Thursday, July 24, 2014

Clara Barton's Bed, Part 2

     Researching the history of an artifact is one of the favorite aspects of my job, especially when I am able to find new information.  I love being able to discover the story behind an artifact!  Sometimes though, the search is like putting together puzzle pieces, and sometimes my search takes me in directions I didn’t expect.  That’s what happened when I started researching Clara Barton’s Civil War trunk bed a couple of weeks ago.  If you missed Part 1 about this trunk bed, you may want to take a quick look at it here.    

We didn’t have much information about the trunk bed when it arrived, so I was pleased to find this label, which named the donor and the city of origin, inside the trunk.  This gave me a good starting point!

     The Dr. Julian B. Hubbell mentioned on the label worked with Clara Barton as the first American Red Cross Chief Field Agent, and served in the Red Cross from 1881 until 1904.  He stayed with Clara at her Glen Echo home until her death in 1912.  Afterwards, the home (along with many of Clara Barton’s things) came into his possession.  He passed away in 1929 and willed his home and the Barton possessions to his nieces, Rena and Lena Hubbell.  His obituary in the Lawrence Daily Journal-World newspaper stated that, "Many of the priceless possessions in the Dr. Hubbell home, formerly owned by Clara Barton, will be given to the American Red Cross Museum, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian."  Rena Hubbell donated the trunk bed to the Red Cross in 1931.  So, the trunk bed’s ownership can be clearly traced from its original owner, Clara Barton, to its current owner, the American Red Cross.

     Next I focused on the Philadelphia firm mentioned on the label.  My hope was to find the name of the trunk bed’s maker.  Many times (but not always) manufacturers put an identification mark on their products, so I started examining the trunk more closely.

I was quite happy when I spotted some text embossed in the leather on one end of the trunk!  It was difficult to read all of it, but I discovered that if I used a small LED flashlight at an angle to the trunk’s surface the letters became clearer.

      The first line of letters was mostly covered by the orange label you see in the photo.  I was only able to see “W. B. ST….”  I was really wishing that label had been placed somewhere else on the trunk!  The second line of letters was much clearer, and I was excited to discover that it read, “PATENT JUNE 11, 1861.”  Finding a patent date is like striking gold; that information is easily accessed!  It also helped to place the trunk in the Civil War period.  The last line of text was somewhat obscured by a small section of scuffed leather, but the first section was easy to read, “NO 1 WARREN….”  It looked like an address, so I concentrated on the remaining letters, expecting to find that it read either ‘Philadelphia’ or ‘PA.’  Once I finally lit up that section well enough to read though, I discovered that it read, “… ST. NY.”  The trunk wasn’t from Philadelphia after all, it was from New York!

     Next I went to my computer to look up that patent date.  I found this entry: “Trunk convertible into a bedstead, W.B. Strong.  Patent #32,536.”  Now I had the maker’s name!  I also was able to look up Mr. Strong’s description of the trunk bed, and his diagram of it.  The description not only specified how to set up the trunk bed, it also contained other useful information.  Let’s take a look at part of the description.

     "Be it known that I, W. B. Strong, of the city, county, and State of New York, have invented a new and useful Combination of an Army-Trunk and Bedstead or Couch; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description....

     The object of this invention is to combine a trunk and bedstead in such a manner that the trunk may have nearly its usual available capacity for the reception of clothing and still admit of being readily converted into a bedstead when the latter is required.

     The invention is designed for the use of the army officers and such members thereof as are allowed to carry trunks and who, while occupying the tents of a flying camp, cannot be generally provided with anything in the way of a bedstead to keep them elevated above the surface of the ground.”

     So, this trunk bed wasn’t designed specifically for Clara Barton.  It was designed and sold for army officers.  That actually makes more sense, as it would have been readily available for her to purchase.

Figure 1 is a longitudinal section of the trunk bed which was referred to in the patent description.

     “[The] trunk which may be constructed of leather placed over a wood box in the usual way.  The trunk, however, instead of opening at one side, as usual, opens at one end....admitting when necessary, of being turned entirely over so as to rest upon the ground....

     The lids....may be formed of light wooden frames covered with cloth, and to the inner side of the lid.... there are attached straps....which are secured to the inner side of said lid.

     The two parts....of the trunk receive clothing as usual, and in one of them an india-rubber placed, said mattress when required for use being inflated with air.  The mattress when not inflated may be folded within a small compass.”

     Did you catch that last part?  There was an AIR MATTRESS used with the trunk bed!  The fact that there were air mattresses used during the Civil War was news to me (and no doubt will be good news to my re-enactor friends!).  Unfortunately, there is no remnant of an air mattress contained in this trunk bed, but I will certainly be on the lookout for one now.

     “When the placed on the parts....the frame....of [the] unfolded and the legs adjusted downward to support said frame in an inclined position, as shown clearly in Fig. 1.   

     This frame....forms the pillow of the couch, and when unfolded adds materially to the length of the couch.

     There may be four or six desired, four at least must be used.  These bars....form a frame to receive a cloth...., which may be of light india-rubber cloth or any water-proof fabric.

     When necessary or preferable the waterproof cover....may be dispensed with and a mosquito net substituted for it.” 

     If you will recall the photos from Part 1, there was some blue mosquito netting contained inside Clara Barton’s trunk bed.  There was no other cover inside the trunk, but the mention of the india rubber cloth brought to mind one of the artifacts which was found at her Missing Soldiers Office.

This is a Civil War shelter half, stamped “U.S. Sanitary Commission” which was found with Clara Barton’s items at the Missing Soldiers Office.  It has a rubber backing to make it waterproof.  Normally this item would have been carried by a soldier, and fastened together with another shelter half to form a whole tent for two soldiers.  When this shelter half was found, there was some speculation as to why it was in Clara’s possession.  Is it possible that this was used as the “waterproof cover” for her trunk bed?  It’s certainly a topic which is worth more research!  Artifact is owned by the U.S. General Services Administration.

     I also found that though Mr. Strong lived in New York in 1861 when he applied for the patent, by 1862 he had opened a business in Washington D.C.

Here is an advertisement from the maker of Clara Barton’s trunk bed from the 1862 "Boyd's Washington and Georgetown directory: containing a business directory of Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria."  His New York origin is apparent in his reference to “New York prices.”

     This was definitely an interesting and educational research session!  It has certainly given the NMCWM some good information to include in our new Clara Barton exhibit.  Watch for that to be completed in the near future!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.


  1. Having dealt with this piece for the number of years while I was an employee of the American Red Cross, I am thoroughly excited about the Patent Information discovery. We in the ARC who uncovered the blue mosquito netting were wild with excitement--the "air mattress" info is an equally compelling discovery. Wonderful, & thanks from all of us who love Miss Barton's history!

  2. Discovering that mosquito netting must have been very exciting - I would have loved to have been there for that!

  3. Bravo for this fascinating investigation! As you, I adore deciphering the history of medical antiques. Thank you for this good moment of reading.

  4. Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained!
    matters for air