“Un remede pire que le mal”: Medical Quackery and Political Commentary in the Helfand Collection

This print, by J. J. Grandville, refers to bloodletting, a mainstay of medical practice well into the nineteenth century.

The prints in the Helfand collection of medical quackery ephemera (Print coll. 34) deliver a strong dose of medical skepticism. The eclectic collection spans chronologically from 1736 to 2006 (with some undated materials) and ranges in genre from toothpaste advertisements to hymn sheets distributed on saints’ feast days. This printed ephemera speaks to the public perception of medicine in an era of very minimal professional regulation. Until the last century, patients had to be wary about charlatans in order to guard themselves against financial exploitation and threats to their physical wellbeing from fraudulent or unqualified healers.

Hydropathy (also called “hydrotherapy” or “water cure”) was a therapeutic treatment popular in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the best-represented type of medical quackery ephemera in the collection is an assortment of caricatures and political cartoons from nineteenth century French periodicals and satirical newspapers. A print from one such publication shows three predatory looking doctors, with the heads of leeches, explaining to their frail and wide-eyed grasshopper patient that they will bleed him tomorrow. This is a reference to the once-popular practice of phlebotomy, an intentional withdrawal of blood to cure diseases or promote general health. Another comical print titled “Les Hydropathes” shows a man shivering under a torrent of ice water, part of a trendy health regimen meant to cleanse the body of impurities.

Lobau hovers above Paris on his flying syringe.

Other caricatures strike a political tone. A print published in 1831 shows Marshall Lobau, who had recently used fire hoses to intimidate protestors, perched atop a giant, flying clyster syringe. In a caricature published in Le Charivari in 1850, the politically active entrepreneur Louis-Desire Veron is depicted as a pharmacist, as he attempts to pulverize the newspaper’s mascot, a jester, with a mortar and pestle. Another image features an allegorical France being force-fed “un remede pire que le mal” (“a treatment worse than the disease”) by Veron. In these prints, medicine is employed as an expressive metaphor through which to comment upon politics: dissatisfaction with one sphere can be illustrated (literally) through derision of the other.

This allegorical print, “un remede pire que le mal,” uses medical themes to express a political sentiment.

While political commentary and criticism are still alive and well, the sentiment that carries through the Helfand collection –one of extreme distrust towards the medical establishment- is encountered much less frequently today. Part of this may be because of the great improvements in medicine that have taken place over the last three centuries. Where a physician might once have drained a pint of blood from an ill patient, today’s practitioner will prescribe antibiotics. Furthermore, the medical system has evolved. “Quackery” is now much less of a threat because medicine is strictly regulated. Doctors have to go through years of standardized training, and drugs are rigorously tested in clinical trials.

This print shows Veron in the role of quack pharmacist, a frequently-occurring character in nineteenth century French comical prints.

Yet the historical events that have elevated the sphere of medicine may also have carried a few disadvantages. While the process of medical professionalization (which took off in the early twentieth century) has created new kinds of scientific authority and expertise, it has probably also blocked some avenues for productive criticism of the field. Medicine today is not perfect, nor is our national healthcare system. As I look through the prints in the Helfand collection I am deeply appreciative of the quality of medicine available in the twenty first century – but also a little wistful for a type of lively, popular critique that seems to have fallen out of date.

The Archaeological Expeditions of Elizabeth T. Miller

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This tourist map is included in one of the photo albums of the Miller papers.

“Central & Middle America are quite a way from S. Africa, but with Europe and most of the world in such a state of devastation & turmoil from the war, I can think of no place more desirable to visit at the present time.”

Thus wrote Elizabeth Turner Miller about her 1940 travels to Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Despite Miller’s acknowledgement of massive geopolitical upheaval, the documentation of her voyage is almost completely devoid of other references to politics or current events. Instead Miller seems to have embraced the literal and metaphorical distance her journey afforded her from the rest of the world. Travelling through dense jungles for weeks at a time with very limited external communication, Miller immersed herself in the natural beauty and ancient history of the Yucatan.

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Miller on horseback, in front of a Mayan stele.

Miller was twenty-nine years old, living in Baltimore, and working as a commercial artist when she was presented with what she described as “the rare privilege of going on a semi-archaeological expedition.” Her cousin, sculptor and archaeologist Benjamin Turner Kurtz, was making a tour of Mayan ruins in Guatemala and Honduras, and asked Miller to come along. In January of 1940, Miller set out for Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, and from there travelled to Quirigua and Copan, where she and Kurtz photographed ancient stelae. Miller relished the three weeks she spent abroad, and leapt at the chance to return to Central America on a similar expedition, this time to Mexico in the summer of 1940.

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Miller, and a few of her friends. Afraid of poisonous snakes, the group rarely removed their tall boots.

The Elizabeth T. Miller papers (Ms. coll. 1265), part of the Caroline F. Schimmel Collection of Women in the American Wilderness, document this trip through written accounts and hundreds of photographs later arranged into albums. Miller travelled through Mexico with Kurtz, the photographer John Henry Coon, and the acclaimed operatic singer Carolyn Long. The group visited many of the major Mayan sites in the area, including Labna, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil and Monte Alban.

Transportation through the tropical forests of the Yucatan was often laborious. Miller wrote that on some roads, the travellers’ Ford Model T (apparently the only vehicle suited to the terrain) ran with “one wheel over the precipice.” Regarding driving in the lowlands, Miller explained that “bracing ourselves to keep from falling out was a full time occupation except when we were busy removing strange specimens of bugs from our persons, which showered upon us every time a car brushed against the limb of a tree.” Still, not all of Miller and her companions’ interactions with nature involved “strange specimens of bugs” or the aggressive feral bulls that made their homes in the cool shade of ruined temples. It was with “amazement and delight” that one day, while driving through the forest, she and her friends realized the “patches of color in the road ahead of us about a foot square and chartreuse in hue” were actually masses of “tiny, yellow-green and white butterflies,” so plentiful when they took flight that “without exaggeration there were times when we could not see where we were going.”

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Miller, her three travelling companions, a mechanic, two guides and a translator fit all of their camping and photographic equipment into two cars.

After several weeks in the Yucatan, Miller returned to Baltimore, where she would spend the rest of her life (after marrying Svend Peuleche around 1949, she changed her name to Elizabeth M. Peuleche). It is not entirely evident why Miller chose to spend 1940 travelling through Central America. As an artist, she deeply admired the exquisite Mayan sculpture and architecture of the region, which may have served as inspiration for some of her own work. Additionally, she maintained an interest in archaeology and was well informed about local investigations. It seems most likely to me, however, that Miller undertook this voyage for its own sake, to learn about and appreciate the beauty of unfamiliar surroundings in the true spirit of exploration.

Revelations of Character in the Kanji Dwarkadas Papers

Although Kanji Dwarkadas, an Indian writer, social reformer and politician is not especially well known today, his papers (Ms. Coll. 1239) offer a fascinating insight into the personal lives of some of the most important public figures in India’s twentieth century history. Dwarkadas was born in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1892 and became involved in local and national politics by his early twenties. As a member of the Indian Home Rule movement and as general secretary of the 1918 Indian National Congress, Dwarkadas was closely acquainted with Annie Besant, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and other important politicians and activists of his time. The Dwarkadas papers reveal nuances of character in these individuals through ample correspondence, notes, transcribed conversations or interviews, and diary entries, which Dwarkadas referred to as his “personal observations.”

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This publication was released by the New York branch of the India Home Rule League. From: https://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/14/american-roots-of-the-indian-independence-movement/?_r=0

The material in this collection that relates to public figures owes some of its insightfulness to the fact that Dwarkadas maintained close friendships with many of his peers in politics. This was certainly true of his relationship with writer and activist Annie Besant. The two seem to have been in agreement over nearly all matters of politics, and both shared (mostly in private correspondence) frustration over the actions of Mahatma Gandhi. In a letter dated February 5, 1922, Besant complained that “Gandhi always flinches at the critical moment. His bold words are mere bluff.” In an undated letter, she claimed “things are very bad here, thanks to Gandhi, who spreads disregard of law, and causes much trouble.” This somewhat unpopular opinion was one voiced by Dwarkadas as well: a brief biography of him written around 1960 notes that his “critical book” published on Gandhi was “the only one of its kind.” Indeed, Dwarkadas’ political identity and involvement seems to have been so integrated with Besant’s that after her death in 1933 he retired from politics and focused his energies on social activism and labor reform.

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This 1921 poster advertises a meeting of Gandhi’s Noncooperation movement, which both Besant and Dwarkadas disapproved of. From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Noncooperation_khilafat1921.gif

Besant and Dwarkadas’ relationship, however, extended considerably beyond matters of politics. Dwarkadas considered Besant his adoptive mother, and she in turn treated him and his brother, Jamnadas, as sons. In her letters to Kanji, Besant addresses him as “my dear son” and usually signs off, “with love, Mother.” Though they contain a good deal of business information, Besant’s letters to Dwarkadas are supportive and thoughtful. So much so, perhaps, that in a letter to Kanji and Jamnadas written in 1919, Besant exclaimed, “I fear that I pour out on you all a great deal too much affection!”

This photograph of Annie Besant was taken in 1922, at which time she was working with Kanji Dwarkadas.

This photograph of Annie Besant was taken in 1922, at which time she was working with Kanji Dwarkadas. From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Besant#/media/File:Annie_Besant.001.jpg

It may have simply been Besant’s nature to take on a somewhat maternal role towards her younger friends and acquaintances. Around 1910, Besant, a devout theosophist, adopted Jiddu Krishnamurti, a teenager whom she and others believed to be the new World Teacher of the religion (Krishnamurti renounced this role two decades later). Besant’s impulse to care for others, even near strangers, is illustrated in a letter she sent to Dwarkadas in 1929. In this note, she asks Dwarkadas to secure a ticket on a steamer from Bombay to Trieste “for a young Hungarian who has been wandering about India.” She explains that she would do so herself, but for the fact that “he is a fruitarian and only seems to eat cocoanuts, almonds and bananas” and she would be unable to “supply him with fruit enough for such a journey” from her current location in Chennai.

This kind and generous quality of Besant’s is interesting in its own right, but especially so in light of events earlier in her life. Married to Frank Besant in 1867 when she was twenty years old, Annie had two children, but was unhappy in her marriage and legally separated from her husband in 1873. She was able to maintain custody over her daughter for some time, but had to give up the right to see her children after she was prosecuted in 1877 for publishing a book on birth control. One may wonder, then, if Besant’s motherly attitude towards Dwarkadas and others was influenced by her separation from her biological children decades prior.

A confluence of factors makes the Dwarkadas papers particularly revealing of the personalities of the individuals mentioned therein. On the one hand, Dwarkadas was amicable with most of his colleagues in the government, and very close with a handful; his letters strike a tone of friendship more than professional collaboration. In addition, the very nature of the types of materials present –private correspondence, journal entries, confidential reports- is more intimate than, for example, a newspaper profile. As a result, these documents provide a perspective on some Indian political figures of the last century, which is different from that found in their published works or public speeches.

“Malice is at the bottom”: Family Drama in the Litigation of the Thomas W. Evans Estate

It took less than twenty-four hours for the will of Dr. Thomas Evans to be legally contested. On May 31, 1898, the very day the wealthy dentist’s will was filed in the United States, Evans’ niece, Clara E. Davis, made a formal objection to the stipulations of the document. This legal action was only the first in a long series of bitter lawsuits over the Evans estate that dragged on for over a decade. By the end of 1898, heirs, executors and the City of Philadelphia (Evans’ intended recipient of the bulk of the fortune) were locked in a vitriolic legal contest, to which Joseph W. Catharine, the Assistant City Solicitor for Philadelphia, was soon to be subjected and which his papers document.

Dr. Thomas Wiltberger Evans was a famous dentist, born in Philadelphia in 1823 but professionally active in Paris. At the peak of his practice, Evans was treating most of Europe’s sovereigns, from Queen Victoria to the Sultan of Turkey. Evans shared a close friendship with Emperor Napoleon III, and managed to smuggle the Empress Eugenie out of Paris in his private coach when the masses rioted after the Battle of Sedan. To call Evans “wealthy” would be a considerable understatement. The dentist’s friends in high places, rather than his medical practice, were responsible for his massive fortune. In the 1850s and 1860s, when Napoleon III launched a comprehensive urban re-planning of Paris, Evans was tipped off to the areas of the city that were soon to be transformed from labyrinthine networks of medieval alleys to spacious and stately boulevards. Strategically buying cheap properties in these quarters, Evans saw the value of his real estate skyrocket as development moved forward. When Evans died in 1897, his estate was valued (conservatively) at $4,000,000, or about $110,000,000 in 2016.

The subsequent disputation of Evans’ will was not caused by any ambiguity of the document. Rather it seems that his millions were simply too alluring for his relatives to give up without a fight. Evans left two wills, one to be valid under French law and the other in the United States, but they both described the same wishes for the distribution of his capital. Evans set aside a total of $275,000 for his wife, mistress and some other relatives (he had no children), and left the rest of his fortune to the City of Philadelphia, for the establishment of the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental Institute, an institution which he required be “not inferior to any in the city.”

An 1882 portrait of Madame Laurent, by Edouard Manet.

An 1882 portrait of Madame Laurent, by Edouard Manet.

The social and economic ripple effects of the dispensation of Evans’ estate are exemplified in one of several amusing anecdotes reported in American newspapers. Evans left a large sum of money to his mistress, Méry Laurent, an active figure in Paris’ artistic circles (she modeled for the impressionist painter Edouard Manet and entertained Proust and Zola at her salon). Laurent was a great appreciator of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and decided to pass along her portion of the estate to his daughter. According to a reporter commenting on the gift, “during the few days since it has become known that the young lady is in safe possession of $100, 000 [not an accurate figure] she has had twenty offers of marriage from as many Counts. In fact, her windfall is interfering with the American marriage market.”

Evans’ other heirs, however, were less magnanimous than Mme. Laurent. They contested the provisions of the will on several accounts, first questioning its validity and then the right of the City of Philadelphia to receive funds from the estate given that the Museum and Dental Institute had yet to be officially established. Wisely intuiting that the litigation of the estate was about to get very, very messy, Philadelphia Mayor Charles Warwick secretly dispatched Joseph W. Catharine, the Assistant City Solicitor, to Paris, where most of the heirs lived. Catharine’s task was to defend the interests of Philadelphia, mainly by making sure that Evans’ heirs didn’t siphon away too much of the money meant for the Museum and Dental Institute.

He's determined! An undated photograph of Joseph W. Catharine.

He’s determined! An undated photograph of Joseph W. Catharine.

Though thrown into a legal case whose milieu was the most elite tiers of Parisian society, Catherine himself was from relatively modest background. He was born at sea in 1859 on the Carrier Dove a clipper ship owned by his father, which ran between Philadelphia and several Southern ports, and, according to a later biography, “a common school education was his lot.” Catharine began his career at the Philadelphia Treasurer’s office whilst he read law, and later joined the Solicitor’s office, where he successfully argued several important cases.

Catherine’s professional aptitude served him well in Paris, and over the course of a few months he was able to defeat almost all of the heirs in court. Despite this, Evans’ relatives walked away with a total of $800,000 in addition to their original $275,000: in 1900, the executors and the City agreed to grant the heirs a bonus if they forfeited their right to further contest the will in the French courts.

Yet the appeasement of the heirs did not mean the settlement of the estate. The suits lumbered on, now between the City and the estate executors, and got particularly nasty in 1906, when Catharine and his colleagues accused three of the executors of mismanaging the estate for their personal financial benefit. In the words of G. Heide Norris, one of the City’s lawyers:

“The many and devious methods adopted by the French executors, in order to delay settlement and maintain possession of the estate both in France and in this country, should be fully exploited at this time… The object of the executors in holding on to the estate and in delaying settlement, has always been a matter of inquiry, but the sequel seems to disclose the answer very clearly. It is now entirely apparent why Mr. Valois, the principal of the French executors could never be found when wanted for discussion, why he avoided interviews with counsel for the city, why he has interfered with and delayed any attempt to deal with the American executors, why he has delayed promised accounting…”

The executors filed countersuits, but also responded on more personal terms. Sarah Gray Crane, whose late husband, Edward Crane, was one of the indicted, wrote directly to Catherine, that “I feel sure Mr. Catharine, although you accuse him of a crime, that in your heart you do not believe him guilty of any misdemeanor. You are led by… a faction of the family of the late Dr. Evans- who are very jealous of both my husband and myself- malice is at the bottom.”

An early photograph of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

An early photograph of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

Amidst the hundreds of letters and dozens of legal memoranda that make up this collection, it’s hard to get a sense of what Catharine was like, personally. If anything sheds light on his character, it’s an assortment of newspaper clippings. Quoted in these articles he seems first dogged, but gradually more pessimistic about the outcome of the case. Indeed, I doubt Catharine had any idea in 1898 that the Evans estate litigation would last about fourteen years, demand he make at least six trips to Paris and provoke in him three “health crises.” Yet Catharine must have maintained at least some of his initial determination because, eventually, the City received the necessary funds from Evans’ estate to establish the Museum and Dental Institute. In 1915, the Institute opened its doors to a first class of students, and still operates today, at its original location on 40th and Spruce Street, as the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

Brothers and Sisters in the Teacher Collection of Running Press

The Stuart Teacher collection of Running Press material (Ms. Coll. 1209) augments the full story of the Running Press (told in the Running Press records; Ms. Coll. 727),  a successful independent publishing house based in Philadelphia. Yet while it presents a fairly complete picture of thirty years (circa 1972-2002) of Running Press business, the collection has a lovably miscellaneous quality about it, with some documents that have quite little to do with the Press. Mixed in among the sales reports, business travel itineraries and legal documents that illustrate the company’s foundation and growth, are different sorts of documents- greeting cards, photo albums and gifts- that tell another story, about family.

This photograph (circa 1948) shows the Teacher brothers with Larry on the left and Stuart on the right.

This photograph, circa 1948, shows the Larry Teacher (left) and Stuart Teacher (right).

Stuart “Buz” Teacher founded Running Press in 1972 with his brother, Lawrence (“Larry”). The company started small, reprinting works that were in the public domain and appealed to New Age-y interests in craftsmanship and environmentalism. Running Press was successful and able to expand without taking on risky projects, thanks largely to the brothers’ complementary styles of management and close collaboration. In 1994, Larry Teacher retired from the company and that same year Running Press was surprised by the unanticipated success of Sisters, a book of photographs and essays by Sharon Wohlmuth, Larry’s wife, and Carol Saline. Yet as advantageous as this bestseller was for Running Press business, it was destructive to the relationship between the Teacher brothers. First, Saline and Wohlmuth signed with Doubleday instead of Running Press to produce Mothers & Daughters, a sequel to Sisters. Then, a month before Mothers & Daughters was scheduled to go on sale, Running Press released Daughters and Mothers, at a significantly lower price. Wohlmuth, perhaps rightly, interpreted this competition as a vengeful jab from her brother in law, and Larry Teacher sided with his wife rather than his brother. In 1997, Stuart and Larry got into a bitter argument after which they stopped speaking for years. The irony that Sisters, which celebrates love between siblings, so completely soured relations between the Teacher brothers, was not lost on news reporters who told the story of Larry and Stuart’s estrangement in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

Goodbye

                Grace

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

Goodbye

                Grace

 

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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.

From Anti-Hero to Soubrette: Actresses in Nineteenth Century America

Opera, drama, comedy, burlesque… Decades before contemporary forms of media entertainment, theater was as essential part of American culture. A collection of nearly sixty actors’ role books (Ms. Coll. 1143) from the 1870s hints at the “backstage” aspects of this world including rehearsals, costumes, negotiations with celebrity performers and the balancing of tight budgets. Role books, which provide the relevant cues, lines and stage directions for one character in a play are interesting in their own right but what makes this collection come alive are the abundant annotations, marginalia, lists and even drawings sprinkled throughout the pages. These notes give mention to a number of nineteenth century actresses who had not only star power but also considerable authority within their industry.

The role book for King Creon in "Medea" includes phonetic pronunciations of some Greek words.

The role book for King Creon in “Medea” includes phonetic pronunciations of some Greek words.

Although women in the United States had limited legal rights throughout the nineteenth century and were expected to remain away from the public sphere, some actresses managed to work around the social constraints of their day and maintain a profile in business, politics and current events. While most of the women who did work (in textile mills, for example) were earning small fractions of the salaries of their male counterparts, successful female performers became enormously rich which allowed them to invest their money or take up philanthropic causes. Moreover, by the mid nineteenth century the profession of acting had lost it’s association with sin and lasciviousness and was rapidly gaining social respectability.

Miss Lotta Crabtree starred as a "mischievous" young girl in this musical comedy.

Miss Lotta Crabtree starred as a “mischievous” young girl in this musical comedy.

Charlotte Crabtree (1847-1924), a starlet who used many of the role books in this collection, charmed audiences over the course of a nearly four-decade career. Although “Miss Lotta” presented herself onstage as the incarnation of girlish naiveté, “as gentle and sweet and innocent as the bounding pink-eyed bunny in the fragrant caress of a clover bed” as one commentator put it, she managed her career, finances and public persona with great acuity. After being abandoned by her father, Miss Lotta began performing at age six in front of audiences of California gold miners to support herself and her mother. Quickly, she sprang to national and international fame, carefully investing in real estate along the way. Partly because of her petite size, Miss Lotta often played young men or boys, and in one instance, a boy dressing as a woman for disguise. But Lotta’s convolution of Victorian gender expectations extended beyond the stage as well. Known for smoking black cigars, she never married but kept herself busy after her retirement at age forty-five through philanthropy and the management of her investments, which had grown to four million dollars by the time of her death in 1924.

This role book was the property of theater manager Laura Keene.

This role book was the property of theater manager Laura Keene.

A role book for the part of John Leigh in Hunted Down was copied by Laura Keene, a British actress who began performing after her husband was convicted of a crime and sent to Australia on a prison ship. Though greatly appreciated for her skill as an actress, Keene was also a successful businesswoman and by the mid 1850s was running her own theater in New York City. Keene was performing with her company at Ford’s Theater on the night of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After the president was shot, Keene rushed to his box where she attended Lincoln until further help arrived (the blood-stained sleeve of her costume is on display at the National Museum of American History.) Keene’s bravery during this national event served to further propel her reputation and presence in the media. A penciled note on the front page of her role book which reads, “Laura Keene’s own handwriting to be preserved,” alludes to the respect she enjoyed within the theater world as well as the broad scope of her celebrity.

It’s hard to say what exactly it was about a career in theater that allowed these women to shake off the gender-based restrictions of the 19th century United States. Perhaps it was the sheer amount of money available in the industry or the fact that acting is centrally about assuming an identity different from one’s own. This collection of role books doesn’t fully answer that question, but it does show us some of the influence, intelligence and skill of the actresses of the 1870s.

Collected Condolences: the John L. Stewart Memorial Scrapbook

Amongst the many sheets of correspondence, lecture notes and legal documents that make up the John Lammey Stewart papers is a hefty scrapbook created after Stewart’s death in 1927 and probably arranged by his widow, Mary. John Stewart was an educator whose professional career culminated in being appointed President of Lehigh University before serving as a Pennsylvania Public Service Commissioner and who, as this scrapbook can attest, was beloved to his wife and many friends. Though its pages are yellowed and worn, this memorialization to Stewart was created with great care: about two dozen sympathetic telegrams and 180 letters of condolence addressed to Mrs. Stewart were sorted, folded, and pasted onto eighteen large pieces of card stock. Certain pages, packed with everything from succinct telegrams (“Profound Sympathy”) to circuitous handwritten notes (“Today at noon I opened the saddest letter in the world. I’ve been stunned, inarticulate ever since. I feel so badly I just don’t know what to say…”) are so laden that they measure nearly a quarter of an inch thick.

This thoughtful tribute seems, at least in part, to have been a way for Mary Stewart to process the grief of her husband’s death. However, the scrapbook takes on a slightly different resonance when one considers the circumstances of the year leading up to Stewart’s death. After serving on the Public Service Commission (an agency that regulated public utilities) for three years, Stewart was issued a quo warranto in 1926, requiring him to prove his right to the office in court. Months before, Stewart had been reappointed Commissioner by Governor Gifford Pinchot, but the Governor “evidently changed his mind relative to the wisdom of his selection” and put forth new candidates. The Senate objected to this replacement, which led to Stewart’s case in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. It is unclear what prompted Pinchot’s reversal of opinion of Stewart, however a tribute to Stewart written upon his death states that the “bitter storm of controversy” was caused by one particular decision of the commission and that “Governor Pinchot… who should have known John’s character, accused him of a selfish betrayal of the public”. The scandal is also alluded to in the scrapbook. One letter signed ‘Emerson’ reads: “We rarely hear of one individual possessing within himself… the ability to keenly discern between right and wrong and lessly to affirm and uphold the right (even in opposition to a stupid but nevertheless powerful public opinion)…”

Stewart was ultimately reappointed as a Commissioner, but the stress of the trial and fall from the public’s graces must have been traumatic for both him and his wife. Indeed, it was only one year after the resolution of his case that Stewart suddenly fell ill at a meeting of the Commission and died just two hours later. According to his colleagues, Stewart’s “life was expended in the service of the State, for his sudden and fatal illness was due, as the attending physicians state, to the weight of the responsible duties he had undertaken”.

Perhaps because of his abrupt death, Stewart was never able to fully recover his pre-trial reputation. Thus, Mary’s scrapbook, beyond memorializing her husband, is a validation of his goodness and likeability. The two hundred notes of sympathy she received when Stewart died, which laud him as an influential teacher and honest public servant, create a testament to the goodwill that people felt towards her husband despite the  ordeal of his public opprobrium.