Clark House News

Bad Medicine

by Patricia E. Johner
November 2009

One of the displays in the Historical Society’s Museum is a collection of medical instruments that once belonged to Dr. William G. Evans who practiced in Dixonville and Commodore in the 1940s and in Clymer beginning in 1954. 

One of the items in the display, a pair of worn leather saddlebags, aroused the curiosity of our newsletter editor Dorie Leathers. The saddlebags seemed too old to belong in Dr. Evans’ 20th century display. Even in rural Indiana County, physicians certainly weren’t making house calls on horseback in the 1940s and 50s. We wondered to whom the saddlebags had originally belonged. How old were they? How had they been used? 

The contents of the saddlebags gave us some clues as to their age. Each saddlebag is fitted with a leather insert that contains small pockets. Some of these pockets hold narrow, clear glass vials about four inches long. The vials are now empty. In the bottom of one saddlebag are more than a dozen packets made of sheets of heavy brown paper that have been folded repeatedly to form small packages about an inch wide. The ends of each packet are folded over to seal them. Inside several of the packets are small quantities of white or brownish powder. 

As we examined the packets, we realized that they are medicinal powders that probably were mixed with water or some other fluid in the glass vials. About half of the packets are labeled in faded ink with the ornate handwriting of an earlier century. A doctor, probably the owner of the saddlebags, or an apothecary (druggist), would mix preparations of the powders to treat various ailments. 

Some of the names on the little packages, such as “Cream of Tartar,” were easy to decipher. Others appeared to be abbreviations written in Latin. Some of the Latin words were fairly easy to translate; “cum” meaning “with” as in “magna cum laude.” “Pulvis” meaning powder from something that has been pulverized. 

Other abbreviations had us stumped. What did “Hyd Cum Creta” mean? And “Hyd Chl Mite?” To find the answers, we turned to a 19th century source—The Pharmacopoeia of the United States. We have an original 1869 edition in Helman Library. Its index lists medicinal compounds by their Latin names. “Hyd,” according to The Pharmacopoeia, is an abbreviation for “Hydrargyrum” or “Hydrargyri” the Latin word for mercury. “Creta” is chalk. Hyd Cum Creta, then, is mercury combined with chalk. “Hyd Chl Mite” is the abbreviation for Hydrargyri Chloridum Mite, a compound of mild chloride of mercury, also known as Calomel. Another packet, labeled “Sul Quinia,” is sulphate of quinine. “Pulvis Aloes” is powdered aloe. Our unknown doctor must have been treating his patients with these powders that he carried around in his special saddlebags. 

The mercury compounds helped us estimate that the saddlebags are about 150 years old. A search on the Internet reveals that physicians often used chloride of mercury, mercurous chloride (Calomel) in the United States from the 1830s to the 1860s as a disinfectant, a laxative, a treatment for syphilis, or as an agent to force patients to vomit thus ridding their bodies of “impurities.” Calomel was also used in the 1700s, most notably by famed colonial physician Dr. Benjamin Rush who introduced it to treat Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. Powdered aloe was used as a laxative, and sulphate of quinia was administered to treat neuralgia and what an early medical dictionary refers to as a “pernicious form of miasmatic fever.” Cream of tartar was prescribed as a diuretic and cathartic. 

The mercury compounds are a doubtful treatment for anything. The mercurous chloride in our saddlebags was often administered in such massive doses that the patient’s hair and teeth fell out. Mercury salts are now known to cause damage to the kidneys, central nervous system, endocrine system, and other organs. Medicinal uses of mercury were discontinued in the early 1900s when the compound’s toxicity was discovered. In Great Britain, however, mercurous chloride was added to teething powders until 1954 causing widespread mercury poisoning from which one in ten died. 

It is also illegal in the United States to import or manufacture cosmetics and skin crèmes that contain mercury compounds. Some parents are concerned about the use of Thimerosal as a preservative in vaccines because it contains small amounts of mercury. 

As he dispensed medicine from the vials and packets in his saddlebags, our 19th century physician was unknowingly violating a central tenet of the Hippocratic oath that he swore to uphold: “First do no harm.” Two chemists I consulted told me the mercury compounds in the 19th century saddlebags retain their potentially toxic properties and probably should not be handled. We have moved them to a safe place. 


The Clark House Collections Corner

by Dorie Leathers
January 2010

The recent donation of two antique dolls has generated considerable interest at the Society, not only due to their uniqueness but also because of their connection to Life Member Carl Newton. A Clark family descendant, Carl tells us that the doll pictured here belonged to Charlotte Adams Newton, a daughter of Charlotte Clark Adams and granddaughter of Silas and Clarissa Clark. We’ll never know what name was given to this well-loved doll by her young owner, so we will refer to her as “Charlotte.”

We knew that Charlotte was special the moment we first saw her. Her companion was easily identified as an early twentieth century, wooden, spring-jointed Schoenhut doll. Charlotte’s origin has proven much harder to ascertain.. She is sixteen inches long. Her body—torso, arms, and legs—are made of kid leather. Her large, brown eyes and blond, wrapped braid are set in a head of wax. Tiny bits of sawdust were noted on her damaged right foot. There was so much more to be learned about her. After a little research into the genre of antique dolls and the language used by those who are knowledgeable of them, we can say with some degree of certainty that Charlotte is a wax-over-composition, shoulder-head, gusseted, sleeping eye, bellows torso doll most likely sculpted by a nineteenth century German dollmaker. Whew! 

Dolls are classified by the material from which their heads are made. This is perhaps because doll heads have, over the centuries, been created from so many diverse materials: wood, cloth, papier-mache, wax, bisque (unglazed porcelain), china, rubber, vinyl, and plastic. The best doll heads have always been made of the most lifelike materials available at the time—wax and bisque, for example—and the most expensive dolls when new have always been European. 

In the nineteenth century, wax must have seemed the ideal material for use by early dollmakers. Warm to the touch and as close to the appearance of skin as it was then possible, wax could be beautifully sculpted and also realistically tinted. Although wax heads did not shatter when dropped, as china or bisque would, they are still delicate. They are easily crushed or scratched and the colors of their eyes, lips, or brows can be rubbed away. Wax heads also prove fragile when subjected to extreme temperature changes—cracking from cold and softening with heat. Nonetheless, during their prime, wax dolls were the most lifelike and the most costly.

Given her age—she is at least a centenarian if not older—Charlotte is in remarkably good condition. Her construction is known as “shoulder-head,” meaning that her head, neck , and shoulders form a single piece. This type of construction predates the more typical socket-head doll, with its neck resting in a cup-shaped socket. The bodies of wax dolls were generally made of stuffed cloth with wax limbs. Charlotte’s torso and limbs are made of kid leather and stuffed with a composite of sawdust and glue. Her limbs are bendable due to gusseted elbows and knees and her fingers are separately stitched. One of her most charming features is her blown glass eyes that close when she is laid on her back. These “sleeping” eyes, which became common in the later bisque dolls, were not typically found in wax dolls. 

And there is yet another unique characteristic that Charlotte has thus far remained silent about. Her kid torso is hollow and hidden inside there is a bellows or weighted mechanism that once enabled her to “talk” when she was squeezed or tilted. This mechanism that provided her “voice” is no longer in working order.

The dates usually attributed to dolls with Charlotte’s physical characteristics are anywhere from the 1860s through the 1890s. Trademarks were not used until the end of the nineteenth century. Prior to that time, dolls were marked with initials, names, or numbers. These markings are frequently located on the back of the shoulder-plate or under the wig, but can also be found on torsos, under the arms, or on the bottoms of the feet. Because it is very difficult to permanently mark a wax doll, many were marked only with affixed labels or ribbons original to the dolls leaving the names of their early makers lost to history.

Charlotte reveals no visible markings on her head, shoulders, or limbs. Searching for a marking on the back of her head or on her torso would require the removal of her wig and three layers of original clothing, all of which are glued, tacked, or securely pinned in place and have survived in that condition for over a century. If Charlotte does bear a marking, it is a secret that she intends to keep.


Articles from previous issues of the Clark House News

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