration made amyl nitrite prescription only, because why should anyone get to enjoy themselves? 

1976

In the mid 1970s, poppers made a comeback. W. Jay Freezer founded the Pacific Western Distributing Corporation, which made and distributed poppers brands, including the most famous, Rush. The amyl nitrite formula was adjusted just enough to make it legal – to “isobutyl nitrite” – and poppers were marketed as room odourisers in “record stores, boutiques and pornographic book stores”.

1970s

By this point, New York nightclubs were spraying amyl nitrite into the air to “create collective euphoria” in what sounds like the biggest laugh ever. Queer club culture continued in the bedroom too, with gay bathhouses using them to help their clientele relax

“Flip through archives of LGBTQ weeklies from the 70s and 80s, and you can tell that poppers were part of queer hookup culture long before the digital age,” Alex Schwartz writes for Popsci. “Personal ads contained code words for sexual preferences: One of those words was ‘aroma’, which referred to poppers.”

1985

At the height of the AIDS crisis, a study was released linking the use of poppers to contracting HIV. Although the theory was dismissed, the stigma remained. Zmith sees this snobbery towards our sexual inhalants not just typical of the AIDS pandemic, but of attitudes towards queer culture in general. 

“In the 1980s, pub landlords selling poppers were charged with selling a noxious substance,” he says. “Neither police nor prosecutors did anything about the alcohol or cigarettes on sale in the same pubs – both of which are far, far more damaging and deadly than poppers. That’s an example of how homophobia and ignorance can underpin substance control and affect a specific type of person.”

1990s

The gay rave scene brought poppers back into club culture, and their popularity led to heterosexual people using them recreationally too.

Mid-2010s

The rising popularity of the internet, porn and internet porn brought with it even more popularity for poppers – which evolved into a kink in its own right. “Around this time, creative ‘bators (those who use poppers while masturbating) with video editing skills began to make popperbator trainer videos and share them online,” says Zmith. “A sexual subculture combining poppers and porn supercuts was born.”

2016

American poppers brands have continually evaded criminalisation by slightly changing the chemical compound, while Canada has outlawed poppers completely.

The UK tried to draw up a ban on poppers in 2016 as part of its Psychoactive Substances Act, which banned any “substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect”. The proposal was controversial, derided as “draconian and discriminatory”, and eventually the bit relating to poppers specifically was thrown out – thanks, in part, to outcry from the queer community and former Tory minister Crispin Blunt, who “outed” himself as a poppers user in the House of Commons.

September, 2019

Charli XCX holds up a bottle of poppers and yells “gay rights”.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

2020

Four years after the proposal to ban poppers in the UK, Home Secretary Priti Patel looks into formally legalising poppers by exempting them from the Psychoactive Substances Act. The reason? Presumably because they make having her head up her arse a bit more comfortable. 

2021

Pre-COVID – or at least pre-before-we-took-it-seriously – in January of 2021, the internet got angry about Poppr, a luxury poppers subscription service.

The delivered boxes come in three different sized packages: The Basic Box, which contains one bottle and costs you $15 a month; the Bulge Box, which doubles your dosage to two bottles a month and costs $25; or The Bottom Box, which includes four bottles and runs you $45. The concept was criticised as “the stupidest thing ever”, and questions were raised around the safety of suggesting that one person could use four bottles on a monthly basis.

Today

For now, the pandemic is still prohibiting us from passing bottles of Liquid Gold around a sweaty dance floor or across the sauna. But when we’re allowed to return to shagging strangers and grinding our gums at the disco, remember to pour one out for poppers and the battle they’ve fought to remain in our hands, in our hearts and up our noses.

@GlNATONIC

Tagged:

Nightlife, drug culture

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