Author: Jack Biggs

A Close Shave: Personal Grooming and Social Interaction during the Early History of MAC

A Close Shave: Personal Grooming and Social Interaction during the Early History of MAC

The Saints’ Rest excavations conducted by the Campus Archaeology Program have been well-documented and researched not only because this was the inaugural project for CAP, but also that it is one of the earliest buildings on campus, giving us a rare glimpse into how students […]

Modeling the Past: Photogrammetry and Anthropological Research

Modeling the Past: Photogrammetry and Anthropological Research

For my CAP project this year, I decided to do something at which I feel I’m particularly good: creating 3D models of artifacts found during CAP excavations. I have been using digital technologies to render 3D models for about three years now and have created […]

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

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

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 […]

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

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 […]

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

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

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 […]

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

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 […]

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

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

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 […]