Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Let's Get the Lead Out, or Why Paints and Drugs Do Mix

Philadelphia was home to many early chemical and paint companies. The nineteenth century found these two industries to be integrally related by virtue of the fact that alcohol was a prime ingredient in both. One paint company, the John Lucas Works, prepared a green paint “heavier in body, and at the same time, when used by workmen, not detrimental to their health.” There was obviously no truth in advertising laws at that time, and these same workmen were at constant risk. The effect of lead poisoning was primarily due to absorption of the lead base by the painter and secondarily by anyone who lived within the confines of the painted house. Children chewing upon window sills laced with lead paint were especially vulnerable. Although not recognized at that time, lead, a potent neurotoxin, without proper precautions and with chronic exposure, was potentially lethal. However, this was the Victorian era, and that was the state of the art!
Although nothing of an historical nature has been written concerning Robert Baker, John Moore and Benjamin V. Mein, much can be gleaned from their illustrated advertisements. Their original building, located at 621 Market Street (rear entrance at 612 Commerce Street), was a rather dilapidated affair. The company touted itself as being a wholesale druggist and sole proprietor of the First National White Lead and Color Works. It can be seen below on an 1873 philatelic cover from my personal collection.

First National White Lead and Color Works philatelic cover, 1873. Collection of Dr. Gus Spector.

As a volunteer at the Library Company I was given the very pleasant task of providing an electronic transcription of a large number of medically-oriented billheads from the William H. Helfand Graphic Popular Medicine Stationery Collection, donated by Mr. Helfand, a former Library Company of Philadelphia Board President and Trustee Emeritus. As a physician, I found this challenging, attempting to decipher the nineteenth-century handwriting and  unraveling the names of proprietary drugs unfamiliar in today's medical lexicon. As a collector of illustrated Philadelphia paper  memorabilia, I found the collection most fascinating.

Within the Library Company’s collection was an illustrated billhead dated June 1887 showing the fa├žade of the Barker, Moore and Mein Company, relocated to 609 Market Street. The new Market Street building was a much more imposing six story Italianate edifice. The busy street scene in front of the building suggested a most prosperous business. 

Barker, Moore & Mein billhead, 1887. Helfand Graphic Popular Medicine Stationery Collection. Library Company of Philadelphia.

Barker, Moore and Mein were masters of merchandising. An 1877 billhead from the Helfand Collection proclaimed that, not only were they purveyors of lead paint, but manufactured numerous other semi-related products such as Barker’s Vegetable Horse, Cattle and Poultry Powder; Barker’s Nerve and Bone Liniment; and Barker’s Brazilian Shoe Dressing. Since the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 had not yet been conceived, it was anyone’s guess as to the actual composition of these products. The handwritten invoice seen here listed the sale of such sundry products as cologne, castor oil, Wright’s Liver Pills, and paregoric. 

Barker, Moore & Mein billhead, 1887. Helfand Graphic Popular Medicine Stationery Collection. Library Company of Philadelphia.
As part of their advertising campaign, Barker published a “Komic Almanac” that could be personalized for other companies with “your name and business printed on the cover.”  The 1893 philatelic cover from my collection seen below promised “a book containing nearly 150 pictures, side splitters and button bursters”. Unfortunately, as was common at the time, many of the cartoons contained within depicted extreme racial slurs.

Barker's Komic Almanac philatelic cover, 1893. Collection of Dr. Gus Spector.

It is indeed interesting to view the drug industry as stemming from a paint factory lineage. The advent of chemical engineering and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 gave rise to the disappearance of the mystique of Victorian homeopathy as the mainstay of pharmaceutical treatment. When the scientific technology became available, the only extra added essential ingredient was human ingenuity.

Gus Spector, M.D.
Library Company Volunteer

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