Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ephemera: the collector's-eye view

Plenary IV of the RBMS Preconference, held the morning of Thursday June 21, featured two presentations addressing the theme "Ephemera: Collectors and Collecting." William P. Barlow, Jr., talked about his passion for materials relating to restaurants recommended by Duncan Hines in the first half of the 20th century, and William H. Helfand presented his talk "Ephemeral Guides of the Medically Perplexed." Needless to say, I was a bit more interested in Helfand's talk than Barlow's (although, I will admit to being a lot more curious about Duncan Hines now.)

While Helfand is a well-known scholar of all sorts of medical ephemera, most of his discussion that morning centered around his collection of street guides. These guides, which contained maps or lists of the major streets of various cities, were often produced by local physicians and used as a means of advertisement for (primarily quack) medical services. Some contain essays about the latest cure-all drugs, others warn readers that they may already be suffering from dread diseases (usually fake conditions).

Helfand noted that these guides were being produced during an era when the American Medical Association frowned upon any advertising by its members, and confirmed that the medical men producing these guides were "the losers"--they were the physicians who left no other traces in the cities' medical archives. Quacks and hacks, they typically specialized in "sexual diseases" (imagine a print version of today's Viagra spammers, if you will). The guides therefore document a part of American medical practice not otherwise obvious to scholars.

The guides are useful in other ways as well: they serve to document the introduction of various drugs and therapies into the mainstream of medical practice (penicillin is first advertised in a street guide from 1947, for example), and they often contain biographical data and/or portraits of the physicians who produced them. The similarity in layout, design, and content for guides from different cities leads Helfand to surmise that a single printer (or a handful of printers) probably advertised guide production in the many city and county medical society journals then cropping up around the nation.

The guides collected by Helfand to date come from a wide range of locales, but he did note in particular that he has not yet seen any from Portland, Oregon. I notice in Summit that Oregon State University does have one Portland street guide cataloged in its Special Collections: Street number guide of Portland, Or. dated between 1910 and 1920. The physical description in the catalog record does indicate the presence of advertisements; perhaps it, like Helfand's guides, promotes a local physician as well as the City of Roses...

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