A “pipe dream” is an unattainable or unrealistic hope or scheme, and alludes to the dreams experienced by smokers of opium pipes.
Opiates were widely used by English writers in the 1700s and 1800s, Coleridge being one of the best known. We don’t know whether Lewis Carroll used opium himself, but he makes clear allusions to drug use in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has Sherlock Holmes visit an opium den for research, though Holmes was apparently addicted to other drugs.
This information makes it seem odd that “pipe dream” has an American origin. The earliest use in print is from The Chicago Daily Tribune, December 1890: “It [aerial navigation] has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years.”
The first piece that associates the phrase with opium smoking is from The Fort Wayne Gazette, September 1895, and bewails the fact that various happenings devoid of rational explanation cannot be printed as stories because it’s impossible to prove them. Thus they are “consigned to the waste-basket as the ‘pipe dream’ of an opium devotee.”
In his 1896 play, Artie – A Story of the Streets and Town, the American columnist and playwright George Ade used the term in a way that makes it clear he expected his audience to have prior knowledge of it. So it’s reasonable to assume the expression ‘pipe dream,’ with the current meaning, would have been in common use in the USA in the late 1800s.
In those days, opium was considered a medicine, without the negative connotations and restrictions that it has today. Many opium products were prescribed by doctors, even for children.
The Urban Dictionary lists as one of its best definitions for “pipe dream” the following: “World peace and human equality are examples of pipe dreams because humans are more naturally inclined to kill off their competition than to cooperate.”
Pipe Dream is also a less commonly known musical by Rogers and Hammerstein, which premiered in 1955 and closed just eight months later. The title was chosen as a play on words in the fact that the lead female character ends up living in an old boiler pipe.
Operation Pipe Dreams was a 2003 nationwide US investigation which targeted business selling drug paraphernalia.
Many years ago I once smoked hashish in a pipe, but didn’t have any dreams. Wrong drug, right?