This post was written by Ross MacFarlane, Chris Hilton, Chris Hassan, and Jenn Phillips-Bache of the Wellcome Library. Come meet the crew from the Wellcome Library at History day Friday the 27th of November!
Given the founder of the Wellcome Library – Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) was born in Wisconsin and lived in the United States until 1880, it is perhaps not too surprising that our collections contain a great number of fascinating items from North America. What follows is a small selection – for more on these and our other holdings, come to our stall at the IHR History Day to find out more.
On September 20th 1759, a young member of the landed gentry in Virginia sent an order for supplies to London.
The document, now held in the Wellcome Library as WMS/Amer.91, is an interesting indication of the degree to which the American colony, although now well over a century old, still relied heavily on imports from the (then) mother country. Medical supplies rub up against hardware, veterinary supplies and cookery ingredients. Adding particular interest to the shopping list is the identity of its author: the young gentleman farmer is George Washington, and twenty years later he will be embarking on his first term as President of the newly-independent United States.
The order Washington sent out is a long and detailed one, and the sheet held at the Wellcome Library may not even be the whole of it. There is a long list of tools at the start, for surveying, joinery and so forth. It is an indication of the equipment needed on the plantation and of the way that the colony was not yet able to match the workshops of Sheffield and Birmingham in supplying it.
Below this Washington moves to medical and culinary ingredients. Interestingly, these are mingled together in a style similar to that of the 17th and 18th-century recipe books held in the Library, without clear distinction between food and medicine. Some ingredients, of course, clearly belong in one category or the other: “6 Bottles Turlington’s Balsam”, “5 oz. liquid laudanum” and “5 oz. spirits sal ammoniac” are obviously medical, whilst four pounds each of pearl barley and sago and five pounds of white sugar candy leads us to the kitchen. But there are other items that could be for either purpose – “4 oz. best rhubarb” is almost certainly there as a medicine rather than a foodstuff.
At the end of the order comes a distinct section of veterinary supplies, in which Washington allows his supplier to use their discretion: “40/- worth of Medicine proper for Horses – among which let there be – 4 lb. flower of Brimstone; 4 lb. Anniseeds… & such others as are most proper.” It is to be hoped, however, that the list of medical/culinary supplies prior to this also includes things ordered for veterinary purposes: in it we find “4 oz. Spanish flies”, which are chiefly used when encouraging farm animals to mate (when crushed the beetles irritate the lining of the urethra) but also have a long and often disreputable history as a purported aphrodisiac for humans.
One sheet of paper, signed one afternoon 250 years ago by a soldier who thought his fighting days were over: but it opens vividly the world of the Virginia plantations and the colonial society whose last days were ticking away.
The prosaic nature of Washington’s list may be seen to matched by this image of a journal:
However, these are pages from one of the most unexpected treasures of the Wellcome Library the journals of Arthur Wellington Clah (1831-1916) – First Nations hereditary Tsimshian chief and later Christian missionary. Written over fifty years, from 1859 to 1910, they comprise a uniquely personal meditation of social change drawn from the tumult of European imperial adventure.
Clah grew up on an islanded bay on Canada’s northwest coast. These were the heartlands of the Tsimshian people: they grew rich on the natural wealth of their forests and waterways, and developed astounding artistic and ceremonial traditions. However, by the nineteenth century, this wealth had begun to attract the attention of European traders and in 1831 – the year of Clah’s birth – the Hudson’s Bay Company founded a trading station in the bay where Clah came to live. Named Fort Simpson, its arrival transformed the Tsimshian.
The majority of Tsimshian tribes had soon moved to Fort Simpson, to take advantage of the trade opportunities close proximity offered. Groups that were scattered now competed for social position. Victorian observers, shocked by such apparent waste and perturbed by lavish ceremonies involving the manifestation of animal spirits, decided the higher blessings of civilization should be called upon. And so in 1857 a young English missionary named William Duncan arrived, eager to bring the Word of God to the benighted of the world.
Clah became a native language instructor to Duncan and, in turn, Duncan taught Clah to read and write English. Clah was one of the first converts of Duncan’s hugely successful mission, which was to lead to the founding of a separate Tsimshian Christian community in Alaska named Metlakahtla that still exists to this day. Clah took up missionary work himself, preaching to villages deep in the forests of Canada and far north in the Alaskan tundra. Such ventures are recorded in his journals, which take the form of a highly personal history of the Tsimshian people. Everyday observations of the weather and of town life in Fort Simpson and Metlakahtla sit alongside reflections upon his faith and the transformation of the beliefs and practices of the Tsimshian. He writes of the banning of the potlatch and traditional winter ceremonies, and of the interweaving of these customs with the newly adopted Christian religion.
After his death, Clah’s journals were purchased by Henry Wellcome. Wellcome had been a committed supporter of Metlakahtla and regarded Clah’s journals as something of a protogenic testament to literate cultural progress. What is certain is that, in the words that Clah set down, the great changes the Tsimshian experienced are given powerful and lasting voice.
Wellcome – born in the mid-west in the traditional lands of the Sioux – was fascinated by Native American cultures. His collections included thirteen first generation prints of the outstanding photographs produced of Native American peoples by Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952), a legendary American photographer, writer, and pioneering ethnographic filmmaker. Remarkable both as artworks and ethnographic studies, they are a vital record of traditions that were fast being eroded and transformed.
Similarly, we also have a series of pastel portraits, commissioned by Wellcome from the artist W. Langdon Kihn in the 1920s. The motivation was similar to the aims of Curtis’s work: capture representations of a culture before it disappeared.
We are not sure he would approve – Wellcome was an abstainer from alcohol – but our last item will help any Fourth of July party go with a swing, a work from 1878 entitled American & other drinks. Its author – one Leo Engel – was an expat New Yorker who worked as bartender in London’s esteemed Criterion Restaurant (which had opened five years earlier).
Engel makes claims for the quality of the 200 or so recipes in his book, eve alleging that the The Baltimore Egg Nogg, despite its mix of brandy or rum and Madeira, gives the would-be drinker hope for the Morning After:
Egg Nogg made in this manner is digestible and will not cause headache. It makes an excellent drink for debilitated persons and a nourishing diet for consumptives.
In the spirit of the season of good will to all that will soon be upon us, this item is one of the growing number of works from our holdings which has been digitised and made available from our website.
We look forward to talking about our work on this front as well as other Wellcome Library projects which could aid your research, on the 25th at the IHR History Day.