Normally my role in creating the exhibits focuses more on the specific artifacts involved – if they are suitable to exhibit, if they require any conservation done, if they require any special environmental conditions, and if the mounts used are appropriate for them. I do get to create some small displays though. One display I do on a regular basis is located at Fort Detrick, which is not far from the museum. A theme for the display is suggested to me, then I have to find items which fit the theme, are available, and which will fit into the display case. Sometimes a little research into the artifacts is required, then labels have to be printed, and mounts or supports located or made for the artifacts.
Since the display space is limited I generally use a mixture of smaller artifacts and photographs of larger items. This also makes it easier for me to transport the artifacts, since they generally fit into one or two boxes. I do have to be careful about the types of boxes I use. Of course they are always acid free and have reinforced corners, and the lids are always tied on to prevent accidents. Last time I was delivering artifacts though, I discovered an issue I hadn’t previously considered. I had all the artifacts packed into one large, shallow, rectangular box. As I carried it toward the building, I noticed a young soldier who was watching and grinning broadly. I thought that perhaps he’d heard there were new artifacts coming in and he wanted to see them first. However, as I came closer to him he asked excitedly, “Are we getting cake?” It hadn’t occurred to me before, but it did look quite a bit like a cake box! I felt a little bad for getting his hopes up, but it certainly wasn’t intentional!
|This is the current display. It shows some Civil War medicines which are not used today or are not used for the same purposes.|
Let’s take a closer look at the current display. At the far left is a medicine bottle which contained lead acetate, also called sugar of lead. Lead acetate was used in the Civil War as a pain reliever, to promote sleep, to quiet coughs, to reduce spasms from tetanus and colic, and as a gargle for throat lesions. As with other lead compounds, it is toxic, and it is no longer in use.
Next is a prescription for opium. Opium was used in the Civil War in various forms to relieve pain, control diarrhea, and to alleviate spasms. Although opium is still used today, it is certainly not used as a remedy for diarrhea!
The small green bottle is Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and behind it is a reproduction of a Mrs. Winslow’s bottle label. This remedy, which contained 65 mg of morphine per fluid ounce, was used for a variety of complaints, but it was mainly marketed as an aid to relieve teething pain for babies. Unfortunately, its “soothing” properties sometimes had fatal results in young children. It was sold in the U.S. until the early 1900s.
Sometimes doctors and soldiers used local plants which were thought to have medicinal properties. Some were actually fairly effective. In the center is a description of some herbal remedies used at the time, along with pictures of the plants. Pictured in the display are ginger, hops, horseradish, mayapple, pomegranate, and sassafras.
At the back of the display are a bottle of silver nitrate and a syringe. Silver nitrate was used to treat sexually transmitted diseases, and the large syringe next to it was to inject it into the urethra. (I know you guys are cringing now!) Sexually transmitted diseases, mainly syphilis and gonorrhea, were common in both armies in the Civil War. Rest, diet, and injections of various metal or mercury compounds were typical treatments. None of these treatments are used today, as they are ineffective.
The book on the right side of the display shows a diagram of an apparatus designed to produce mercurial vapor, to which a patient’s skin would be exposed. The photograph next to it (see below) shows the unfortunate results of a patient treated with mercury. During the Civil War, various mercury-based drugs were used as laxatives, to combat liver disease, typhoid fever, diarrhea, venereal disease, skin diseases, and more. This is certainly another reason to be glad we live today and not back then!
This display usually is changed every few months, so it’s nearly time for me to think about updating it. Perhaps this time when I deliver the artifacts I should bring along a cake as well!
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.