Frames of Destruction

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Iron spear from a chevaux-de-frise for river use (Accession#1944.04.01/A37)

During my time at Mariners’ I have frequently been intrigued by an odd looking object in one of our storage areas but time wasn’t always available to learn more about it.  That recently changed for one object when I spent several months researching the history behind a piece that has always intrigued me—a large, bent, barbed, piece of iron–the spear of a chevaux-de-frise.

For those of you thinking “chev-o-de-what?”, chevaux-de-frise are those long lines of angled sharpened posts you sometimes see on historic battlefields.  They were used as obstructions to prevent cavalry from overrunning a defensive line.  For those of you who already know what they are and are asking yourself “how can one of those defend a river?”, that’s where the interesting story lies!    Read more

Pandemics and … Soupy Island?

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A boy on the dock, perhaps waiting for his turn to go to Soupy Island! July 4, 1937. Eldredge Collection, MS0091.

Updating records for our online catalog (, in case you’d like to know), I came across a curious image of an excursion steamer and a rather heartwarming story I’d like to share with you. It’s the story of how a city in the midst of the tuberculosis pandemic and periodic cholera outbreaks, came to help its poorest inner-city kids. It’s the story of a place called Soupy Island. The steamer is the Elizabeth Monroe Smith.

As you know, American cities in the 19th century and into the 20th century were often great places for communicable diseases to break out. The density of the population, the lack of medicines, the influx of immigrants from other places, all made the likelihood of outbreaks to be much higher than out in the countryside. Philadelphia was no exception to this.   Read more

Artifact of the Month – Medicine Chest

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Physician For Ships
Physician For Ships

One thing a lot of people from my generation have a hard time relating to is how cut off from the world people were when they set out to sea in years past. Now we have access to the internet almost everywhere we go, giving us the ability to communicate with our loved ones and to seek immediate answers for our questions on Google. This point was really brought home when I began researching one of our medicine chests.  Because ships could be out to sea for such long periods of time and were unlikely to have anyone with extensive medical knowledge, they would carry medicine chests with a book of instructions on how to identify and medicate various maladies.  The different medicines would be numbered so that they could be easily identified and administered.  For example, if one had stomach cramps, perhaps the cure was two drops of #3 and one drop of #7.  And when they began to run out of medicine, they would get creative and instead of two drops of #3, maybe one drop of #6.  And some poor sailor had to find out the hard way what the repercussions of that would be.

The above chest is from ca 1830’s and was used on the whaler Rousseau. Rousseau was built by Nicholas Vandusen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for Stephen Girard, a wealthy banker. She was launched in 1801 and continued to serve as a merchant vessel for Girard until 1831 when she was sold to George Howland and turned into whaling vessel. Rousseau had a rather long life for a ship and continued whaling ventures until retiring in 1886 and being broken up in 1891.

This medicine chest was made by a company whose name changed as often as its owner.  The company was started in 1831 in New Bedford, Massachusetts by a man named Benjamin C. Taber who sold it about 1835 to a Dr. Tompkins and Brother.  Not sure of the identity of the brother as I haven’t found him named in any of the documents.  Whatever his name, when the brother died, James E. Blake, who had been an employee of the shop, became Dr. Tompkins’ partner.

When Dr. Tompkins died in 1853, Blake took over the business.  He briefly took another partner, Frank R. Hudley, before once again becoming sole owner.  Upon his retirement in 1907, Blake sold the business to his son, George A. Blake.  Trade cards for all of the men who owned this company at some point or another can be found on the inside of the case, shown in the picture below.