Philadelphia Dentistry of the 1890s: The Papers of Dr. W. A. Capon, D.D.S.

We’ve all been there. The tightened stomach, the gasps of anxious breath, the lingering guilt of lying about our flossing habits—all due to a friendly, routine visit to our local dentist! While modern dentistry has made caring for our teeth a relative breeze, the journey to this enlightened state hasn’t always been so, well, painless.

Enter Dr. William A. Capon, D.D.S. A Canadian by birth and a dentist by trade, his papers [Ms. Coll. 1222] tell a story of what dentistry looked like in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia. Lecture notes from his studies at the Philadelphia Dental College (now Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dentistry) include entries under courses like “Mechan Dentistry,” “Anatomy,” “Operative,” and “Surgery.” What oral surgery looked like in 1890 when he graduated may have been slightly horrifying by 2016 standards.

Student lecture notebook

Student lecture notebook, 1887-1890

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1920s Broadway: The Women Behind The Scenes

Picture the Roaring Twenties at its height. Everything about the scene is loud and imposing, colorful and vibrant, daring and flashy. The women are dressed like never before, exploring the limits of their sexual freedom by wearing shorter and shinier skirts, more feathers and more attitude. All standards are turned on their heads as new painting, new music, new writing, and new social expectations flood America’s cities. These new ways of seeing the world cross paths at every social gathering, but all accumulate together on the stages along Broadway in Manhattan.american girl

Broadway musicals are all essentially love stories. In the vein of all love stories, they both celebrate the feminine through extensive appreciation (almost entirely commentary on physical appearance) and demean the feminine by showing it to be predictable, weak, and confused. The main goal is usually still marriage. However, historical context is key to these musicals, and the idea of the contemporary love story is more important than ever. And for the first time, producers had to consider their audience differently. During the 1920s, a record number of white single women held jobs as typists and assistants in the rise of corporate America, especially in New York City.

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Physician, officer, ladies man: a snapshot of the short life of Howard Myers Scull

On July 4, 1944, a routine flight over the Irish Sea ended in the tragic early deaths of six Army Air Corps officers.  Major Howard Myers Scull, a 30 year old flight surgeon with rising career aspirations and close family ties, was unfortunately aboard the fated flight, accounting for one of many non-combat related fatalities during World War II.

Although his life was cut short in its prime, we get a glimpse of his daily life throughout medical school, military training, and active duty while stationed in England through diaries and letters written to family and friends. (Ms. Coll. 1208, Howard Myers Scull papers, 1896-2015 [bulk: 1936-1944]) It doesn’t take long to discover that he was a popular, handsome, and successful physician with close friendships and various girlfriends.

Howard Myers Scull

Howard Myers Scull, 1944

Scull attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania between 1935-1939, giving readers a colorful view of his world as a student with lively diary entries: “November 17, Tue [1936]: Best news in a long time. X-ray negative. Fears unfounded. Gene better. Life is good! Work in library in P.M. Autopsy in A.M. Tuberculous meningitis with interesting spinal fistula. I posted the lungs. Saw the tail end of a terrible sarcomatous, gangrenous, ulcerative dialectic foot. A most awful stink! And a hideous sight!”

Howard Myers Scull diary

Howard Myers Scull medical school diary, 1936

After completing his internship at Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, Scull immediately entered the Army and was stationed at various bases around the United States before receiving notice of his call to foreign duty in 1942: “Dear Fred & Ella … This is the letter I guess I have hoped I’d never have to write. We got news this A.M. of a permanent change of station in less than two weeks. First we go to Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. to take the place of the 6th Cavalry moving to foreign duty. Then we shall follow them shortly. I can’t tell you where. I think I shall now ask for transfer to the Air Corps but it is rather unlikely now that I will be released from this Regiment.” [letter written to his brother and sister-in-law, dated Feb. 2, 1942, Monday noon]  His request was eventually granted, and after completing officer training at Maxwell Field, Alabama, he was sent to Mac Dill Field, Florida, as an Army Air Force physician.

Letter to Fred and Ella, 1942

Letter to Fred and Ella, 1942

By January of 1943 his honest musings about a love affair with a woman in Tampa, Florida, led him to make a strikingly accurate prediction in a letter to his family:

“About Jane Price – no, it really hasn’t happened to me. I don’t love the girl & doubt if I ever shall. I think a great deal of her, she is very worth while, sweet, has many virtues – would make an excellent doctor’s wife – unhappily she has told me that she is in love with me – unhappily, I couldn’t truthfully return that statement – and didn’t.
Do you remember the time I told you I had a premonition that love – a real love – might never be mine – again. I’m afraid that is going to be true…” [letter dated 1/24/1943, Sunday night]

Scull's last letter written to his family, July 3, 1944

Scull’s last letter written to his family, July 3, 1944

Scull’s last letter was written on July 3, 1944, with the opening line: “Dear Family … You are indeed a grand family to write me so often – even tho the conditions which you suppose for me do not exist, I appreciate it none the less, believe me.” His obvious affection and admiration for his father, brother and sister-in-law, sister, and nieces make this collection an enjoyable read and gives an intimate firsthand perspective of the hopes and fears of this medical student-turned-Army Air Corps physician during the 1930s and 1940s.

Who IS Francis Howard Williams?


Much of the Francis Howard Williams papers consists of correspondence and manuscripts from a literary critic and writer in the late nineteenth century. There is extensive correspondence ranging from 1880 to 1909 between Williams and the “who’s who” of the nineteenth century literary world. These letters contain dialogue concerning poems and texts that Williams both sent and received. The members of the literary world offer endless and excessive praise for each one of these texts and the editors and publishers included in the correspondence often sent notes confirming the inclusion of Williams’s work in their publications.

In addition to this, the Francis Howard Williams correspondence and manuscripts include countless first draft manuscripts of Williams’s own work, both published and private. Among these works are A Field of Corn, A Midnight Phantasy, A Wild Lecture, And he Never Knew?, AVE AMERICA An Ode, Biographia Literaria Americana, The Clock that Struck Thirteen, The Sea, The Tragic Touch, Two Roses, and The Wanderers. This list is just a small selection of the titled and untitled works. Williams’s manuscripts are riddled with notes and sketches, adding a distinct personality to the works. The inter-workings of Williams’s mind are preserved on the sheets. His writing is preserved here, be it a great success or utter failure. His work ranges from the published masterpieces listed above to works such as the untitled poem that begins,

“There once was a girl with a bang

Who looked cross eyed whenever she sang…”

It is safe to say that that one was never meant to be published.

Despite the bulk of the collection being fairly predictable for a literary critic and aspiring writer, this collection contains several oddities that come together to shed some light on Francis Howard Williams the man. Researchers will find several pages of science notes, a typed copy of Williams’s AVE AMERICA An Ode, in invitation to the Informals Club and a newspaper clipping concerning the Informals Club, an envelope with “Yellow Wing Club” written on it, a Crawford Shoe miniature notebook containing the history of Johannes Kelpius and sketched of the Kelpius Cave, a photograph of a tennis match and a photograph of a man near a hedge sent to Mrs. F. H. Williams by a photographer named D. Hinkle, a photograph possibly of Louisa May Alcott, and a copy of “Two Friends and the Inn” by Edwin N. Benson addressed to Francis Howard Williams and Harrison S. Morris. Upon looking at the diverse elements of this collection I found myself thinking ‘Why save all of these things? What is the significance of this stuff? How do these items all relate and tell the story of Francis Howard Williams?’

crawford picThe Crawford Shoe miniature journal was made by a company called Bouvé, Crawford & Co., a Boston based company with a branch in Philadelphia that advertised “the Crawford handmade shoe, made on five different shaped lasts and sold by us at $4.00, has more value in it than any shoe made for that price.” The notebook came free with any purchase from Bouvé, Crawford and Co. Inside the notebook are details of the story of Johannes Kelpius, a mystic Pietist from Transylvania who led a group of men to Philadelphia seeking religious haven before his predicted end of the world in 1694. Williams wrote his story and the titles of several of Kelpius’s hymns in the notebook and also sketched the “Kelpius Cave” in modern day Fairmount Park, the location of Kelpius and his men’s meditation. This sketch is dated to May 7, 1893 at 5pm, evidence that Williams himself had hiked to see the place. In the manuscripts portion of the collection are several texts written by Williams about Kelpius, John Kelpius, pietist, Kelpius Hymns, and Hymn 1.

HinklepicThese quirky bits obviously increase my interest in Williams and I find myself wondering if the photograph of a tennis match and one of a man near a hedge that were sent to Mrs. Francis Howard Williams might be Mr. Williams himself?

“Dear No. One Maven” : The wild constructions of Stephen Berg’s letters to Seth Fagen

“O Maddest of Poodles,” “O mighty brain,” “Master of Mania,” and “Dr. Poo” – only a few examples of the various terms of endearment used by poet, translator, and professor Stephen Berg during his ongoing correspondence with fellow academic Seth Fagen. During the late 1980s into the early 1990s, we are privy to a glimpse of the personal letters Berg sent to Fagen in this collection (Ms. Coll. 1211, Stephen Berg letters to Seth Fagen, 1983-2002) as they both wrestled with professional triumphs and defeats and personal issues.

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, February 21, 1990

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, February 21, 1990

Berg’s poetic nature shines through his often wild constructions with brutally honest musings to his friend and colleague who he offers advice as he would a son more than twenty years his junior. Despite the age difference, it is clear that the two writers had a natural connection which allowed their relationship to grow although Berg was based in Philadelphia and Fagen lived in Massachusetts and New York City during the length of their correspondence.

Although Stephen Berg was best known for his editorial role at American Poetry Review and his long tenure as Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, these elements play only a minor role in the letters to Fagen. Instead, we quickly learn about Berg’s penchant for Japanese Toshiko bowls, a good martini, his love for cycling (in one letter he boasts of his trek from Manayunk to Conshohocken with aplomb), and the endless search for reasonably priced stylish glasses.

Addressed to "No. One Maven" - Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, July 5, 1988

Addressed to “No. One Maven” – Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, July 5, 1988

References to his current writing projects pepper the scrawled pages of the letters as well, sometimes with self-proclaimed praise below the body of the message: “PS … This one is probably good enough to qualify as a sketch for a masterpiece” [12.07.1990]. Praise is also doled out to Fagen with writerly glee: “About your letter: the syntax is brilliant, too, like fresh pond ice” [11.18.1990]. It is clear the author didn’t have an ego problem.

One of the funniest letters of the collection centers around advice Berg shares with Fagen as he enters middle age:

“Items to stock up on now that you have entered middle age … Neutrogena Norwegian Hand Cream … Ella Freeman Sharpe’s book Dream Analysis … suspenders … Cashmere mufflers only … carry silver flask of cognac at all times just in case … stop buying in Filene’s basement and switch back to Brooks regular store … give up wearing loafers in public … begin having power lunches under the guise of friendly desire … make home movies of yourself cooking and watch on your Sony … LL Bean comfortor [sic] for bed … watch major golf tournaments on TV … enclosed please find perfect metaphor for the above condition” [12.16.1989]

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, December 16, 1989

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, December 16, 1989

Readers won’t be disappointed as they comb through these letters which provide a unique viewpoint of the publishing world, the joys and annoyances of academic life, and an intimate view into the friendship of two men with strong opinions on just about everything.

The Belle Époque Brought to Life

header pictureThe Belle Époque musical concert and opera programs and periodicals collection contains memorabilia from Belle Époque concerts that provide a glimpse into several of the most notable concert locations in Francophone Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Belle Époque was named in retrospect as it was considered to be the “golden age” that preceded World War I. This golden age was especially present in Paris where culture flourished in visual and performing arts. The relative wealth, optimism and peace of the French Third Republic permitted a population wide participation in the arts, with the upper class and bourgeoisie, or nouveau-riches, attending casinos and lavish music halls, and the less affluent frequenting cabarets, bistros, and music halls. The artists of the time were heavily influenced by this way of life and took to depicting it frequently. Artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Édouard Manet were known for frequently depicting scenes in several of the venues present in this collection.



Edouard Manet, Bar at the Folies Bergere, 1882.

One of Manet’s most famous works, Bar at the Folies Bergère, gives a true sense of the scene behind the playbill. In the painting, Manet depicts a young female bartender who is seemingly on display with the rest of the items for sale. In the mirror behind her, the chaos and liveliness of this venue is evident. This collection contains a 1897 playbill from the Folies Bergère advertising a performance from the famous Loïe Fuller, a dancer who is known as a pioneer of modern dance. She performed burlesque and vaudeville shows which were both staples of the era.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-1895.

The painting depicts the visual aspects of the venue and the playbill is evidence of what was actually happening on a specific day in history. While the playbill in this collection comes years after the Manet painting, the two items work together to give the Folies Bergère a lasting sense of life. In addition to Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec was known companions with Loïe Fuller and frequently painted scenes of cabaret life with paintings such as his 1892 masterpiece, At the Moulin Rouge. 



The most popular style of music during the Belle Époque was salon music, short pieces performed in salons that were not intended to be notably serious but rather display fleeting emotional expression. In this collection, there is an advertisement for the papers of one of the most famous composers of salon music, Franz List which includes a biography of another of the most notable composers of salon music, Frédéric Chopin. Their Debussymusic appears in several programs and is advertised as being performed by one of the most famous performers of salon music, Jacques Thibaud. In addition to this salon style, this era produced one of the most prominent composers of Impressionist music, Claude Debussy. Debussy, who appears several times in this collection.

The cultural trends at this time produced a Bohemian lifestyle, an unconventional lifestyle of adventurers involved primarily in musical, artistic and cultural pursuits. This lifestyle was reflected in many of the forms of entertainment of the era, particularly in performance dancing styles, such as burlesque and vaudeville. This free-spirited artistic lifestyle was concentrated in Montmartre. Home of the Sacré-Coeur, Montmartre was known for


housing artists during the Belle Époque such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Salvador Dali, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh, among many others. It was also the home of many of the famous concert venues and cabarets of the era, most notably the Moulin Rouge. It was the birthplace of the cancan and the pure embodiment of the Bohemian Belle Époque lifestyle. Several of the programs in this collection come from the seemingly endless collection of cabarets and performance halls in Montmartre and help give a sense of the artistic pulse that permeated the neighborhood.

These primary source documents prevent this unique era of history from becoming just an allusive time period taught in school. The programs allow the Belle Époque to become a vivid memory, despite the fact that it is not the memory of the modern people.  In combination with the lasting cultural elements of the time, these programs bring the Belle Époque to life in the modern era.


Scoundrels and Socialites: the Evolution of American Dentistry from 1780 to 1920

The William H. Trueman collection of dental advertisements (Ms. Codex 1760) is the sort of historical medical text that makes me very pleased to be living in the twenty-first century. This album, probably arranged around 1900, features a few dozen reprographics of dental advertisements published in American newspapers like the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Not all of these colonial-era clippings mention grisly procedures or promote toothpastes with names like “dentifrice opiate” but they do call to mind a different era of medicine, one where anesthesia consisted of a glass of hard liquor and many people lost whole sets of teeth to “scorbutic humors” (necrotic gum tissue caused by scurvy). Moreover, the field of medicine was unregulated in this time; anyone could buy space in a newspaper to self-endorse their expertise, regardless of formal training or credentials.

A 1784 notice accuses a Philadelphia dentist of "lies, insolence, and a pitiful attempt at wit."

A 1784 notice accuses a Philadelphia dentist of “lies, insolence, and a pitiful attempt at wit.”

The tenuous reputation of dentistry in pre-revolutionary America is illustrated in a satirical notice published in the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser in 1784, which is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. With heavy sarcasm, the author of this piece provides mock-instructions for a tooth extraction, like, “when you fracture a jaw by attending to these rules, it will not be at all cruel or barbarous, to twist and jerk away with your fingers the unfortunate tooth, hanging by nothing more than splintered bone, gums, and flesh of the lip.” This notification, “addressed to a certain BARBER in Arch-street,” is clearly based on the author’s personal experience.


The dentist Newell Sill Jenkins was honored with this album by a group of his American colleagues in 1910.

The dentist Newell Sill Jenkins was honored with this album by a group of his American colleagues in 1910.

The barely-veiled ire in this bulletin could hardly contrast more sharply with the sentiment behind another historical dental document. A dedicatory album presented to the dentist Newell Sill Jenkins “on the occasion of the celebration of his seventieth birthday anniversary in Paris, France” shows how soaringly the profession of dentistry rose over the course of the nineteenth century. Jenkins (1840-1919) was an American dentist who emigrated to Dresden, Germany in 1866 to escape the New England winters he loathed. In Germany, Jenkins experienced enormous social, professional and financial success while treating and befriending high-profile aristocrats across the continent.

The sheer material luxury of the album Jenkins was given in 1910 (part of Ms. Coll. 1202) shows how dentistry had become not just respectable but also glamorous by his time. The hefty volume is bound in gold-embossed leather with inner covers of dark grey watered silk. The first two pages of the tome, which contain its dedication and introduction, are impeccably calligraphed and hand-illuminated in watercolor. Each of the album’s fifty pages contains a portrait photograph of a prominent (and strikingly mustached) American dentist with a short handwritten message of congratulations to Jenkins – in their physical qualities, let alone content, these pages are a far cry from the cramped newspaper ads of the Trueman collection.

"To be beloved by everybody is a rare achievement- so rare that Doctor Jenkins is almost in a class by himself."

“To be beloved by everybody is a rare achievement- so rare that Doctor Jenkins is almost in a class by himself.”

Today, a trip to the dentist doesn’t quite evoke the opulence and excess of Imperial Germany in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War (*sigh*). That golden age of dentistry seems to be over, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Likewise, modern dental medicine hardly resembles its eighteenth century ancestor- and that is most definitely a good thing.


Building the American Chemical Empire: Woodrow Wilson and the Strange Case of A. Mitchell Palmer and Francis P. Garvan

Pennsylvanian Democrat lawyer and politician Alexander Mitchell Palmer (1872-1936) is usually remembered as the U. S. Attorney General who launched thousands of unwarranted police raids – the infamous Palmer raids – against suspected radicals during the first Red Scare of 1919-20. But a previous chapter of Palmer‘s life might turn to be even more controversial (documented in the Bob and Jann Perez collection of A. Mitchell Palmer materials).


Alexander Mitchell Palmer in the years in which he was serving as Alien Property Custodian

The year was 1917. Right after entering into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson created the Office of Alien Property Custodian to confiscate, administer, and sell any enemy property that might constitute a danger for the United States. Palmer was the one chosen for the job. During his time in office, he was allowed to seize all the belongings of interned immigrants, regardless of their actual involvement in political crimes. In a short time, the Office became a powerful organ of the Wilson administration. At the end of 1918, Palmer estimated the worth of the almost 30.000 trusts he administered to be around half a million dollars. Along these enterprises, the Office took possession of 4.500 German patents, processes, copyrights, and trademarks, especially chemical ones.




Aims and Purposes

Aims and Purposes of the Chemical Foundation (1919)

In 1919, Wilson created a specific organization, the Chemical Foundation, whose main purpose was to buy and resell the chemical patents accumulated by the Alien Property Custodian to “any competent, equipped, and patriotic American firm, or corporation”. The president of the Foundation was Francis Patrick Garvan, a colleague of Palmer who was serving as director of the Bureau of Investigation of the Office of Alien Property Custodian. When Palmer was appointed Attorney General in 1919, Garvan took his place as Alien Property Custodian, and the circle was fully closed. Garvan could now uncover enemy patents in the U.S., sell them to the Chemical Foundation, and finally—as the head of the Foundation — resell them to American companies for the benefit of the national technological progress. In a booklet on the Aims and Purposes of the Chemical Foundation, published in 1919, Attorney General Palmer justified this process on the ground of patriotism and, frankly enough, mere financial profit:


Francis P. Garvan (1875-1937)

 “The great field of chemical industry… was, or had been until importations ceased, saturated through and through with German influence. In regard of no branch of human endeavor was the myth of German invincibility more firmly fixed in the public mind. The country was flooded with German chemists; and those who were not German by origin, were mostly German, directly or indirectly, by training… The German chemical industry, which had so thoroughly penetrated and permeated our own, was gigantic, perhaps the strongest, and certainly the most remunerative of all Teutonic industries. The task of identifying and taking over its property in the United States was thus a direct attack upon a most formidable opponent, while the information on which the work had to be based, had to be derived, to an exceptional extent, from men hostile by birth or tradition.”





Among the German companies that were most affected by the intervention of the Alien Property Custodian was Bayer, the famous pharmaceutical company, which lost its U.S. patent for Aspirin along with its own name and trademark for the United States.


A “Natural Garden”: The Plant-Collecting Expedition of Amelia Smith Calvert

Amelia Smith Calvert’s yearlong trip to Costa Rica in 1909 was not a relaxing vacation. Calvert didn’t spend her time on the beach or tucked away at some resort; instead, she hiked across the province of Cartago, to rainforest waterfalls and active volcanoes, through pastures and parks, along riverbeds and alleyways, collecting and photographing the region’s plants. This laborious project is recorded in “Photographs of Costa Rican Plants” (Ms. Coll. 1199), an album that identifies and describes nearly one hundred of the tropical plant species Calvert encountered.

The Irazu Volcano, where this photograph was taken, is located near Cartago, the city where Amelia Calvert lived from 1909 to 1910.

The Irazu Volcano, where this photograph was taken, is located near Cartago, the city where Amelia Calvert lived from 1909 to 1910.

Amelia was born in Philadelphia and spent the first few decades of her life close to her home city. She attended Girls’ High (at that time called The Girls’ Normal School) and then the University of Pennsylvania, where she gained such expertise in botany that her paper on the structure of Aphyllon uniflorum (a parasitic plant native to North America and commonly known as one-flowered bloomrape)  was presented at the annual meeting of Society for Plant Morphology and Physiology in 1898. After receiving her Bachelor of Science from Penn in 1899, Amelia assumed a research fellowship at Bryn Mawr College where she focused her studies on embryology and earthworm physiology and was published in Anatomischer Anzeiger and the American Journal of Physiology.

Amelia Calvert photographed a range of plant species from rare and delicate water lilies to these market vegetables.

Amelia Calvert photographed a range of plant species from rare and delicate water lilies to these market vegetables.

In 1901, Amelia married Philip Powell Calvert, an entomologist she had met when both were students at The University of Pennsylvania. Philip Calvert was an expert in Odonata (dragonflies) and, by the time of his marriage to Amelia, a professor of zoology at Penn. After getting married, Amelia served as a demonstrator in zoology at Penn for one year and was enrolled as a graduate student at the University from 1904 to 1906, but it seems her career lost some of its momentum after 1901. This isn’t too surprising; at the beginning of the twentieth century it was considered rather inappropriate for middle class married women to work.


This photo shows Senor Adolphe Tonduz beside a towering Furcraea growing in the botanical garden of the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.

This photo shows Senor Adolphe Tonduz beside a towering Furcraea growing in the botanical garden of the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.


Nevertheless, Amelia Smith Calvert’s intellectual curiosity didn’t waver. In 1908, when her husband took a sabbatical year to conduct research on the dragonflies and mayflies of Costa Rica, Amelia seized the opportunity to do some research of her own, and set off for Central America with him. The Calverts’ year abroad is recounted in A Year of Costa Rican Natural History, co-authored by Amelia and Philip and published in 1917. As the preface to the book explains, it was not written as a formal presentation of either of their research, but the “more incidental observations recorded in our diary.” The book describes the couple’s activities that year;  with their headquarters in the city of Cartago, both took expeditions to collect plant and insect specimens. In San Jose, Amelia Calvert made the acquaintance of Adolphe Tonduz and Henri Francois Pittier, two Swiss botanists employed at the Herbario Nacional de Costa Rica (part of the Museo Nacional), who helped her to identify the species she came across. With their assistance, Amelia gathered the images and information that she later compiled in “Photographs of Costa Rican Plants.”

This plant, native to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, is also known as “poor man’s umbrella” because of its broad leaves.

On May 4th, 1910, after weeks of unusual but relatively mild seismic activity, the city of Cartago was struck by a violent earthquake. As they explain in A Year of Costa Rican Natural History , the Calverts barely escaped their hotel room: “The motion was entirely up and down, not lateral, and we were thrown to the floor on hands and knees at once and could only crouch and cower… The air was instantly filled with plaster dust and mortar, while the crash of falling walls and buildings was deafening.” Amelia and Philip (and, miraculously, many of their scientific specimens) survived the earthquake but it caused over two hundred fatalities and  immense devastation in Cartago and its surroundings. Amelia and Philip spent two days digging their belongings out of the ruined hotel where they were staying and salvaging what of their papers they could before leaving Cartago on May 6th and sailing home to the United States.

Back in Philadelphia, Philip continued  teaching at Penn, cataloging Odonata and serving as president of The American Entomological Society. Amelia contributed to a book on the Poas Vocano in Costa Rica (Antologia El Volcan Poas) and sometimes helped her husband with illustrations for his works, but does not seem to have embarked on any sizable academic projects of her own. Although “Photographs of Costa Rican Plants” is not a comprehensive treatise and was never officially published, it reveals Amelia Calvert’s interest in biological science and her careful methodology. Especially in light of her later absence from the field of botany, it also suggests that the year Amelia spent in Costa Rica was an important one for her because it gave her the chance to explore an intellectual interest which she could not have pursued in Philadelphia.

Letters and Loose Teeth: the Notes of John W. Houck

Although I endeavor to be the type of student who maintains tidy lecture notes with one chronologically organized folder for each class, there will always be the days when I find myself jotting down information on the back of a receipt, the margins of the Daily Pennsylvanian or a flattened cardboard coffee sleeve, having forgotten my notebook at home. I am not, however, the first absentminded student to find myself in this position. John W. Houck, a student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine from 1900 to 1901, had the habit of taking notes on loose scraps of paper, especially letters. To be fair, most of Houck’s notes are pretty well organized. He filled three composition books with information on everything from mixing dental plaster to treating gingivitis. But stuffed into these books are letters and scraps of paper which carry information about the lectures Houck attended as well as his life outside of the classroom.


Never one to waste a loose scrap of paper, John W. Houck filled the margins and backs of letters with lecture notes.

One unfinished letter, dated and addressed in immaculate cursive to a “Kind Friend” continues (now hastily and in pencil) “What is chemical action of AgNO3 on tooth structure Read.” Another letter, the back of which details the merits of celluloid strips, expresses the hope of one of Houck’s patients that he will “finish with my dental work as soon as possible.” The most  intriguing of these little palimpsests are two letters sent to Houck from a woman named Grace. In one, she writes:

Dear John,

You haven’t gone to Canada with my pocket book have you, John? I haven’t needed it ‘specially because I have nothing to put inside it but I was afraid that it might have been sent and gone away.



The back of this letter bears Houck’s notes on tooth implantation. Another letter from Grace (which also contains notes on the chemical treatment of tooth discoloration) reads:

Meet me at Broad St. Station- the small waiting room on Thursday unless it should rain terrifically. I do not know what to do to get even with you for writing “Respectfully” to me.

Trusting that I will see you soon





A letter from the mysterious Grace is complemented by Houck’s own notes on dental treatments.

Who was Grace? Why did Houck have her pocketbook? Was it terrifically rainy after all? This tiny glimpse into Houck’s personal life makes me want to know more about him, and somehow the fact that these clues are embedded in pages and pages describing dental necrosis and infantile scurvy makes them even more alluring. Unfortunately, there’s not much information available about John Houck besides the fact that he moved back to his native Scranton after graduation and married a woman named Hazel. The letters from Grace only ended up in this collection because of the lecture material written over them– Houck probably forgot to bring his notebooks to class one day and instead used what pieces of paper he had. Still, these pages add a personal dimension to the collection that is otherwise absent from Houck’s notes.