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Every man his own doctor': popular medicine in early America: an exhibition drawn from the Collections of Charles E. Rosenberg.

William H. Helfand, and the Library Company of Philadelphia. [Philadelphia]: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1998. [ii], 64 pp.; $10.00 U.S. (paper). ISBN 0-914076-93-0.

Far from casting off all that relates to books and print, the millennial fever of our electronic age has in many ways served to excite an intense interest in book history and print culture. No longer content even to examine print materials as items of commerce, book historians have joined earlier scholars in exploring the interactions between print and oral cultures and in considering more generally the role of print in popular culture.

Indicative of this latter interest in particular is the exhibition on popular medicine mounted at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the venerable institution begun by Benjamin Franklin in the 1730s. Running from April to November 1998, the exhibition presents printed items from the private collections of Charles E. Rosenberg and William H. Helfand together with those held by the Library Company of Philadelphia. As a distinguished historian of medicine, Charles Rosenberg approaches this nineteenth-century material with finesse: he has written authoritatively on medical books for domestic use and on hygiene textbooks for the classroom. William Helfand is a recognized collector of medical ephemera, which he often donates or exhibits in major venues such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Library of Medicine.

This new exhibition at the Library Company thus marks an impressive collaboration in compiling and interpreting print material published for the popular reader in the United States before 1870. Rosenberg and Helfand have arranged works by their function (guides to health and advertising vehicles) and then by their main subject or form. `The Book in the Sickroom' therefore displays substantial publications in domestic and folk medicine; lifestyle; midwifery and nursing; women's medicine and child care; botanic medicine; other sectarian medicine; mental hygiene and phrenology; and finally, sex and birth control. `Advertising Health to the People' presents more fugitive material: newspapers and magazines; broadsides; books, pamphlets, and almanacs; labels; large broadsides and posters.

The exhibition catalogue does not reproduce the detailed descriptions actually accorded each item in the exhibition; rather, it does something much more valuable in providing complementary essays by the key organizers. After noting in `The Book in the Sickroom: A Tradition of Print and Practice' that books for personal management of health and disease have a long history, Rosenberg refers to sample publications to show how nineteenth-century America developed'a new kind of mass market in printed consumables' (p.5) -- one that included a strong demand for medical information. In `Advertising Health to the People,' Helfand surveys the various media in which promoters hawked their medical wares and services; in so doing, he traces the technical advances that allowed them to dramatize their message through colour illustrations and large broadsides. Both essays are well-illustrated with examples from the collection itself, including several remarkably colourful lithographs and woodcuts. The catalogue then concludes with a checklist of exhibition books and prints prepared by James N. Green of the Library Company. Its value, then, lies not only in capturing a limited event for a wide audience but also in offering a useful synopsis of the myriad forms that popular medical literature took in the United States in this period.
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Publication:Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
Words:541
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