Friday, April 28, 2017

William H. Helfand Popular Medicine Collection Showcased at Ephemera Society of America Conference

Pluto Water. America’s Greatest Physic 
(French Lick, Ind.?, ca. 1895). Gameboard.
In March, Co-Director of VCP at LCP and Associate Curator, Prints and Photographs Erika Piola presented about our William H. Helfand Popular Medicine Collection at the 37th Ephemera Society of America Conference. The Helfand Collection is comprised of over 13,000 items that represent a trade infamous for its fraudulence and promotion of all manner of “cures” from procreative elixirs to electrical corsets. Responding to the conference theme of innovation, Piola discussed the collection in terms of the innovative marketing techniques, particularly the visual rhetoric, employed by the patent medicine trade. The collection contains hundreds of pieces of advertising ephemera dating from the 18th through 20th centuries that fall under the aegis of our Visual Culture Program, including labels, trade cards, advertisements, letter and billheads, calendars, and novelties.

To provide a framework to her presentation, Piola focused her discussion on a few genres of promotional ephemera represented in the Helfand Collection. She began her talk by examining an antebellum-era label for a piles liniment adorned with an allegorical female vignette. She closed it with a review of a late 19th-century gameboard illustrated with the image of the devil to promote a laxative. Piola examined materials often taken for granted for historical research due to their nature as a medium in somewhat of a visual purgatory. Not fine art, and on the cusp of popular art, illustrated ephemera embodies the irony of a disposable that is meant to be memorable. Consequently, these graphic works are a rich vehicle to explore the social construction of our visual world and the role that innovation plays in a market in which it is understood “buyer beware.”


Laboratory of Minnie Mueller Tolke, Manufacturing Chemist 
(Cincinnati, ca. 1898). Letterhead.

One genre often taken for granted in this visual purgatory is illustrated letterhead. During her talk, Piola discussed this circa 1898 letterhead for the dermatological and pharmaceutical preparations from the “Laboratory of Minnie Mueller Tolke.” The influence of the Art Noveau movement during the later 19th century to “aestheticize” the environment is evident. The burgeoning American graphic design industry strove to create something unique and beautiful, even for a transient printed work. Striking typographical elements, like the shadow effect of Gaslight, and an engaging illustration made patent medicine dealers’ letters stand out and feel new and savvy in the 1890s. And the savvy consumer bought from the savvy business. The commercial stationery’s striking visuals smartly evoke conjointly strength, female industriousness, and sensual femininity through an intentionally gendered portrayal. The letterhead does not show the typical exterior image of the firm’s factory, which was quite possibly actually run by a man. Instead, pharmaceutical equipment, an allegorical figure reminiscent of the goddess of wisdom, and a female customer using Ms. Tolke’s products are depicted. 

Decades in the making by Trustee Emeritus William H. Helfand, the collection is a goldmine of the visual and marketing rhetoric of the patent medicine trade during the 19th century. Innovative in concept, design and targeted marketing, the ephemera produced by the advertising charlatans of the patent medicine trade continues to resonate. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Helfand, Piola had the fortune to talk about the breadth and depth of a collection that speaks to our 21st-century post-truth era. A collection that is also central to our mission to be a center for the research of American culture. 

Erika Piola
Co-Director VCP at LCP

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