Historians of American drama know it well: there is hardly a more precious source on 19th-century Philadelphia theater than Charles Durang’s work dedicated to the history of the city stage in the years between 1749 and 1855. A painstakingly detailed account of the theatrical activities that took place in Philadelphia over a century, Durang’s work appeared in weekly installments on a Philadelphia newspaper, the Sunday Dispatch, and was thus widely available at the time it was published. Today, it can be found in dozens of libraries across the U.S., either in its original form – that is, as clippings from the original newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s, often pasted onto more or less inclusive scrapbooks – or, much more frequently, as a microfilm.
Perhaps even more than their male colleagues, actresses are often treated like cultural icons dangerously running on the sharp edge between scandal and sanctity, supported and haunted at the same time by an endless flow of more or less authorized anecdotes, interviews, photographs, Instagram posts, Facebook likes, and Twitter followers. But a century ago, in an age in which theater districts still served as meeting places between prostitutes and their clients, the reputation of actresses, especially in the earlier stages of their careers, was often considered dubious unless otherwise proven. In Philadelphia, a group of wealthy theater-lovers thought that young actresses should at least have the right to escape “the brothel-like atmosphere of cheap hotels and the rude stares of corset drummers;” and in 1907, they opened a new organization, the Charlotte Cushman Club, to provide them respectable lodging while performing in the city.
Somewhere in the New England countryside, first half of the nineteenth century. It is a cold winter night. In a lonely home on the side of a mountain, a young woman named Charlotte is dressing up to go to the ball. Only, the ball will be held in an inn fifteen miles away, and the only available means of transportation is the open sleigh of Charlotte’s boyfriend Charles. “Be careful,” says Charlotte’s mother to her daughter, “make sure to wrap up in a warm blanket, if you don’t want to freeze out there!” “There is no way, mom,” Charlotte responds, “how can I expect my splendid dress to be seen if I muffle myself up in that ugly blanket? My silken cloak will be quite enough.” The bottom line: Charlotte is found frozen to death by her beloved Charles at the end of their ride on the snow.
Nurse Bartolo Garcia thanks Saint Cosmas, patron saint of physicians, for having been transferred to another hospital ward, so he doesn’t have to give enemas anymore. Remedios Mendoza is grateful to Saint Anthony of Padua for saving her boyfriend’s life after he had an embolic stroke at the altar during their wedding. And the Virgin of Guadalupe is being credited for having accomplished the ‘miracle’ of ridding Tereso Garcia of his hangover. The William H. Helfand collection of ex-votos and devotional paintings on medical subjects, recently donated to the Kislak Center, is a treasure trove of such anecdotes, and an open portal to late 19th and 20th century Mexican folk religious practices.A graduate from Penn (CHE 1948), Helfand is a well-known historian of pharmacy and medicine, and a collector of prints, posters, illustrations, and ephemera on medical subjects. Such interests are reflected in this collection of ex-votos, votive paintings on tin or other cheap metal sheets, which were — and still are — usually hung in Mexican churches and other religious venues as a sign of gratitude for received blessings or healings. In a nutshell, the long ex-voto tradition is a reflection of the rich cultural history of Mexico. Public offerings of symbolic objects in response to the benevolence of the divinity are common in Europe, and their origins may be traced back to the ancient Greeks. In Mexico, votive customs had existed even before the arrival of the Spanish, but a figurative tradition emerged only in the 16th century, with the dissemination of Marian cults promoted by European evangelists. Until the end of the 18th century the offering of votive paintings was mostly a prerogative of the wealthy, but after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the tradition was gradually appropriated by the lower classes. With this social shift came a corresponding change in the ex-votos themselves. In the 19th century, tin replaced the expensive canvas that had previously been used, and local, unschooled painters began to specialize in this kind of production, gradually developing personal styles. 20th-century Mexican painters such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, and Roberto Montenegro highly valued ex-votos, and employed them as a source of inspiration for their own works. Unmediated by academic pictorial influences, the genuine devotion embodied and transmitted by these small paintings – “masterpieces on tin,” Rivera famously called them – can be appreciated in the ex-votos of the Helfand collection. Even in the case of the most overt and comical deviations from official religious practices, viewing these images is a touching experience, for both the simplicity of the drawings, and the shaky handwriting of the captions accompanying them, never fail to reveal the emotional participation of the worshippers, if not their personal struggles. Such is the case, for instance, of a 1943 ex-voto from Mexico City, in which a woman is portrayed kneeling, her hands covering her face, next to the bed in which her son is suffering from measles. Or of another example from 1960 dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, in which the praying mother and her baby daughter with pneumonia are humbly portrayed at the very bottom of the painting, while an ochre-colored backdrop symbolizes both the intimacy of the domestic space and the immensurable distance separating the mortal world from that of saint.
But the ex-votos in the collection also tell us another story, not less moving than the personal stakes of the people being portrayed: that of their extraordinary life as historical objects, scattered around the world as collectible items after having been discarded from overcrowded walls. It is a story that ex-votos have in common with much other archival material, and it is in most cases hard to reconstruct. Yet, an ex-voto represents not only a personal testimony of the blessing received in a given historical moment, but also a sum of human emotional encounters, enabled and accrued through the decades by the religious subject-matter, the image on the painting, or even the material carrying them. An ex-voto to Saint Paschal Baylon, patron of the kitchen and of cooks, was painted on a circular metal lid: an object with its own life story, maybe used in that same kitchen represented in the scene, and which has experienced so many uses and meanings before having been handed to us.
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).
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.
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:
“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.