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

Fellow Spotlight: The Fighting Quaker

During my fellowship at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I conducted research that spanned the scope of my dissertation, produced a dissertation chapter that I’m currently revising for publication, and collaborated with the Library Company's staff on several public history projects.

Will Fenton. Albert M. Greenfield Foundation
Dissertation Fellow
My dissertation examines how nineteenth-century American novelists use the character of the “fighting Quaker” to engage the violence that affected settlement, slavery, and nation-building. Though historians have produced a wealth of scholarship on the Society of Friends’ vexed relation to abolitionism and the American Revolution, few literary scholars have attended to representations of Quakers, and still fewer have examined the remarkable bellicosity of these depictions. Representations of fighting Quakers unify three major but disparately studied subfields of American literary studies: the formation of race during the antebellum period, religious conflict during the Great Awakening, and the constitutive role of violence in nineteenth-century frontier narratives. My study of the historical, political, and theological representations of the Society of Friends seeks to bridge the religious and transnational turns in early American literary studies.

During my time at the Library Company, I have drafted my third chapter with centralizes on Robert Montgomery Bird’s vexing frontier narrative, Nick of Woods (1837). I propose that Bird’s protagonist can be understood in the context of the medical condition associated with his transformation (epilepsy), the religious sect with which he associates (the Society of Friends), and the archetype from which he draws features (Daniel Boone). As a novelist, Bird was a rigorous historian, and I examined the sources from which he drew portraits of the early frontiersmen Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, and Lewis Wetzel. My argument about Bird’s career arc required me to examine his notes for his “Tales of Kentucky” (at the nearby Robert Montgomery Bird Papers, University of Pennsylvania). I used the 1835 Library Company catalog to identify dozens of Kentucky histories that would have been available to Bird during his tenure at the Library Company, where he researched Nick of the Woods. This archival research has allowed me to offer a new perspective on how Bird’s career as a novelist, and his depiction of Quakers, was shaped by the specific source texts to which he had access. Since completion, I have been translating this chapter into an article that I intend to submit for consideration at American Literature.

Alongside my dissertation research, I was grateful for the opportunity to expand my digital humanities project with the support of Library Company staff and archival resources. Today, that project, Digital Paxton, hosts more than 1,600 open-source archival images, half a dozen scholarly essays, and numerous teaching materials related to the 1764 Paxton pamphlet war. Thanks to the tireless support of library James N. Green, I have crafted a material exhibition—which just opened outside the Reading Room—to complement my digital project. I was able to share both efforts at a McNeil Center for Early American Studies Seminar, hosted at the Library Company earlier this month.

Will Fenton
Albert M. Greenfield Foundation 
Dissertation Fellow

The Digital Paxton Project

Will Fenton, the 2016- 2017 Albert M. Greenfield Foundation Dissertation Fellow created Digital Paxton to support research for his first dissertation chapter and to expand awareness of and access to the Paxton Pamphlet War. In particular, he aspired to create an interdisciplinary meeting space where historians and literary scholars can share documents and methods that will enrich both scholarship and pedagogy. 

Historically, the Paxton corpus has proven difficult to define. Scholars have identified anywhere from twenty-eight to over sixty-three pamphlets, some of which have been digitized and some not, and with little rationale; in addition, inconsistent distinctions between pamphlets and political cartoons makes it difficult to locate resources. For researchers, ad hoc archiving and partial digitization make it difficult to discern derivation and to account for the contingency, exchange, and intertextuality of the pamphlets of Paxton critics and apologists. To that end, Fenton has collaborated with archivists across Pennsylvania to create a digital archive and critical edition of the pamphlet war. 

Political Cartoon form the Digital Paxton Archive 

Digital Paxton for the first time collects in one open-source repository all surviving pamphlets, broadsides, political cartoons, and correspondence related to the Paxton incident. In addition to digitization efforts by the American Philosophical Society, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections, and Moravian Archives of Bethlehem, the project has benefited from the generosity of my founding partners, the Library Company and Historical Society of Philadelphia, both of which assigned summer interns to digitize and transcribe resources.

Today, Digital Paxton features more than 1,600 free, open-source, print-quality images, many of which were previously unavailable online. As a web-based critical edition, Digital Paxton also accommodates various forms of scholarly contributions: Fenton solicited and edited historical overviews from Kevin Kenny (Boston College) Darvin L. Martin, and Jack Brubaker; conceptual keyword essays from Nicole Eustace (New York University), Scott Paul Gordon (Lehigh University), James P. Myers, Jr. (Gettysburg College), Angel-Luke O’Donnell (King’s College, London), and Judith Ridner (Mississippi State University); and teaching materials from faculty at Lehigh University, Loyola University, Shepherd University, and HSP Education.

The exhibition at the Library Company, A New Looking-Glass for the 1764 Pamphlet War, seeks to showcase some of those wonderful resources and to reframe the Paxton pamphlet war as a crisis of representation that in many ways foreshadowed the American Revolution. To increase access, he has created a digital companion that both reproduces and extends that material exhibition (

Will Fenton
Albert M. Greenfield Foundation 
Dissertation Fellow

LCP News Menu