Thursday, December 19, 2013

An Artifact Scare!

     Most museums, mine included, have far more artifacts than they can display all at once.  So, the artifacts which are not in display are kept in the museum’s collection room.  Here they are stored in fairly stable environment conditions, which help to preserve them.  However, even under ideal conditions there can still be issues which arise.  This is why I routinely monitor the artifacts there.  So, when I recently discovered some whitish spots all over a large leather medical trunk, I was not at all pleased! 
This leather trunk, or pannier, was used to transport medicines and medical supplies in the Civil War.  You can see the areas of white haze on the exterior.

Things looked even worse when I checked the interior.  It looked a lot like mold!
     I took the pannier from the collection room to my conservation work room, partly in preparation for removing the mold, but also to protect the rest of the artifacts in the collection room from the mold.  Knowing that mold spores are airborne and had probably already spread through the collection room was not a pleasant thought for me though!  However, after doing some research I discovered that it was not mold after all, but was actually “fatty spew” or “fatty bloom.” 

     Fatty spew occurs when the fats and oils in the leather migrate to the surface.  Spew can be caused by issues during the tanning process of the leather, or from the application of leather products which contain oil or grease, or from environmental conditions, especially a drop in the temperature.  So, next I researched ways of getting rid of the spots.  I found a number of suggestions, but ultimately decided to try the gentlest and least-invasive method first – wiping the surface with a clean, damp sponge.
Here’s the pannier after it was cleaned.  You can see the embossed “U.S. Medical Dept.” on the front.  The top is embossed, "Jacob Dunton Inventor / Philadelphia / Patent Applied For."  Jacob Dunton was an apothecary and inventor from Philadelphia who was granted many patents for medical items including a tourniquet, bottle stopper, pill machine, and medicine wagon.

The interior looks much better now! 

This pannier has been stored with an acid-free insert to help stabilize the pannier.  The lid is the biggest concern since it otherwise would have nothing underneath to support its weight.  Leather can sag over time, and this helps to prevent that.
     I understand from my research that the fatty spew can possibly return.  So, I will be keeping a closer watch on this pannier.  If that happens I can try some different things, but I will first see if this simple fix does the trick.
Back on the shelf in the collection room, where it belongs!

     To see three different medical panniers from the Civil War, click here.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Few New Artifacts

     Sometimes instead of changing an entire exhibit, a few new items can be added.  This allows some of the artifacts to be rotated off display for a while.  It also gives our exhibits an “update” and allows our visitors to see new artifacts.   I’ve recently updated two of the exhibits at the NMCWM.  Let’s take a look at what’s on display now.

     Most of the new additions were added to the Nursing display.  Though my museum doesn’t have a large collection of artifacts associated with Civil War nurses, we are fortunate to be able to display the following items from the collection of Chris Foard.
Nurses did get breaks from their duties sometimes.  This is a three-day pass for three nurses, Miss Keen, Miss Kimbal, and Miss Morrison, from the Seminary Hospital on August 11, 1864.
Here is a stereograph card which pictures Dorothea L. Dix, who served as the Superintendent of Nurses during the Civil War.  The back of card is dated August 1865.  The twin images on stereograph cards allowed people to view images that appeared three-dimensional when the cards were seen through a hand-held viewer.
There were male nurses who served in the Civil War too.  The image on this Carte-de-Visite is identified on the back as male nurse, William E. Preston, Company I, 112th Illinois Infantry.
You might recognize the woman in this image!  Though Louisa May Alcott is most famous as an author, she was also a Civil War nurse.
This tintype shows an unidentified volunteer nurse who worked at the Armory Square Hospital in Washington D.C.  The image is dated May 1864. 
Nurse Debby Hughes is pictured in this Carte-de-Visite.  On the back of the case is a partial newspaper clipping which reads, "Death of an Army Nurse, Westchester, Pa, Monday Nov. 18.  Miss Debby Hughes, the Washington nurse, so badly injured by the recent railroad accident, died at noon to-day of tetanus."
This is an unidentified nurse from Portsmouth Grove Hospital.  The back of the image is simply labeled, “Nice Lady.”  I imagine this was written by one of her grateful patients. 
This is my personal favorite of the new artifacts on display  - a pencil drawing by Private William T. Peters, Company H, 36th New York Volunteers.  It depicts the interior of a hospital tent, and nurses at the U.S. Army Hospital at Portsmouth Grove, Rhode Island.  You can see that the artist (who was a patient there) included his unit’s designation on the haversack!
One additional item was added to the new Recruiting display as well.  You can see the white cap cover on the left side of the display.  This is called a havelock, and it covered the soldiers’ caps and necks to keep them cool and prevent sunstroke in hot weather.  The problem was that they didn’t work!  The men found that the havelocks actually made them feel hotter.  The havelocks were either discarded or put to other uses – as dish rags, coffee strainers, or even bandages.
     For a closer look at the havelock, click here.    

    So, that’s what’s new at the museum.  If you’re in area, come take a look!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Emotional Toll of War

     Last week was a first for me – I was part of the team which developed the National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s first traveling exhibit!  R. Gregory Lande, D.O.; Terry Reimer, the Director of Research for the NMCWM; and I worked together to create the exhibit titled, “The Emotional Toll of War.”  It was inspired by the recent news stories of our current soldiers who have struggled with issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and even suicide.  Civil War soldiers suffered from many of the same issues, and so this exhibit shows some of the causes of these “emotional casualties” of war.
This Currier & Ives illustration “The Soldier’s Dream of Home” depicts one of the most common afflictions for soldiers, homesickness.  Many Civil War soldiers were away from home for the first time in their lives, and didn’t know if or when they would get to see their families again.  Accounts of homesickness are documented in many newspaper articles and letters from the time of the Civil War.   
Library of Congress photo.

This Harper’s Weekly illustration from January 3, 1863 is titled “Christmas Eve 1862.” 
A more severe version of homesickness was referred to by Civil War doctors as nostalgia.  Hospital records show that there were patients admitted for nostalgia.  Nostalgia was also reported to have caused the deaths of some soldiers.  According to Potter’s Monthly Journal (1872), “During the late Civil War thousands of soldiers were afflicted with the….melancholy arising from home-sickness, and large numbers died.”
The stresses of war took their toll on the sanity of some soldiers as well.  The U.S. Government Hospital for the Insane (now called St. Elizabeth’s Hospital) in Washington D.C. saw a rise in admissions during the war.  For the year of 1860, just before the start of the Civil War, the asylum admitted 95 patients.  In 1862, 186 patients were admitted, and by 1865 they had admitted 512 new patients.
     Sadly, some soldiers became desperate enough to commit suicide.  During the period from June 1861 to August 1865, 268 suicides were reported by Army surgeons.  The Richmond Daily Dispatch of October 8, 1861 reported, “Men in war become more reckless of their lives, and attempt, through a mistaken notion, to relieve themselves of a burden too heavy to bear.”  It is an issue which we are still dealing with today.

Since the exhibit is designed to be moved to different venues, it consists of a series of informational banners.  However, we felt that adding a small display of associated artifacts would enhance the exhibit.

These medicine bottles are included in the display.  Transporting round glass bottles on a rolling cart can present a few hazards, but placing the bottles inside a box and putting strips of ethafoam between them keeps them from rolling into each other.

The display of artifacts includes the medicine bottles, some informational cards on homesickness, and letters from soldiers which include passages about homesickness, nostalgia, and suicide.  Notice that the windows behind this display are closed to protect the artifacts from the sunlight.

     This exhibit will be on display at the NMCWM through spring of 2014, after which the banners will be available for loan.  So, if you can’t make it here to see it, perhaps it will come to a museum near you!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.