Precursor to the Porcelain Throne: The Chamber Pot Lid from Saints’ Rest

The Saints’ Rest Dormitory has a foundational history with Michigan State University, acting as the first dormitory for the fledgling college, and with the Campus Archaeology Program itself, being the first large-scale excavation and archaeological fieldschool on campus.  Built in 1856, Saints’ Rest was the second building erected on campus for the new school and was known as “the House”, “the hall”, or “old hall” [1].  The building acted as the primary dormitory on campus until 1870 when Williams Hall was built.  Unfortunately, Saints’ Rest burned down in the winter of 1876.

The site was originally excavated in 2005 as part of the Sesquicentennial Celebration and has been revisited for excavations in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2012.  Throughout these digs, CAP has uncovered numerous artifacts relating to early campus life including items of personal hygiene, such as the lice comb that Lisa described in one of her earlier blog posts.  Another item relating to hygiene found at Saints’ Rest was a fragmented, but reconstructed, chamber pot lid (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Saints’ Rest chamber pot lid. A: exterior surface; B: interior surface

Figure 1 – Saints’ Rest chamber pot lid. A: exterior surface; B: interior surface

Close up of raised floral design on chamber pot lid.

Close up of raised floral design on chamber pot lid.

Measuring about 12in in diameter, the ceramic chamber pot lid has some kind of floral motif on the exterior surface; however, it is unclear as to what it exactly depicts (if you have any suggestions or recognize the pattern let us know – it’s previously been described as a thistle and leaf pattern). The dark blue color of most of the fragments is a result of burning during the fire.

Evidence for the use of chamber pots stems all the way back to ancient Greece, dating to the 6th century BCE [2, 3].  The use of chamber pots became more common, and more necessary, as areas of the world became increasingly urbanized.  With settlements becoming larger and more organized and planned, sanitation became a major concern for many densely populated areas [3].  Although extensive plumbing systems were installed in ancient Rome, indoor plumbing did not become readily available for small-scale buildings and for residents until the 19th century with chamber pots being used even into the 20th century [4].

Figure 2 – The Saint’s Rest dormitory (c. 1857) with students on the roof and in the foreground. The building was later destroyed in a fire in December 1876. Image source.

Figure 2 – The Saint’s Rest dormitory (c. 1857) with students on the roof and in the foreground. The building was later destroyed in a fire in December 1876. Image source.

The presence of this chamber pot lid in an early campus archaeological context highlights some of the realities of life on campus.  These first students did not have the (then) luxury (but now commonality) of using a restroom inside the dorm that is separated from other rooms or is regularly sanitized; their only options were to use the privy just south of the building or to use a chamber pot inside their room.  Chamber pots were often stored under the bed or in cabinets, and then emptied into designated dumping areas [5].  Even with a lid covering the pot (and its contents), exposure to pathogens and diseases that travel through fecal matter was exponentially higher than it is today.  Of course chamber pots were not the only reason that diseases relating to poor sanitation jumped easily from person to person, but the use of these vessels didn’t truly help to eradicate the problem.  In 1886, there was an outbreak of typhoid fever (which is directly linked to fecal contaminants) on campus which resulted in one student death.  It wasn’t until the 1890s that the college had modern plumbing installed after epidemics of diphtheria and measles, and after numerous student and parent complaints [1].  These outbreaks even resulted in the college creating a 7-room hospital building to quarantine infected people as soon as possible.

Although we recognize that our lives as MSU students today are different from those of 150 years ago, sometimes we don’t realize by just how much.  The presence of the chamber pot lid at Saints’ Rest highlights one of these aspects that may have contributed to serious health crises that broke out on campus.  Books and movies have a tendency to romanticize the past as formal and proper, but studying this chamber pot lid, while fascinating, has only reinforced my gratitude for modern amenities and hygienic practices, e.g. indoor plumbing.

 

References:

[1]       Kuhn, Madison. Michigan State: the first hundred years, 1855-1955. Michigan State University Press, 1955.

[2]       Kravetz, Robert E. Chamber Pot. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2006, 101: pp. 1414-1415.

[3]       D’Agostino, Mary Ellin. Privy Business: Chamber Pots and Sexpots in Colonial Life. Archaeology, 2000, 53(4): pp. 32-37.

[4]       van der Linden, Huub. Medals and Chamber Pots for Faustina Bordoni: celebrity and Material Culture in Early Eighteenth-Century Italy. Journal for eighteenth-century studies. 40(1): 23-47.

[5]       Cunningham, Zac. “Of Chamber Pots and Close Stool Chairs”. Web blog post. Lives and Legacies Blog. 15 July, 2015.

The Mount Clemens Pottery Co. Plate Sherd from the Brody/Emmons Complex

One of the best parts about doing research on artifacts we find during CAP excavations is coming across incredible stories or histories that stem from what some people would consider mundane and ordinary objects.  Such is the case with a seemingly ordinary piece of a plate recovered from the Brody/Emmons Complex.  The plate sherd (Figure 1) is about 15cm long and 7cm deep and is a from a pleasant jade-colored plate.  Since only the rim and part of the base are present, the portion with maker’s mark (which is usually centrally located on the underside) is not there.  However, the design of the plate itself hints at its origins.  Around the rim of the plate is what appears to be a petal design such that when whole, the plate would quasi-resemble a big flower.  Based on this rim design, it is most likely that this plate is part of the Petal style from the Mount Clemens Pottery Co., made right here in Michigan.

Figure 1 – Petal plate from Mount Clemens Pottery Co. from the 1930s found in the Brody/Emmons Complex excavations

Figure 1 – Petal plate from Mount Clemens Pottery Co. from the 1930s found in the Brody/Emmons Complex excavations

The Mount Clemens Pottery Co. has its origins back in the 1910s in the aftermath of an area-wide economic depression in the Mount Pleasant area [1, 2, 3].  A local businessmen’s association looked to economically boost the area and traveled to pottery factories in Ohio and Pennsylvania and looked at how these different companies produced their wares.  After a few years preparation, production officially started in 1915 in a warehouse built on an old farm.  By the end of the first year, over 36,000 pieces per week were produced [1].  The Petal style seen by the plate discovered at the Brody/Emmons Complex was mostly produced during the 1930s.  Right after this period, the company became embroiled in a legal battle that still has ramifications today.

Workers at the Mount Clemens Pottery Co. producing casserole dishes, 1924. Image source:

Workers at the Mount Clemens Pottery Co. producing casserole dishes, 1924. Image source.

In 1941, workers were being docked pay for the time between when they clocked in and when they started work due to long prep time before they would actually start working.  Workers had to clock-in, walk a long way down to their work stations (the factory was 8 acres large), and prepare their work station before finally starting work [1, 4].  The workers filed a class-action lawsuit (Anderson v. Mount Clemens Pottery Co.) claiming that the company was unfairly docking their wages and violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The district court ruled mostly in favor of the company and that it was up to the employees to prove that needed to be compensated for their prep time, although they did require the company to pay the workers over $2000 in back-pay.  The workers then appealed the decision which made its way all the way up to the United States Supreme Court [4].  They remanded the case back to the lower courts with the strong recommendations that it was up to the employers, not the employees to provide the proof for such decisions.  This led to the creation of the “Portal to Portal Act” in 1947 which defined work time as the time you entered the workspace to the time you leave it, and it is then up to the employer to justify docking wages within that timeframe [4].  These court cases have been revisited and used over the years, most recently in Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo in 2016 where workers claimed that the company was unfairly docking wages for the time it took them to put on the protective gear needed for processing pork.

After the case was settled in 1946, Mount Clemens Pottery Co. still had issues with workers but things eventually stabilized.  The factory permanently shut its doors in 1986 after sales plummeted. Researching these histories lets us rediscover the stories that otherwise are unknown to us.  What seems to be just a normal plate is actually symbolic of workers’ right that still have lasting effects into the 21st century.

 

References:

[1] MCPL (Mount Clemens Public Library), 2008. Mount Clemens Pottery Company – Local History Sketches, pp.1-3

[2] Doll, C.E., 1993. The Mount Clemens Pottery Company: History and Memories.

[3] http://www.laurelhollowpark.net/orp/mtclemenspottery.html

[4] Goldberg, H.M. et al., 2014. When Does Compensation for “Time Spent Under the Employer’s Control” Include Pre and Post Shift Waiting and Other Activities?. Southern Journal of Business and Ethics; vol. 6:33-45.

If You’d Like to Make a Call…: The Michigan Bell Telephone Sign from the Brody Dump

As technology constantly changes, so too does the constructed landscape to accommodate those changes.  One major notable change that has occurred in recent memory is the mass-production and availability of cell phones in the 1990s and 2000s.  Cell phones allow people to talk to anyone else no matter where they are.  Apart from major social and cultural changes that this brought about, the wide-spread use of cell phones resulted in public telephones and telephone booths to drastically dwindle with estimates of around 2.5 million pay phones in the U.S. in the mid-late 90s down to about 243,000 in 2012 [1].  Pay phones are no longer a commonly seen component of our cities; phone booths sit stripped and empty in older buildings.  So much has this changed that some people from younger generations have probably never even seen a pay phone!

Michigan Bell Telephone Company sign found in the Brody/Emmons Complex.

Michigan Bell Telephone Company sign found in the Brody/Emmons Complex.

Excavations at the Brody/Emmons dump site revealed an old public telephone sign.  Measuring about 30cm X 28cm, the sign is made of a square-cut piece of metal with porcelain enamel on both sides which each reads ‘MICHIGAN BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY’ and “AMERICAN TELEPHONE AND TELEGRAPH” in a ring around the image of a bell which itself has the words ‘BELL SYSTEM’ on it.  The sign also has a flange on one side indicating that it was originally intended to be fixed onto a surface and project outwards.  An exact date for the sign is not known, but signs of this design were commonly seen on public pay phones during the 1920s-1940s.  Michigan Bell Telephone Company was once a subsidiary of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company – commonly known as AT&T [2].  While both companies still technically are around, they are no longer connected to one another in the same way when Michigan Bell was founded (a little more on that later).  In doing the research for this artifact, I decided to focus on the unexpectedly tumultuous history of the Bell Telephone Company and its role in both the social lives of the American people as well as its place in politics.

Michigan Bell Telephone Crew ca. 1890. Image source

Michigan Bell Telephone Crew ca. 1890. Image source

As is common knowledge, Alexander Graham Bell patented the first practical telephone in 1876 (although in 2002 Congress officially recognized Antonio Meucci as the true inventor of the telephone) [2, 3].  It took a while for telephones to become a common item as they originally were large and clunky, expensive to subscribe to, difficult to operate, and had poor sound quality.  The first telephone in Michigan went to one of Bell’s good friends in Grand Rapids in 1877.  After public demonstrations were held with the prototype phones, the first commercial phone line was set up in Detroit between a drugstore and its chemical laboratories a couple miles away [5].  Interestingly, a large portion of the early users/subscribers were physicians who used them to be informed of incoming patients so as to more quickly and adequately prepare for their arrival and treatment [4].  Still, the use of telephones became more popular with Bell’s public demonstrations.

The Bell Telephone Company (and its subsidiary-turned parent corporation, AT&T) held an almost entire monopoly on the telephone business until Bell’s patent expired in 1893, after which thousands of small companies popped up to get in on the business [4].  This resulted in prices and rates plummeting which made the technology more publicly available and affordable.  Expansion into rural areas and smaller towns created a boom in telephone subscriptions as well as the advent of public phones.  Unlike household phones, early public phones were initially free to use.  These public phones were predominantly located in/around pharmacies since many physicians already had them in place and were used as a way to get people to come into their stores.  However, it appears that free phone calls caused lingering crowds and constantly tied-up phone lines which angered pharmacists and store owners enough that nickel slots were installed by the turn of the century [2, 4].

AT&T Telephone ad from1931 convincing customers to keep their phone service. Image source

AT&T Telephone ad from1931 convincing customers to keep their phone service. Image source

By the 1920s, AT&T started acquired many of the smaller phone companies and services which the dwindling number of non-AT&T companies required.  Although AT&T did not own all of the smaller companies, by 1930, 80% of all phones in the United States were Bell phones and of those that were not, 98% were connected to Bell lines.  However, the Depression hit the phone industry hard with over 2 million households canceling subscriptions between 1930 and 1933 [4, 6].  AT&T even revamped their marketing strategy during this time and instead of advertising to entice new subscribers, they focused on convincing current subscribers not to cancel by arguing that a phone subscription is a necessity that only costs a few cents a day.  By this point, the telephone was a common everyday item for many Americans, but one that (unlike today it seems) people were able to drop.  Public pay phones thus allowed the public to still use the service for a small price per call without requiring monthly subscriptions that could be used for more necessary items.

Bell Telephone ad from 1948 marketing Bell telephones with patriotism. Image source

Bell Telephone ad from 1948 marketing Bell telephones with patriotism. Image source

After 1933, phone subscriptions began to climb once again with the industry meeting pre-Depression Era subscriptions by 1939.  After rate freezes during World War II, AT&T again began consolidating it grip on the industry.  By the 1970s, the company once again had a monopoly on telephone service, resulting in a federal antitrust lawsuit beginning in 1974 [4].  The outcome of this court case required a divestiture of the mega parent company into seven regional large companies.  Michigan Bell was reorganized, along with other Bell operating companies in the Midwest as a subsidiary of Americtech Corp [7].  This company was then merged with SBC Teleholdings and the Ameritech branch was renamed to AT&T Teleholdings.  Although this is a relatively recent history of Bell companies which took place decades after the Michigan Bell pay phone sign was placed in the East Lansing Dump, it is interesting to see the path taken by the iconic company.  Who knew that the ability to make a simple phone call, whether on your cell phone or on a pay phone, had such a volatile history or was so deeply enmeshed in political quagmire?  Rich histories such as these can only come from conducting this type of historical research on objects we think we know enough about.  The phone we know of today is not just a phone, but is the totality of over 125 years of history wrapped in ingenuity, inventions, patent lawsuits, intense government intervention and oversight, and corporate dealings, which has allowed us to call our loved ones from (almost) anywhere on the planet.

 

References

[1]       Andreatta, D. 2013. As pay phones vanish, so does lifeline for many. USA Today. Published online 17 December, 2013.

[2]       Brooks, J. 1976. Telephone: The First Hundred Years. Harper & Row, New York.

[3] Campanella, A. J. 2007. Antonio meucci, the speaking telegraph, and the first telephone. Acoustics Today, 3(2):37-45.

[4] Fischer, C.S., 1992. America calling: a social history of the telephone to 1940. Berkeley University of California Press, Berkeley.

[5] History of the Telephone in Michigan. 1969.  Detroit: Michigan Bell Telephone Co.

[6] Angelo State University Library, 2018. Telephone Goes To War 1930-1950. Blog. http://www.angelo.edu/services/library/wtcoll/verizon/pages/Timeline/tel_war/tel_war_tx.php

[7] Coll, S. 1986. The deal of the century: The breakup of AT&T (1st ed.). New York, Atheneum.

Take Two Shots of Whiskey Every 6 Hours: Medicinal Alcohol During Prohibition Era MSU

The AMS Co bottle recovered from the Brody/Emmons Complex - site of the East Lansing dump

The AMS Co bottle recovered from the Brody/Emmons Complex – site of the East Lansing dump

As archaeologists, some of our most common findings are in fact trash, the things people not longer want or need which are then thrown away.  As a result, dump sites, or middens, are some of the best contexts from which to reconstruct the lives of past people. The Brody/Emmons Site (location of the old East Lansing Dump) has given us here at CAP a large swath of different kinds artifacts which has allowed us to catch a glimpse of the lives of those on campus or from East Lansing during the first half of the 20th century.  Unsurprisingly, a large number of alcohol bottles were found.  Throughout this academic year, I have written two previous blogs over some of these bottles (liquor on campus and one over a gin bottle) as has Jeff Painter.  Each of these bottles present a unique history or has an interesting story that may otherwise not be told.

The liquor bottle for this post is a clear, one pint whiskey bottle with “THE A-M-S CO” embossed on one side near the base.  The “AMS” stands for American Medicinal Spirits, a distilling company that was started by the Wathen brothers, Otho and Richard Eugene.  The brothers came from a long line of distillers in Kentucky, dating back to some of the early settlers in the area (Odell 2004).  AMS was not their first distilling company, but it might be one of their most interesting.  The company was started around 1920, during Prohibition.  As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, Prohibition (known as the18th Amendment or the Volstead Act) did not ban the consumption of alcohol, but the production, transport, and sale of it. If it was technically illegal to distill whiskey during the Prohibition years of 1920-1933, how were the Wathen brothers even able to start a distillery during the first few years after the 18th Amendment was passed? They found a loophole.

Close up of company makers mark "The AMS Co"

Close up of company makers mark “The AMS Co”

Alcohol prescription slip distributed to doctors by the U.S. Department of the Treasury during Prohibition. Image source

Alcohol prescription slip distributed to doctors by the U.S. Department of the Treasury during Prohibition. Image source

As the name “American Medicinal Spirits Company” implies, alcohol produced by AMS Co. was intended for medical purposes.  At the time of Prohibition, many doctors believed that alcohol could be beneficial to one’s health if taken in appropriate doses.  Maladies that alcohol was supposed to have help with included tuberculosis, high blood pressure, asthma, heart disease, pneumonia, cancer, anemia, and many others (Nespor 2010; Appel 2008).  While Prohibition had mostly religious underpinnings, many doctors saw the enactment of the Volstead Act (and subsequent additions further restricting medicinal alcohol) as government overreach and its interference in their medical practices (Appel 2008).  As a result, prescription pads for medicinal alcohol were issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and liquor could only be prescribed under certain circumstances and in federally regulated amounts (Nespor 2010).  In addition to paying for the alcohol itself (which cost around $3 or $4), patients would have to pay an additional prescription fee of $3, making it costly to legally obtain liquor which was in regulated quantities (Gambino 2013).  Individuals who did legally obtain liquor could receive one pint every ten days and were required to glue their prescription slip on to the back of the bottle.  However, most bottles from this period with still intact labels do not have the prescription on the back either from people not caring or that many pints were sold illegally (Appel 2008).

"Federal Law Forbids Sale or Reuse of This Bottle"

“Federal Law Forbids Sale or Reuse of This Bottle”

As most of the distilleries in the country shut down from Prohibition, AMS opened up and filled a need in the small and legal liquor market.  However the presence of the embossment that reads “Federal Law Forbids Sale or Re-Use Of This Bottle” means this specific bottles was produced between 1935-1964 (glassbottlemarks.com), post dating the repeal of prohibition.  In 1929, before the repeal of the Volstead Act, the Wathen brothers sold AMS Co. to National Distillers.  Some records indicate that Otho became Vice President of National Distillers but then mostly left the business around the repeal while Richard appears to have continued in the liquor industry.  Nevertheless, AMS Co. was one of the few companies at the ready for when Prohibition ended in 1933 and was incredibly successful in the following years.  Numerous brands of liquor operated under the name of American Medicinal Spirits Co., with Old Crow Kentucky Straight Bourbon being one of the longest lasting (although Old Crow is now produced by Beam Suntory which also produced Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark).  Patent records indicate that the name “American Medicinal Spirits” has not been renewed since the mid-1970s.  National Distillers was sold to Beam Suntory in 1987, meaning that AMS has mostly dissolved, although products of its legacy are still consumed today.

The discovery of this bottle in the Brody Dump tells an interesting story of a company that legally skirted prohibition regulations of alcohol sales.  Since the East Lansing dump under the Brody complex closed in the late 1930s, this bottle could only have been produced and consumed within a tight window of time.  Was this particular brand purchased because it was familiar from the prohibition years? Was the owner previously prescribed whiskey? Unfortunately these are questions we will never know the answer to.  However, it is through discoveries like these that we can add more pieces to the puzzle of what life was like in this area during the first half of the 20th century and how students may have coped with maladies (or thirst…) during Prohibition.

References:

Appel, Jacob M, 2008. “Physicians are Not Bootleggers”: The Short, Peculiar Life of the Medicinal Alcohol Movement. Bulletin of the history of medicine 82.2: 355-86.

Gambino, Megan, 2013. During Prohibition, Your Doctor Could Write You a Prescription for Booze: Take two shots of whiskey and call me in the morning. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/during-prohibition-your-doctor-could-write-you-prescription-booze-180947940/#

Nespor, Cassie, 2007. Medicinal Alcohol and Prohibition. Blog of the Melnick Medical History Museum, posted April 7, 2010. (https://melnickmedicalmuseum.com/2010/04/07/medicinal-alcohol-and-prohibition/)

Odell, Digger, 2004. American Medicinal Spirits Company

“Federal Law Forbids Sale or Reuse of this Bottle”

Middle school outreach – reflections on my research

Like Mari Isa, for this blog post, I will be talking about the outreach event that CAP ran for Holmes Middle School in Livonia, MI on Friday, January 19th.  However, I will be discussing it from a different point of view.  In Mari’s blog, she discussed the activity itself: what we had the students look at, what the goals of the activity were, what the outcomes were, etc.  I will be coming from a different standpoint: that of a grad student leading the activity and how it impacted us.

CAP fellow Jeff Painter guides the discussion.

CAP fellow Jeff Painter guides the discussion.

As academics (or in my case, an academic in training), we sometimes forget that our research and our purpose aren’t just to further our knowledge in our respective fields for ourselves or other academics.  It is true that in many cases the audience of our publications are other researchers and those in research institutions.  Yet where we can have the biggest impact is in the public sector through outreach activities such as these.  These types of events were not common or even really practiced when I myself was in middle school or even in high school.  That these outreach events are becoming more prominent and more of the norm is highly encouraging and definitely has an impact on many of the students.  However, this event was not a one-way conversation with us researchers just lecturing about archaeology at the middle schoolers who passively listen.  As an instructor in this exercise, I learned a few very important things/lessons.

1.) This type of outreach matters.  Despite what many students say, they do actually love to learn, especially in a hands-on capacity.  Education can be highly effective by taking a tactile route.  Reading information out of books is highly informative, but actively engaging in the research with tangible objects routes that knowledge in reality and makes that knowledge real.  With every class, there was at least one student or group of students that guessed their “mystery site” dated “to the Neolithic, like Çatal Höyük” (seriously, multiple students said this exact phrase).  The students are learning about ancient cultures and time periods and it is through these types of activities that they get to practice their knowledge and use critical thinking skills.

A student uses a black light to find the uranium glass.

A student uses a black light to find the uranium glass.

2.) The students taught me how to interact with them.  As a graduate student, I interact mostly with my professors and other graduate students, so our topics of conversation sometimes go in directions and use certain jargon that the majority of people don’t understand or don’t care about.  By spending an entire school day with middle schoolers, we all had to reorient how we interact with others when talking about topics that we are all very well-versed in.  We sometimes forget that our research benefits the public and that we therefore need to approach these topics in a way that is meaningful and interesting for the public.  We work for them, so we need to make sure that we include them in our conversations and that our research isn’t just for our own sake.

3.) Building off my second point, it helped me think about how I can make my own research meaningful and pertinent in today’s society.  The biggest and most important question that archaeologists gets asked, and one that can be the most difficult to answer, is: So what?  Why does this matter?  Research for its own sake does nothing for society.  In doing this event, I saw students that were highly engaged, had great theories about their kits/sites, and were generally hungry for knowledge.  I learned that if one aspect of my personal research (which is how childhood was experienced for the ancient Maya) interested them, then I would have succeeded in part of my research goals.  By watching them interact with each other, I took note of how they interacted with the world around them, how they addressed each other, adults, teachers, and us.  How did they experience their world and how can I use that to look at ancient childhood and adolescence?  Additionally, what similarities can I draw from ancient Maya childhood that I see today?

By teaching these middle schoolers about archaeology, they taught me that I don’t give enough credit to middle schoolers.  We sometimes get trapped in our own ivory tower and forget that there is a world below us where most people live and interact.  Participating in outreach programs such as this not only benefits the students, but also teaches us as the experts that our expertise is meaningless and useless if we only discuss things amongst ourselves.  I hope that we continue to conduct these types of events as I think it is imperative in today’s educational climate.  The world needs more bright students to shape our future and it is our job to help make that happen.

Drama, Drama, Drama!: The Tragedy of Archaeologically Invisible Histories

As I mentioned in my first blog post for this year, my CAP project is to go through all of the dissertations, and bachelor’s and master’s theses written by Michigan State students about Michigan State University during its entire history as an institution of higher education.  Doing this has granted me access to previous students’ hard work about something they believed in and wished to make known to someone other than themselves and their advisor.  The goal of this project (of which I will share more of my results later on) is to find and identify any information that can help supplement the complex and rich histories that we dig up in our excavations.

The 1931 production of Death Takes a Holiday. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

The 1931 production of Death Takes a Holiday. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

However, sometimes you come across sources that paint such a rich history, but unfortunately have left no (as yet identified) archaeological trace.  I came across one such instance a few weeks ago while reading a master’s thesis in the MSU Special Collections room of the library.  Written by William Gibson Butt in 1947, the master’s thesis A History of Dramatic Activities at Michigan State College to 1937 reveals the humble beginnings of the Drama Club on campus and traces its first few decades of history as it became a staple in campus life.

Butt (1947) writes that the Drama Club started in 1910 at the behest of student who wished to put on performances on campus as there was no Department of Theatre at the college at that time.  The student put on the play The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the Spring of 1910 to great success.  Since there was no stage on campus at the time, the students were required to build their own stage at the old Armory (located where the Music Building is now) but could only construct the stage the day of the play and were required to tear it down that evening after the performance.  Sylvester King, a faculty member at MAC, agreed to help the students put on the play.  Having a background in theater, King was able to acquire costumes for the production from New York City.  After the first production, the club was officially recognized by MAC and put on at least two productions every year.

The cast of the first play put on at MSC, performing The School for Scandal in 1910. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

The cast of the first play put on at MSC, performing The School for Scandal in 1910. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

Once they started doing two productions per year, the Drama Club began putting on plays outdoors in a wooded area just east of where Howard Terrace used to stand.  This building was demolished in the early 1920s to make room for the Home Economics Building which still stands today, now called the Human Ecology Building.  This would place the location of this outdoor performance area somewhere around where the parking ramp between Human Ecology and Olin Health Center.  The Drama Club’s first performance outdoors was As You Like It by William Shakespeare.  Again, this performance was so successful that the club started putting all of their Spring plays in this same area, and always performed a work by Shakespeare.  Due to these annual plays, this wooded area became known as the Forest of Arden, a setting in As You Like It.

Two students performing The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare in “The Forest of Arden” on campus in 1922. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

Two students performing The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare in “The Forest of Arden” on campus in 1922. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

Despite all of this well-documented history showcasing MSU students, it is also quite humbling for an archaeologist such as myself.  As an archaeologist, I use artifacts that I unearth to try and understand the lives of those who created or used those artifacts.  The object drives the narrative, informs the narrative, and is itself then re-informed by the narrative.  In many archaeological settings, the story cannot get told or even discovered if there is no artifact with which to start the conversation.  In the case of the storied past and early beginnings of the MSC Drama Club, no artifacts to date have been found or associated with this sect of campus life.  The area of campus where The Forest of Arden once stood is now occupied by a parking ramp. Additionally, these outdoor performances were intended to be temporary – the players would have picked up any props or potential artifacts relating to theatrical production.  It is in instances like this that we must look at our own limitations and recognize that no matter how much we dig up and even rely on archival resources, we can never encapsulate the entire story.

Playbill for the first ever theatrical production at MSC – The School for Scandal performed in 1910. These are some of the only evidences of early history of the plays performed on campus. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

Playbill for the first ever theatrical production at MSC – The School for Scandal performed in 1910. These are some of the only evidences of early history of the plays performed on campus. Photo courtesy of MSU Special Collections, originally in W.G. Butt’s Master’s Thesis.

 There are some stories that are archaeologically invisible.  Fortunately in the case of the Drama Club, the MSU Department of Theatre, the MSU Library, and the MSU Archives have records and documentation of this history.  These stories get to be rediscovered and retold in the future.  Other stories sadly get erased through time and leave no material record behind.  Thus, we are fortunate to belong to an institution that cares about its own history and allows us to access those memories in whatever way we can so that we can pass along great stories such as these.  By understanding that we cannot tell the whole story, we become better story-tellers because the belief that we know everything only closes us up to other voices.  We must use as many resources and listen to as many voices as we can so that we can better understand ourselves and our school’s proud history.

 

 

 

Reference:

Butt W.G. 1947    A History of Dramatic Activities at Michigan State College to 1937. Master’s thesis, Michigan State College, East Lansing, Michigan.

Looking for Some Gin-spiration: Fleischmann’s Gin from The East Lansing Dump

Photo of the Fleischmann’s Dry Gin bottle from the Brody/Emmons excavations, dating to 1935

Photo of the Fleischmann’s Dry Gin bottle from the Brody/Emmons excavations, dating to 1935

Continuing with my theme of alcohol bottles found on campus, I’ll be discussing one particular bottle that was discovered during excavations of the Brody/Emmons area.  The bottle is a clear, rectangular-based bottle, no doubt a liquor bottle given this shape.  If there was any doubt as to its intended use, all you would have to do is look on the side of the bottle where the words “DRY GIN” stand out in relief.  Embossed on the other side is the name “FLEISCHMANN’S”, giving us the actual company name.  In doing research about this bottle and this company, I went down a surprisingly interesting rabbit hole that has foundations all the way back into the Mid-Late 19th century.

Fleischmann’s Distilled Dry Gin boasts that this was the first gin to be distilled within the United States with production beginning in 1870 out of Riverside, Cincinnati, Ohio.  However, gin production was not the original intention or only business and manufacturing venture by the company’s owners: Charles Louis Fleischmann, his brother Maximilian Fleischmann, and American businessman James Gaff (1).

1949 Fleischmann’s Gin ad in the July 19th edition of Look Magazine.

1949 Fleischmann’s Gin ad in the July 19th edition of Look Magazine. Image Source

The Fleischmann brothers came over to the United States in 1865 from Moravia-Silesia (now a region in Czechia).  Their father had previously been a distiller and yeast producer in Europe, with the brothers following in his footsteps.  After settling in Cincinnati, Charles Louis and Maximilian found that the quality of baked goods was not up to the standards they were used to back in Europe.  Charles returned to Europe to retrieve yeast samples and upon his return, the brothers partnered with a businessman named James Gaff (1, 2).  In 1868, they began a standardized production of yeast with their new company Fleischmann Yeast Company.  Advances in their research and production into yeast led them to create active dry yeast which we all use today in our baking.  This allowed for a much longer shelf-life of the product.  Two years later, they opened their first gin distillery using their knowledge of distilling from their father and their newly improved yeast (2).  This is still the Fleischmann Distilled Dry Gin that we know of today.

Despite their early advances, widespread success would not come until the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, PA, the first official World’s Fair to be held in the United States.  There, they set up a model Austrian bakery (The Vienna Bakery) and showcased the benefits of using their improved yeast in cake and pastry baking (3).  Other new inventions and goods that premiered at the Exhibition were Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, the Remington Typographic Machine (the typewriter), Heinz Ketchup, the arm, hand, and torch from the Statue of Liberty currently under construction, and the Kudzu vine from Japan (3).  The Exhibition brought massive commercial and financial success for the company.  Their success at the Centennial Exhibition revolutionized baking in the United States and made the company a house-hold name.  (A quick check of my cupboards confirmed that I too have Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast as I consider myself a VERY amateur bread baker.)

Newfound commercial success (each of the three owners became multi-millionaires almost overnight) allowed them to open another yeast factory and gin distillery in Peekskill, NY (2).  More success for the company came when they developed yeast for the U.S. Army during WWII that could survive without refrigeration, meaning that a wider range of food could be consumed by U.S. troops abroad.

Prohibition, lasting from 1920 to 1933, no doubt hurt the company as they could no longer legally sell or distribute spirits.  The Fleischmann’s gin bottle from the Brody dump dates to 1935, so we know that alcohol consumption at MSC and East Lansing was back in full swing after Prohibition ended, but a decade’s worth of minimal liquor sales would have hurt the company, despite their thriving yeast empire.  To make up some of the potential loss in sales of liquor, the Fleischmann Company attempted to rebrand their yeast and market it as high in vitamins as well as a health restorative, especially for energy, constipation, and skin improvement (5).  They even started distilling gin under a medicinal permit right after Prohibition ended (4)!

Fleischmann’s Yeast ad from the late 1930s or 40s about eating yeast cakes to get rid of acne.

Fleischmann’s Yeast ad from the late 1930s or 40s about eating yeast cakes to get rid of acne. Image Source

Fleischmann’s Yeast Company still exists today and is owned by Associated British Foods, but alcohol production is no longer directly associated with the original yeast industry.  After changing hands a few times in the past few decades, Fleischmann’s Distilled Dry Gin is owned by Sazerac of New Orleans, LA (6).  Although not the most popular gin on the shelves today, this gin has the longest distilling history of any in the United States and is intimately tied to modern baking practices.  Without finding and researching artifacts such as the bottle from the Brody Dump, we potentially lose how people lived their daily lives.  Few people write down exactly what they do everyday or what they use to do certain tasks (although social media is changing that narrative), be it using Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast while making bread, snacking on a Fleischmann’s Yeast Cake, or having a Fleischmann’s Gin & Tonic after a long day at the office or school, all of which may have been done by the original owner of the gin bottle, back in the late 1930s.

 

References:

  1. Klieger C.P. The Fleischmann Yeast Family, Arcadia, 2004.
  2. Woods,M.L. The Fleischmann Treasury of Yeast Baking, The Company, New York, 1962.
  3. Gross L.P. & T.R. Snyder. Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Arcadia, U.K., 2005.
  4. Bottling Medicinal Gin, The Wall Street Journal. 1933. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/docview/131061850?pq-origsite=summon
  5. Price C. The Healing Power of Compressed Yeast, Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2015 (URL: https://www.chemheritage.org/distillations/magazine/the-healing-power-of-compressed-yeast)
  6. Sazerac company website: http://www.sazerac.com/fleischmann.aspx

Blind Pigs, Jazz, and Bolshevism: The Spirit(s) of Revolt at Michigan State

The artifacts recovered from the Brody Complex/Emmons Amphitheater excavations are providing many research avenues.. As Mari mentioned in her previous blog, this area was originally used as the East Lansing City Dump for about three decades – from the 1920s to 1950s. One cultural and constitutional phenomenon that this period encapsulates is the enacting and later redacting of the 18th Amendment, also known as Prohibition. This amendment made it illegal to produce, buy, sell, or transport alcohol although private ownership and consumption was not illegal (Tyrell 2015).

Various liquor bottles from many types of spirits were recovered during the excavations at Emmons Amphitheater including gin, whisky (and whiskey), beer, and wine bottles, as well as a few yet-to-be identified alcohol bottles. For this post, I will not go too specifically into the history of any one liquor bottle (that will be in my next post), but will dig more into what these bottles tell us about student life during the Prohibition and how a few variations of these laws made a surprising resurgence in East Lansing in the 1990s.

A variety of alcohol bottles recovered from the Brody/Emmons amphitheater excavations.

A variety of alcohol bottles recovered from the Brody/Emmons amphitheater excavations.

First, a quick history of prohibition in Michigan. Although the 18th Amendment received the required number of states to pass in 1919 and was enacted in 1920, Michigan was actually the first state in the nation to go dry. The state enacted its own alcohol prohibition starting on May 1st, 1918. Due to its easy access to Windsor, Canada, Detroit became the biggest pipeline in the nation for liquor smuggling (Tyrell 2015). Some researchers estimate that up to 75% of liquor smuggled into the United States during this time came through Michigan via what was called the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel. During this time, people tried to get alcohol any way they could. Speakeasies (also known as blind pigs or blind tigers) popped up all over the country. Organized crime soared in Detroit (ever hear of the Purple Gang?) and the illicit liquor trade became the city’s second largest industry. However, when the 21st Amendment was passed which repealed Prohibition, Michigan was the first state in the nation to ratify the amendment, mostly due to the rise in organized crime in the Detroit area during the period (Tyrell 2015). On December 5, 1933, a ¾ majority was reached in Congress, thereby officially repealing the 18th Amendment. This day became known as Repeal Day and is still celebrated by pubs and bars everywhere with great drink specials.

Photo of alcohol smuggling bust from truck with false bottom. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Photo of alcohol smuggling bust from truck with false bottom. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

So generally, what do these bottles tell us? Primarily, that people (and presumably students since the dump abutted the school and students lived off campus in East Lansing) drank alcohol. Drinking on campus has been prohibited ever since the school’s foundation, yet that hasn’t stopped students from breaking the rules.  Students have always engaged in breaking rules, and it’s probable that they were still purchasing alcohol during Prohibition. One of the driving factors for breaking a school rule is just to break it – an act of revolt against “The Man” or the administration. It gives a sense of both agency and community with other students who can feel weighed down by rules and regulations.

Eleven male students at Michigan Agricultural College are shirtless and posing for a photo while smoking pipes and holding cards and bottles of liquid that are presumably alcohol c. 1906. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Eleven male students at Michigan Agricultural College are shirtless and posing for a photo while smoking pipes and holding cards and bottles of liquid that are presumably alcohol c. 1906. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Although these liquor bottles date to the post-Prohibition era, it still gives us insight as to the nature of student life and activities. The year of 1920, the first year of national Prohibition, was reported to be a particularly rebellious year. The Age of Jazz was in its early years with many people around the nation considering this new form of music to be immoral. Kuhn notes that due to the strict regulations of the college at this time, students revolted by hosting unscheduled and impromptu dances with lots of jazz music, much to the chagrin of the professors who were said to have been “quite dejected at all the goings on” (p. 321). Most likely a culmination of the desire to break school rules, rebel against the administration, and put the devastation from WWI behind them, students at M.S.C. regularly engaged in activities of this sort which led some people to refer to this period or student revolt as the “Bolshevik Days” at the college (Kuhn 1955, pg. 321). Further, the academic year of 1919-1920 earned its own nickname as the year of Jazz and Bolshevism.

The desire to socialize further from school-sanctioned activities also led to an increase in parties where alcohol flowed freely. Planning and throwing one of these liquor-laden parties would have been a difficult process for a few reasons. First, when the charter for the City of East Lansing was issued in 1907, it was incorporated as a dry city so local vendors and establishments would not have had alcohol. Second, state prohibition in 1918 and National Prohibition in 1920 would have meant that the procurement of liquor would have been difficult and both a state and federal crime. However, the convenient geographic distance to Detroit would have meant that students at the school most likely obtained their illicit alcohol from connections with the rum-running capital of the nation. One account on campus during this time states that a briefcase with no less than 12 bottles of fine whiskey was found in a bush with a note inside saying “This is a sample of what you won’t get if the State goes dry” (Kuhn 1955, pg. 321).

University Reporter Intelligence Sept 20th 1990. Source.

University Reporter Intelligence Sept 20th 1990. Source

Even in recent decades there have been Prohibition-esque crack-downs on liquor and parties at MSU. In 1980, the City of East Lansing amended its definition of what constitutes a ‘blind pig’ which up to that point was an establishment that sold liquor without a liquor license. The amendment expanded that definition to include parties where there is a cover charge, required donations, or a purchase of a cup for unlimited alcohol – common house or student party practices. In 1989 and 1990, East Lansing felt that parties of this nature were getting out of control and decided to revive the Prohibition-era law and began shutting down these MSU student parties which, under the new city amendments, were considered blind pigs – a possible felony. Arrests and charges were brought up on students, particularly at Cedar Village, as reported by a September 20, 1990 edition of the uR-I (the university Reporter-Intelligencer – a student-run newspaper).

The past is not as far back as we think, be it an old law that has risen from the dead or just the attitudes of students towards the rules and regulations of the day. Students rebel and revolt in any way they can. There is something satisfying about going against the establishment, whether that means holding unscheduled dances, stashing briefcases or liquor in shrubs across campus, or hosting blind pigs. So next time you’re strolling around the Brody Complex near the Emmons Amphitheater, remember that you’re not just standing above an old city dump site, you’re standing above the material memory of student acts of rebellion as they tried (and will always try) to assert their own agency and independence.

 

Works Cited

Kuhn M. 1955    Michigan State: The First Hundred Years, 1855-1955. MSU University Press, East Lansing, Michigan.

Tyrell P. 2015    Utilizing a Border as a Local Economic Resource: The Example of the Prohibition-Era       Detroit-Windsor Borderland (1920–33). Comparative American Studies an International      Journal, 13 (1-2): 16-30.

university Reporter-Intelligencer, Vol. 2, No.1. 20 September, 1990. (http://spartanhistory.kora.matrix.msu.edu/files/1/4/1-4-1636-54-A006374.pdf)

https://drinkmichigan.org/prohibition-michigan/

https://reuther.wayne.edu/node/8334

 

Diss.-in’ on the School: The Importance of Student Research at and about MSU

Michigan State University is designated by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning as a Research 1 (R1) institution (1).  Universities do not simply achieve this status due to the population of the student body or the amount of land owned by the school.  In order to reach this designation, there are five strictly regulated objectives that must be met (although each of these each has their own numerous sub-objectives).  Overall the university must:

  • Offer a full and wide range of baccalaureate programs
  • Be committed to graduate studies and education through the doctorate program
  • Give a high priority to research
  • Award at least 50 doctoral degrees each year
  • Receive annually $40 million or more in federal support (1)

MSU meets and surpasses all these requirements, indicating that the university is dedicated to a higher level and a superior quality of research.  Furthermore, the university is equally dedicated to how that research can be used and applied in a diverse array of fields across the world.  People all around the globe are beneficiaries of institutions such as MSU and the research that they help to produce.  However, you do not need to hunt for the results of MSU-sponsored research in far-away places such as with the dam projects in Brazil through the College of Engineering or protein research in Japan with Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology.  Although these projects are necessary and help push research forward, the fruits of MSU research can also be seen everywhere on campus: in the layout of the campus itself, in the design of the buildings, in the structure of education in the classroom, in the social experience of campus life, and much more.

Unknown to many, but felt by everyone on campus, research about the university itself by its own students has been conducted since the earliest years of the school’s history.  Unfortunately, many of us are unaware of, and therefore cannot truly appreciate, the amount of hard work and years of research that went in to making MSU the renowned institution it is today.  Achieving this standard of excellence was possible by the many introspective research projects conducted at and about the school.  It is my job this year to rediscover and uncover as many of these MSU-themed bachelor’s theses, master’s theses, and dissertations as I can, document their contents, and obtain maps, photographs, and accounts that we have not had access to in the past.

One of the main reasons behind this is that there are many theses and dissertations focusing on topics related to the school that can add to the rich history of the university and aid our work.  Not only do these contain topics that we haven’t had as much access to in the past, but they also come from an interesting perspective that is seldom seen or heard: that of MSU students writing about the campus in a research capacity.

Figure 1 - Surveying equipment used by Blabach and Zerbe during their surveys in the early 1930s; photograph by Balbach and Zerbe

Figure 1 – Surveying equipment used by Blabach and Zerbe during their surveys in the early 1930s; photograph by Balbach and Zerbe.

Of the first few publications I have sorted through and recorded already, (thanks to the help of the MSU Library Special Collections) new information and insights into early campus life can be seen and read. For example, a 1934 Bachelor’s Thesis by H.A. Balbach and J.J. Zerbe through the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences (now called the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources) entitled “The Michigan State College Property Boundary from the Intersection of Mount Hope and Hagadorn Roads to the Township Intersection of Mount Hope Road” discusses the numerous and arduous surveying expeditions and calculations these two students did in order to formalize the boundaries of the college.

Figure 2 - Photo and excerpt of the excavations conducted by Balbach and Zerbe to try and find the township marker by digging through paved roads only to realize they were in the wrong location; photograph by Balbach and Zerbe

Figure 2 – Photo and excerpt of the excavations conducted by Balbach and Zerbe to try and find the township marker by digging through paved roads only to realize they were in the wrong location; photograph by Balbach and Zerbe

They write that with the original land grant from the federal government and later land acquisitions from private land owners, the piece-meal 1700-acre area owned by the college (as of 1934) was never systematically surveyed to discover the true boundaries (2).  (There are at least two other bachelor’s theses dating to around 1934 over the same topic but in different areas of campus.)  Page after page is filled with complex and highly organized surveying calculations, but Balbach and Zerbe can’t help but show their frustration at times.  On page 26 of their thesis (and in the photo below), they placed a picture of one of their marker-finding expeditions with a caption that reads: “NO LUCK!  This shot was taken when the authors had just about exhausted patience in trying to locate the cornerstone on the Township line between sections 24-25 of Lansing Township.  As one may see, it was necessary to re-fill and begin at the other side where the stone was subsequently located” (2, pg. 26). As they stated, they eventually found the cornerstone, but first dug in the wrong spot and had to break through Tarvia paved roads (a type of cost-effective road created by the Barrett Manufacturing Company in 1903 (3) and utilized by the school) with nothing other than pickaxes and shovels (2).

It is through these types of source materials that we can learn about the school’s past from unique perspectives, gain access to materials and resources that we had not previously had, and gain a greater understanding for how research has been conducted at the school through time.  I am excited to keep digging into these MSU-themed research topics and hope to share some of their results and comments in future posts.

 

Sources

  1. http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/
  2. Balbach H.A. and J.J. Zerbe. The Michigan State College Property Boundary from the Intersection of Mount Hope and Hagadorn Roads to the Township Intersection of Mount Hope Road, 1934
  3. https://barrettindustries.com/about-barrett/history/

Figures

Figure 1: Photo by Balbach H.A. and J.J. Zerbe, The Michigan State College Property Boundary from the Intersection of Mount Hope and Hagadorn Roads to the Township Intersection of Mount Hope Road, 1934.

Figure 2: Photo by Balbach H.A. and J.J. Zerbe, The Michigan State College Property Boundary from the Intersection of Mount Hope and Hagadorn Roads to the Township Intersection of Mount Hope Road, 1934, p. 26.