Launched? Check! Library’s New Digital Collections & Exhibits Website

By Robin Naughton, Head of Digital


Content inventory complete? Check.

New and enhanced scans created?  Check.

Content migration complete? Check.

All collections uploaded to repository? Check.

All metadata confirmed? Check.

Backend infrastructure secured? Check.

Design complete?  Check.

Quality assurance complete? Check.

Sign-off? Check.

Then, we’re ready for take-off.

Let’s launch!

We are very excited to announce the launch of our new digital collections and exhibits website.

Starting in 2016, we began working with Islandora, an open-source framework that provides a robust infrastructure for digital collection development.  Our goal was to migrate old collections and develop new digital collections.  Islandora offered a solution that was extensible, easy to use, and built on a foundation that included a preservation-quality repository (Fedora), one of the most extensible content management systems (Drupal), and a fast search (Solr).   With this base, we set about designing the interface, migrating and developing collections, and working to build a digital collection website that would make it easy for the public to explore the amazing collections available at the Library.

You can find us at

The homepage of the website will be your guide to our collections.  There you will find a showcase of our treasures from rare medieval manuscripts to 19th century advertising cards.  From the homepage, you can access a collection by clicking on the image for that collection, search for particular terms using the search box on the right, and browse recently added collections just below the search.  As you explore a collection, you will find that some use the Internet Archive BookReader to provide the experience of turning the pages of a book, while others appear similar to image galleries.  Regardless of the collection design, you can learn more from the descriptive metadata below the object, zoom in on a specific area, and download a copy of the image.

William H. Helfand Collection of Pharmaceutical Trade Cards

The William H. Helfand Collection of Pharmaceutical Trade Cards was donated to the Library between 1986 and 1992 by Mr. Helfand, a leading collector of medical ephemera.  The collection includes approximately 300 colored cards produced in the United States and France in the mid-nineteenth century that advertised a variety of goods. For example, if you’d like a cure for your corns and bunions, then “Ask Your Druggist for Hanson’s Magic Corn Salve.”  Maybe you’d like a solution that will work for multiple ailments such as “Ayer’s Cathartic Pills: the Country Doctor.”   Whatever your ailment, chances are pretty good you will find something in this collection that offers a solution.

As part of the Library’s early digitization efforts and grant funding in the early 2000s, half of the collection was digitized.  This project digitized the rest of the collection.  For the first time, the complete collection, duplicates and all, is available to the public.  Researchers and the general public can explore these trade cards in new and novel ways to gain an understanding of the collection as a whole.

The majority of the metadata on the cards are hyperlinked so that users can easily find information.  For example, if you were interested in a particular manufacturer such as “D. Jayne and Son,” then you can click on that manufacturer’s name to find all the cards associated with that manufacturer.  Also, if you’re curious about all the cards with cats or dogs, then you can search the collection for “cats” to see how many cats appear on trade cards or “dogs” for the number of dogs in our collections.  Let us know how many cats or dogs you find!

Rare and Historical Collections


The website includes a glimpse into our rare and historical collections material.   In one day, high-end photographer, Ardon Bar-Hama, courtesy of George Blumenthal, took photos of a subset of the Library’s treasures.  For example, if you’re interested in cookery, you can page through our Apicius manuscript with 500 Greek and Roman recipes from the 4th and 5th centuries.  Maybe you’re interested in Aristotle’s Masterpiece, or you just want to see the most beautiful anatomical images from Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani corporis Fabrica, or a skunk-cabbage (Symplocarpus Fœtida) hand-colored plate from William P. C. Barton’s Vegetable Materia Medica.  Whatever the interest, this collection offers a broad range of materials from the Library.

Launched? Check!

Celebrate Valentine’s Day with 19th-century Medical Trade Cards

By Becky Filner, Head of Cataloging

During the last two decades of the 19th century, the United States witnessed an explosion of mass-market advertising in the form of trade cards. A combination of factors contributed. Lithography, first invented in the late 1700s, made it practical to print large runs of images relatively inexpensively. Heavy paper became less expensive because it was being made from bleached wood pulp instead of cloth. The invention of the camera supplied endless images for reproduction. Advances in high-speed steam presses made it practical to mass produce trade cards, and new modes of transportation made it possible to distribute them throughout the country.[1]


This medical trade card for Pond’s Bitters (“cures constipation, headache, indigestion, biliousness, malaria, dyspepsia”) encourages the couple depicted to focus on each other and “let the dog have the lunch!”[2]

The cards pictured here are all from an extraordinary new collection. Late last year, the Academy library received The Bingham Patent Medicine Collection as a bequest. This rich collection – a complement to our William Helfand Collection of trade cards – contains approximately 4,900 trade cards produced by pharmaceutical manufacturers in the 19th century.

These cards advertising “El Tricofero de Barry” and “Pildoritas de Reuter” were printed in New York by Barclay & Co., but the text is in Spanish. Click to enlarge.

The late Walker Bingham was a completist, and his carefully assembled collection reflects years of assiduous collecting and research. An announcement will be made when the collection is available to the public. Meanwhile, have a look at Bingham’s book, The Snake-Oil Syndrome: Patent Medicine Advertising, for more of his cards and an excellent overview of pharmaceutical advertising. Here he writes of patent medicine:

It is probable that most of the nineteenth century patent medicines had no effect at all on the diseases that they were sold to cure. They were not even palliatives. Some sufferers may have been misled into taking patent medicines instead of more effective (and possibly more expensive) drugs prescribed by a doctor, but generally speaking, at that stage of medical learning there was often little that any doctor could do for a patient with a serious disease except give emotional support.[3]

The medicines that did have more than a placebo effect often relied on ingredients like morphine, cocaine, heroin, opium, chloroform, and alcohol. These drugs were especially dangerous when given to children or self-administered in large doses. The patent medicine business was booming in the late 19th century, and it relied heavily on advertising to attract customers since the medicines were ineffectual at best. In addition to trade cards, patent medicine companies produced millions of newspaper ads, almanacs, show cards, and other mailing pieces.

Most trade cards were designed to appeal to women and children, with sentimental images of animals, flowers, babies, families, and scenery.[4] The Valentine’s Day images below fall into this category, with roses, doves, and cherubs promoting Brown’s Iron Bitters (“Cures Malaria, Dyspepsia, Weakness, &c.”), Burdock Blood Bitters (“It makes pure, healthy blood, and regulates all the organs to a proper action, cures constipation, liver and kidney complaint, female weakness, nervous and general debility, and all the distressing miseries from which two-thirds of the women in American are suffering”), Boschee’s German Syrup (“No person suffering with consumption, coughs, colds, croup, bronchitis, asthma, or any disease of the throat, lungs or chest can take it without getting immediate relief”), and Wilson’s Popular Corn Salve (we are not told what this product does, but “every box [is] guaranteed or money refunded.”)

Most trade cards were designed to appeal to women and children, with sentimental images of animals, flowers, babies, families, and scenery. Click to enlarge.

Sentimental images of couples also sell products, including a trio of kissing couples selling Smith’s Bile Beans (they “cure biliousness”), two different images of couples with umbrellas, one selling Dr. P.O. Baldo’s Blood and Liver Pills and the other selling Wilbor’s Compound of Cod Liver Oil and Phosphates, and a trade card that recommends buying a bottle of Race’s Indian Blood Renovator for your new wife “to prove to her [your] fervent love.”

Sentimental images of couples also sell products. Click to enlarge.

Other more satiric and risqué trade cards are clearly aimed at an adult audience. The card below, “The Five Senses,” is one of the racier examples in the Library’s trade card collection. The back advertises Lash’s Kidney & Liver Bitters, described as “a mild cathartic and sure cure for constipation, indigestion, biliousness, dyspepsia, malaria, chills and fever, nervous or sick headache.” The front of the card shows a series of five images of a woman “seeing” a man, “hearing” him approaching, “smelling” a flower he has given her, and sitting in his lap while he is “feeling” her bottom. The final image, “Tasting,” shows the edge of a bed and the woman’s dress, undergarments, and stockings thrown across a chair. Apparently taking Lash’s Kidney & Liver Bitters will ensure a happy Valentine’s Day!


“The Five Senses” (above) is one of the racier examples in the Library’s trade card collection.


[1] Summarized from A. Walker Bingham’s account of trade cards in The Snake-Oil Syndrome: Patent Medicine Advertising (Hanover, Massachusetts: The Christopher Publishing House, 1994), p. 117-119.
[2] All trade cards in this post are from The Bingham Patent Medicine Collection in the Library of the New York Academy of Medicine.
[3] Bingham, p. 7.
[4] According to Bingham, mothers used to paste trade cards into albums as birthday or Christmas presents for their children (p. 117.)

Did Corsets Harm Women’s Health?

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

“It is difficult to imagine a slavery more senseless, cruel, or far-reaching in its injurious consequences than that imposed by fashion on civilized womanhood during the past generation. Her health has been sacrificed, and in countless instances her life has paid the penalty; while posterity has been dwarfed, maimed, and enervated, and in body, mind, and soul deformed at its behests. … [T]he tight lacing required by the wasp waists has produced generations of invalids and bequeathed to posterity suffering that will not vanish for many decades. By it, as has been pointed out by the authorities cited, every vital organ in the body has been seriously affected.”1

The title page of

The title page of “Fashion’s Slaves,” 1892. Click to enlarge.

So writes Benjamin Orange Flower in “Fashion’s Slaves,” a 32-page pamphlet published in 1892 as an appeal for women’s dress reform. One of the many causes Flower takes up is the corset, expressing his concern that the undergarment causes damage to internal organs. He continues, “If women will continue this destructive habit, the race must inevitably deteriorate.”1

Certainly, many women felt fettered by their restrictive clothing or there would never have been a dress reform movement. But just how damaging were corsets?

Not all corsets were alike. Tight lacing—cinching a corset to achieve a very small, or wasp, waist—began in the 1820s and 1830s after the advent of corsets made with metal eyelets. Medical professionals came out strongly against the practice.2 As shown in dramatic X-ray images in Ludovic O’Followell’s Le Corset, tightly laced corsets could change the shape of the rib cage,3 but there is no evidence that women had lower ribs removed to decrease their waists.4

Click on an image to view the gallery from Le Corset.

By measuring 19th-century corsets and dresses, historians have determined that women probably did not cinch their waists below 20 inches.4 (By comparison, today many U.S. stores list their XXS waist size at 23.5 inches.5,6) While many waists were still quite small, they may never have gone to the 14-inch extremes reported in women’s magazines, regardless of what fashion drawings depicted.4

A tightly laced corset could reduce lung capacity, irritate skin, and weaken back and chest muscles used to being supported.2 Whether tight lacing caused long-term health issues, like reduced pelvis size, constipation and digestive issues, and reproductive problems ranging from miscarriage to uterine prolapse, is more difficult to assess and remains unclear.2,4,7

Dr. Warner trade card, inside and out. An 1883 article from Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine hailed Dr. Warner’s Coraline Corset as a model of comfort, superior to whalebone and horn corsets, and endorsed the model as a substitute for tight-laced models: “They have demonstrated that tight lacing is not essential to grace or beauty of form; and while impractical dress reformers have been preaching reforms which no one would adopt, Warner Brothers, by introducing properly fitting corsets, have given practical aid to the health and comfort of several million ladies.”8

Dr. Warner trade card, inside and out. An 1883 article from Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine hailed Dr. Warner’s Coraline Corset as a model of comfort, superior to whalebone and horn corsets, and endorsed the model as a substitute for tight-laced models: “They have demonstrated that tight lacing is not essential to grace or beauty of form; and while impractical dress reformers have been preaching reforms which no one would adopt, Warner Brothers, by introducing properly fitting corsets, have given practical aid to the health and comfort of several million ladies.”8 Click to enlarge.

Many health problems once blamed on the corset are now clearly not the fault of the undergarment. Death caused by postpartum infections, or childbed fever, became relatively rare with the advent and spread of antiseptic techniques. With the discovery of the tubercle bacillus in 1882, it became clear that corsets did not cause the disease. Incidence of breast cancer did not decrease after corsets that did not compress the breasts came into vogue. As Gerhart S. Schwartz wrote in a 1979 Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine article, “one disease after another found an explanation which was unrelated to the corset.”9

Many of the doctors against tight lacing, including O’Followell, did not condemn corsets as a whole. Instead, they championed designs less tightly laced. Several pamphlets in our collection feature what they claim to be medically sound corsets.

In one, “La Grecque Corset as an Aid to the Physician and Surgeon,” printed circa 1911, the van Orden Corset Company advertises corsets that pull in the abdomen while reducing strain on abdominal muscles.10

Incorrect and correct pressure applied by corsets. In

Incorrect and correct pressure applied by corsets. In van Orden Corset Company, “La Grecque Corset as an Aid to the Physician and Surgeon,” circa 1911. Click to enlarge.

The pamphlet also features a maternity corset, “designed for a natural change of figure.”10 Corsets for maternity came on the market in the 1830s, and were often tightly laced.11 Yet the medical literature of the period does not discuss dangers of maternity corsets to the fetus or the mother,11 either due to taboos of the time or because negative impacts were rare or unreported. The maternity corset advertised by the van Orden Corset Company, from the early 1900s, was not tightly laced, taking advantage of new elasticized fabrics to expand as needed.10

La Grecque Maternity Corset. In

La Grecque Maternity Corset. In van Orden Corset Company, “La Grecque Corset as an Aid to the Physician and Surgeon,” circa 1911. Click to enlarge.

Corsets from a Surgical Standpoint,” from H. W. Gossard and Company (still in business today as a lingerie company), describes to physicians the benefits of prescribing their pliable front-laced corsets. These corsets, they claimed, improved posture and “preserve[d] the lines demanded by fashion, but without discomfort or injury.”12

Figures 5 and 6 in

Figures 5 and 6 in H. W. Gossard and Company, “Corsets from a Surgical Standpoint,” 1909. Click to enlarge.

Both of these pamphlets were published at the end of an era. The advent of elasticized fabric paved the way for the creation of an early bra, displayed by Herminie Cadolle at the Exposition Universelle in 1889.13 The corset’s final death knell was World War I. Women could not work in factories or the field while wearing restrictive clothing. Once household staff went to work for the war effort, upper-class women had no one to help them dress. Girdles and bras took over the corset’s supporting role, about 20 years after Flower’s calls for the end of the “destructive habit” of corsetry.1,13


1. Flower BO. Fashion’s slaves. Boston: Arena Pub. Co.; 1892.

2. Starr M. Vintage X-rays reveal the hidden effects of corsets. CNET. 2015. Available at: Accessed May 14, 2015.

3. O’Followell L. Le corset; histoire, médecine, hygiène. volume 2. Paris: Maloine; 1908.

4. Davis L. No, corsets did not destroy the health of Victorian women. io9. 2014. Available at: Accessed May 14, 2015.

5. LOFT: Size Chart. Available at: Accessed May 18, 2015.

6. Gap – women’s size chart. Available at: Accessed May 18, 2015.

7. Klingerman KM. Binding femininity: An examination of the effects of tightlacing on the female pelvis. 2006. Available at: Accessed May 14, 2015.

8. Coraline: Its discovery and use in the manufacture of corsets. Godey’s Lady’s B Mag. 1883:468–469. Available at: Accessed May 18, 2015.

9. Schwarz GS. Society, physicians, and the corset. Bull N Y Acad Med. 1979;55(6):551–90. Available at: Accessed May 14, 2015.

10. La Grecque corset as an aid to the physician and surgeon. New York: van Orden Corset Co.; 1911?

11. Summers L. Bound to please: A history of the Victorian corset. Oxford, New York: Berg; 2001.

12. Corsets from a surgical viewpoint. Chicago: Gossard Co.; 1909.

13. Fontanel B. Support and seduction: The history of corsets and bras. New York: Abrams; 1997.