Slings and Arrows

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

Commercially printed greetings for Valentine’s Day appeared in the United States in the first part of the 19th century. Although most printed valentines expressed sentimental attachment, a tradition of sending comic cards developed, especially in Great Britain and the United States. Postcards became popular early in the 20th century and offered an inexpensive way to send these greetings.

Our doctor and druggist valentine postcards. Click to enlarge.

Our doctor and druggist valentine postcards. Click to enlarge.

At first glance, these postcards with their skewering verses do not seem to be valentines at all; a look at the reverse of the card, however, demonstrates that they were meant as such. As Bill Helfand, a notable collector of medical and pharmaceutical ephemera, notes in his article “Pharmaceutical and Medical Valentines,” many of these valentines were issued in sets, and our two caricature valentines were part of a set.

The reverse side of a valentine.

The reverse side of a valentine. Click to enlarge.

Our doctor and druggist cards arrived last winter as a gift from a donor with a longstanding interest in ephemera, along with a reprint of Bill Helfand’s article, which contains a checklist on which both of these valentines appear. The short verses on the two cards malign the doctor and the druggist as potentially criminal dispensers of drugs and alcohol, rather than as professionals with the health of their patients in mind. “There is little in any of these greetings to suggest the professional role that the pharmacist or the physician played in the community at the time,” Helfand reminds us, “But, of course, that was not the intent at all.”


William H. Helfand, “Pharmaceutical and Medical Valentines,” Pharmacy in History 20:3 (1978), pp. 101-110.

New Year’s Luck—and How to Keep Safe, 1950s Style

Bert Hansen, professor of history at Baruch College and author of Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media Images and Popular Attitudes in America, wrote today’s guest post. Dr. Hansen will give a Friends of the Rare Book Room talk, “Louis Pasteur: Exploring His Life in Art,on January 14. Join the Friends and register for the talk by clicking here.

At the start of every New Year, people’s attention turns to health and safety (a popular New Year’s resolution is to lose weight). And as we again confront the passage of time, thinking about what’s permanent and what is not, ephemera come to mind. Printed materials of temporary use, when they have luckily been saved and not casually discarded, are especially important for historians as sources to understand ordinary people’s life in the past.

In that spirit, it is a pleasure to share with blog followers a sampling of Lucky Safety Cards from the 1950s, recently donated to NYAM’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

Card 45, featuring Popeye.

Card 45, featuring Popeye. Click to enlarge.

Distributed free in newspapers around 1953, these 2-by-4-inch cards featured characters from popular comic strips and offered ways to be smart and prevent accidents.1 Although children appear in the frame with such cartoon characters at Popeye, Dagwood Bumstead, and the Katzenjammer Kids, it seems likely the messages were aimed at adults as well since people of all ages read newspaper comic strips assiduously.

With vivid two-color printing and graphic styles characteristic of the time, these little collectibles vividly illustrate the history of a popular public health campaign in the decade after World War II. It may not be a coincidence that during the war, cartoon and comic strip figures had been used on health and safety posters and in military instruction and recruitment.2

Modern readers may be struck by the formality of language and styles of dress, quite different than the comics’ drawing styles and casual language used from the 1960s onward. And if the points appear less flashy than modern public service announcements, we would still do well to heed most of their concerns. Each card supplements the illustration with two short texts: a very brief general rule at the bottom (suitable for memorization, perhaps) and a more concrete explanation within the frame. The rules were often puns or contained a rhyme.

“Caution, care, and common sense / eliminate home accidents.”
“Use your ears, eyes, and knows.”
“The right-of-way isn’t worth dying for.”
“Don’t learn the traffic laws by accident.”
“A slip for a trip / may break a hip.”

Each card carried a safety slogan number from 1 to 48 identifying its message (and perhaps encouraging people to collect a complete set), along with a unique serial number. The serial numbers were part of a lottery offering cash prizes. Readers were advised to check for the winning numbers in the newspaper.

It is not clear how many newspapers distributed Lucky Safety Cards. All the examples in NYAM’s collection come from three newspapers: the Albany Times-Union, the Baltimore News-Post and American, and the New York Journal-American.

The Academy holds 31 of the 48 published cards. Missing numbers are 5, 12, 13, 16, 17, 19, 21, 24, 26, 28, 29, 31, 33, 34, 37, 39, and 40. If you have one of the missing cards and want to help fill the seventeen gaps in the set, donations will be warmly received and greatly appreciated.

Although in the truest sense of the word, these cards were ephemeral, historians and artists now—and long into the future—will have permanent access to them thanks to modern conservation and preservation practices in the Academy Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

April 2014 update:

Thanks to a “New Yorker who enjoys flea markets,” our set of Lucky Safety Cards is one card closer to completion. Here’s card No. 24 from the set.

Lucky Safety Card 24. Click to enlarge.

Lucky Safety Card 24. Click to enlarge.

April 2017 update:

Our collection now includes cards 13, 17, 29, and 39, thanks to Diane DeBlois and Robert Harris. Just 12 more cards to go!


1. For a handy orientation to the wide range of advice and information in comics formats, see Sol Davidson, “Educational Comics: A Family Tree,” in the open-access journal ImageTexT 4:2, Supplement (2008) at

2. Michael Rhode, “She may look clean, but. . . .  Cartoons Played an Important Role in the Military’s Health-Education Efforts during World War II,” Hogan’s Alley, 8 (Fall 2000).

Two entries in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine ed. by Michael Sappol, Bethesda, MD: National Library of Medicine / New York: Blast Books, 2012:  “Malaria Pinup Calendars (1945): Frank Mack, for the U.S. Army,” on pp. 172-173, by Sport Murphy, and “Commandments for Health (1945): Hugh Harman Productions, for the U.S. Navy,” on pp. 174-175, by Michael Rhode.

Many fascinating examples are listed in a ten-page finding aid for materials in the Otis Archives Collections, “Cartoons and Comics in the National Museum of Health and Medicine” by Michael Rhode, which may be accessed in PDF format at

“Most Wonderful and Glorious Collection of Anatomical Matter in the World:” Popular Anatomy at NYAM; Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy

Grand Anatomical Museum

“Six splendid female figures, size of life… the EXQUISITE FORM in all its natural delicacy… and consummate BEAUTY which ever has and ever will captivate the heart of man.”

Above is a fantastic piece of ephemera housed in the NYAM Historical Collections which was recently brought to my attention by Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts at NYAM.

This is a handbill advertising New York City’s Grand Anatomical Museum, one of the many for-profit, open to the pubic anatomical museums which were operating in New York and other European and American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These collections were popular with the general public; they were both educational and spectacular, and often showcased objects of a titillating bent such as beautiful, unclothed wax women with real hair and glass eyes called Florentine, Parisian or anatomical Venuses (more on these fabulous creatures here), human freaks and–at a time when syphilis was both widespread and incurable–lurid wax depictions of genitalia deformed by venereal disease. These last could be found, more often then not, in a special “gentleman’s only” chamber.

Such museums were initially lauded by the medical establishment as excellent for laymen and medics alike. However, by the late 19th century, they became increasing associated with “quack” medical practitioners, who would use them as an kind of advertisement for their often mercury-based cures for sexuality transmitted diseases. Eventually, most of these museums were closed down–or even destroyed–under anti-obscenity laws.

Grand Anatomical Museum 2

You can find out more about popular anatomical museums in this article and book by Michael Sappol, who will be participating in NYAM’s upcoming Festival of Medical History and Arts on October 5th.  They were also explored in The Wellcome Collection’s 2009 exhibition Exquisite Bodies (for which I acted as curatorial consultant), and Maritha Rene Burmeister’s wonderful dissertation on the topic.

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.