Before the conclusion of my final semester at Penn I had the pleasure of working on the Stewart Culin collection of advertisements. This collection consists of two scrapbooks and 93 loose advertisements, largely for products which were sold at businesses located in Philadelphia, collected between 1884 and 1886 by Mr. Stewart Culin, an unorthodox and trailblazing figure in the fields of anthropology and ethnography. All of the loose advertisements have been organized according to genre (i.e., consumer services, foodstuffs, tobacco products, pharmaceuticals, etc.) and housed in an archival box separate from the scrapbooks. Progress on this particular project was split up by the end of the term and my month-long dig in Italy, hence the comparative tardiness of this blog post. Upon my return to Philadelphia I finished off the remaining work and now happily commend this colorful collection of cards from copious commercial categories to collegiate consumers. Posthumous apologies to Mr. Culin for using the first letter of his surname to create an alliterative string. The collection’s finding aid is up and running.
The collection contains a bevy of colorful and oftentimes humorous advertisement cards, broadside posters, and clippings. One informing the general public of a cartography office’s change of address features a list of facetious rules advising clients and workers to smoke constantly in the office, lean back in their chairs, chatter frequently with their deskmates, not hang up their hats and coats – in short, to do all the things they should in fact not do! The card with equal facetiousness advertised how long appointments would last with certain categories of people such as “life insurance salesmen” – 0 minutes!
The collection contents broadly attest to a bygone age of advertising when prospective customers could actually be expected to read paragraphs of text hailing an item’s good properties, and (almost unverifiable) testimonials were considered means of conferring validity in advertisements for pharmaceuticals and cure-alls. Like today’s ads, those in the Culin collection have images, but unlike today’s ads which rely on sight-bites to peddle the product, Culin’s ads from just over a century past rely on descriptions which can run up to several paragraphs long and are full of positive adjectives, ten-dollar vocabulary words, and sprightly, peppy language. Some of the products themselves are a gas, attesting to that mix of inventive eccentricity and energetic hucksterism we associate with Victorian commerce and faith in scientific progress. One such curiosity was an electric toothbrush and hair curler. Both items were engineered so that if the customer held the metal handle of either over a gas flame, an electromagnetic current was triggered in the handle and the brush would vibrate. The ad also proudly stated that this particular toothbrush was made to avoid that all-too-common problem of other toothbrushes – that bristles would fall out in mid-use and get stuck in your teeth! Even more spectacular, the ad promised delivery of this electric grooming kit anywhere in the world for a shipping fee of $1.00!
Of course there were numerous tonics claiming remarkable palliative powers. The best was a vegetable extract which listed all the ailments it could cure, which was just about every affliction they could put a name to back then. Another prize find was a handbill for a D. Smith’s “Arbozlinctus” (which specified the “z” is silent), a completely made-up word applied to a product Mr. Smith touted as “The Superior Expectorant.”
The neologism I expect was imagined up to make the product sound exotic and foreign, a supposition perhaps supported by the use of an Assyrian lamassu – a winged lion with a man’s head – as the product’s logo. Lamassu in the ancient Mesopotamian context were often seen as protective spirits of the home and the king, and often stood before city or palace gates. Word is still out on if they performed their protective role via expectorating. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the efficacy of these fabulous tonics are oftentimes backed up by glowing testimonials, which are followed by the name of the testifying citizen and his or her city of residence. One credited his recovery from arthritis equally to the “the power of God Almighty” and to the advertised medicine. I am not so cynical as to believe all these testimonies were fabricated. Surely there were many false ones cooked up by more unscrupulous salesmen, otherwise testimonials from John and Jane Citizen might still be in common use. But then as now, opprobrious dishonesty and genteel honesty mix and swirl together in commerce as in general life. For every baked testimonial, I estimate at least one honest one.
Amid all the offers and practices which the patina of time has made entertaining, loudly-proclaimed praises, handbills for oyster houses, and Punch-like illustrations, however, the ad I found most interesting included a brain-twister. It is a small card from the Electric Steam Collar and Cuff Laundry, which offers free service in exchange for solving the puzzle. I’ve included a photograph of it, so any who are so inclined may take a crack at it. If you successfully solve it and have a time machine handy (as well as a valid address in the 19th century, for which you may or may not owe temporal taxes to the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania), you can get one dozen of your own or your husband’s collars and cuffs steam-cleaned free every week for six months! 😉
So far, the collection may just seem an amusing pile of ephemera, but as I worked with it I noticed a couple potentially interesting uses for it. First off, the time period this collection spans – 1884-1886 – closely predates the research and publication of Culin’s first paper in 1889. Interestingly, the information I found on Culin through Wikipedia, the finding aid for the Stewart Culin game collection here at the Penn Museum archives, and other web pages, all of which I take to be representative of popular knowledge on Culin, do not have any mention of Culin’s work or interests prior to 1889. Indeed, the entire period between his primary education and his first paper is a big blank. Thanks to this collection, we now can fill in a bit of that void! As such, this collection provides an invaluable indication of Culin’s early interests. From it, we stand to gain a greater understanding of this pioneering contributor to American ethnography and anthropology. What’s more, a great number of these cards feature the addresses of the businesses in question. As such an image started evolving in my head in which a scholar armed with a map could reconstruct the business landscape of Center City Philadelphia circa 1884-1886 almost exactly from this collection alone. I’m sure the same could be accomplished from records in the City Archives, but quite a bit of the charm and flavor of these merchants and their times (not to mention the very obvious, easy-to-read presentation of the addresses) would be lost. The Culin collection, in addition to being a valuable source on late 19th century commercial art and advertising techniques, could be used to easily reconstruct a period of our fair city’s history. I’m sure others would have different ideas. Just goes to show the surprising ways a collection can service us based upon the information that survives in it. Businesses long since closed could come virtually back to life.
You have now read quite a bit about this interesting collection. I believe you’ll find the mind behind it equally interesting. Born July 13, 1858 to Mr. John and Mrs. Mina Barrett Daniel Culin, Mr. Stewart Culin was a native son of Philadelphia. He received his primary education at Nazareth Hall in Northampton County. Culin was a rather piquant character who helped establish the credentials of ethnography, the systematic study of cultural phenomena from the viewpoint of a native, as a weapon in the arsenal of American anthropology. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Culin was never an academic, nor did he have any formal training in ethnography or anthropology. He was simply blessed with a keen mind, a furious curiosity, and the ever-invaluable ability to make friends in the right places. All of which you need to tap to their utmost potential when you go about establishing the academic respectability of a field among stodgy intellectuals through the study of games. That’s right, games. While the advertisements present in our collection reflect Culin’s early interests, games were his primary passion. Dice games, street games, games of skill and chance, Culin’s fascination with them was as thoroughgoing as it was broad. We may not bat much of an eyelash at the notion of systematically studying games, but that is in part thanks to Culin. In his day, most academics would have considered games a silly topic beneath their interest. Perhaps a good parallel would be an independent scholar today armed with nothing but his curiosity, passion, and a few professorial friends proposing a serious study of vampire fanfiction written by preteen girls. Now imagine this eccentric outsider turning the study of grammatically-challenged pre-pubescent fantasies into a respectable one of scholarly inquiry people several generations down the line wouldn’t spit-take at. You might just be interested to read that academic’s papers and peer into his mind to find out how the heck he pulled it off (although you might not want to read the source material). The same stands for Culin who, as an academic outsider studying a topic then met with quasi-contempt, turned the academy’s preconception on its head.
I could find very little information on Culin’s life between his schooling and his ethnographic immersion in Philadelphia’s Chinese community during the 1880s, which represented the start of his long-lasting interest in games. Just as a participant observer in modern anthropology will become deeply engaged in the milieu of the group he is studying, Culin engrossed himself in the life of our city’s Chinese laborers. He learned their language and customs, and his experiences led him to an especial fascination with their games. Further research ensued which Culin presented in a lecture to his fellow members of the Oriental Club of Philadelphia, an organization which in 1888, along with the American Folklore Society in the same year, he had helped to found. This 1889 lecture, “Chinese Games with Dice,” became the launchpad for Culin’s extensive research into games across cultures. In 1890 Culin’s oriental interests landed him an appointment as Secretary of the Oriental Section at the Penn Museum, while his interest in games led to his preparation of an exhibit on them at the now near-legendary 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. There Culin met and befriended American anthropologist and fellow Pennsylvania native Frank Hamilton Cushing. Cushing, a somewhat debonair figure who combined intellectual discipline with a wild adventurousness, had already gained some fame for “going native” by living with the Zuni Indians of New Mexico from 1879 to 1884, and in turn bringing several members of the tribe with him on a tour of the East Coast. He and Culin joined forces to create the world’s first cumulative documentation on games. After this Culin produced reports on African, American Indian, and Hawaiian games until Cushing’s untimely death in 1900. The litany of Cushing’s active life and his odd death reminded me of the great Athenian playwright Aeschylus: Aeschylus fought at Marathon and Salamis, revolutionized tragedy, and, in the account of Roman biographer Valerius Maximus, died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. Cushing adventured in the west among the Zuni and Hopi, revolutionized anthropology, and died on a research trip to Maine choking on a fishbone. One could not exactly say that Culin’s friend died as he lived, as Cushing went out with a very excruciating whimper, but he at least left a positive legacy for anthropology.
In 1903 Culin left the Penn Museum, having apparently run afoul of the various department heads there. He had been appointed Director of the museum in 1892, a position promptly terminated upon his forced resignation. Evidently, Culin’s novel, outsider ideas on how to organize exhibits (and perhaps a bullheaded, undiplomatic devotion to them on his part) played a role in his expulsion. Philadelphia’s loss was New York’s gain (as so often seems the case), and Culin became the Curator of the Department of Ethnology at the Brooklyn Museum. He continued publishing on games through 1925. During this period he made several collecting expeditions to China and Japan, and added fashion and the decorative arts to his repertoire of interests. He died April 8, 1929 on Long Island (thankfully not by choking on a fishbone) at Amityville, New York Yes, the same Amityville of Amityville Horror infamy. Culin’s death was also thankfully unrelated to this, as the DeFeo family murders occurred over four decades after our maverick ethnographer’s more peaceful passing.
Now that the Culin collection has been finished and shelved, I am moving on to the papers of Dorothy M. Spencer, who was a professor of anthropology in Penn’s Asian Studies department during the second half of the 20th century. Our collection of her papers contains great reams of her handwritten field notes from her studies of the Adivasi tribes in India’s Jharkand state. How appropriate – my first archival collection was the papers of social theorist and India enthusiast Richard B. Gregg. I now return to India for what may be, depending upon how long its processing takes, my last collection before leaving to pursue the M.A. in Classical Archaeology at the University of British Columbia. We shall see!