Revisiting a 19th-century Flea Glass from the Southern Dispensary

by Patricia Samford, Director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Lab

Since the theme of Maryland Archeology Month 2021 is  “The Archeology of Healing and Medicine,” I thought it would be a great time to revisit a rudimentary microscope called a “flea glass,” which I first studied in a February 2017 Curator’s Choice piece. The monthly Curator’s Choice series highlights significant or unusual artifacts from the Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Lab collections, and a 19th-century flea glass from the Southern Dispensary in Baltimore qualifies on both counts.

“The eye of a human being is a microscope,
which makes the world seem bigger than it really is.”
– Khalil Gibran (1883-1931)

Nineteenth-century physicians often required more than just the naked eye to assist them in offering quality health care to their patients. Using magnifying devices, like this simple microscope, also called a flea glass, allowed them to gain a better view of wounds or conduct routine visual examinations of ears, eyes, and throats.

An example of a handled Flea Glass Dating to the Second Quarter of the Nineteenth Century.
(Source: https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/simple-microscope-flea-glass-245822098)

Invented in the 1500s, flea glasses were used primarily for studying insects and other small life forms rather than for medical purposes—hence the name. A small, convex lens held nearest to the eye and a larger, flat lens at the opposite end of a short metal tube allowed for magnification ranges of 6x to 10x.

The lenses and iron fittings of a flea glass or similar simple microscope were recovered from a circa 1850-1870 privy excavated at the Federal Reserve site (18BC27) in Baltimore. This magnifying instrument may have been originally mounted on a stand. A medical use for this scientific instrument was assumed because the privy fill also contained a number of other artifacts relating to medical care, including a mortar and pestle, a salve jar, a pill tile, a leech jar, a number of medicine bottles, and a possible stethoscope.

Flea Glass or Simple Microscope from the Federal Reserve Site (Top and Side Views).
Photo by Nicole Doub, MAC Lab.

Documentary records indicate that the privy was located near the Southern Dispensary, a branch of the Baltimore General Dispensary. A dispensary supplied free medicine and health care for citizens who could not otherwise afford medical services. The Southern Dispensary, funded by charitable donations and a small appropriation from the city, was incorporated in 1847 and remained in operation until at least 1889 (Woods 1847; Register 1890). The dispensary offered both clinic and in-home health care (Polk 1888).

Simple Microscope Mounted on a Stand.
Similar instruments were illustrated as early as 1685 in Oculus Artificialis by Johann Zahn

With large populations living in close proximity, it was critical for cities to provide medical services. At various times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever and smallpox, struck Baltimore (Mdmedicine 2017). Clinics like the Southern Dispensary played key roles in treating infected individuals and preventing widespread epidemics.

References

Bradbury, S.
1968 The Microscope Past and Present. Pergamon International Popular Science Series. Pergamon Press, Ltd., Oxford.

Mdmedicine
2017 Epidemics in Maryland. Website accessed January 13, 2017. http://mdhistoryonline.net/mdmedicine/index.cfm?action=epidemics

Polk, R. L.
1888 The Medical Directory and Register for Baltimore, Washington, Maryland and District of Columbia. R. L. Polk & Co., Baltimore.

Register
1890 Annual Reports of the Register of the City and the Commissioners of Finance. John Cox, Printer, Baltimore.

Woods, John W.
1847 The Act of Incorporation and By-laws, of the Southern Dispensary of Baltimore: Together with a List of Officers for 1847. Baltimore.

Zahn, Johann
1685 Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium. Würzburg, Germany.

Maryland Archeology Month 2021: The Archeology of Healing and Medicine

By Charlie Hall, State Terrestrial Archaeologist

When the Maryland Archeology Month Committee “met” (and we all know what it means to “meet” these days!) this past Fall our most important piece of business was to select the theme for the 2021 celebration. While this is a bit routine – choosing the theme is always the most important item on the agenda at our kick-off meeting – there was a difference this year. Try as I might to generate some debate (we had many excellent candidates), there really was no question that the Maryland Archeology Month theme for 2021 would echo the principal theme of these times: the worldwide effort to overcome COVID-19. The Committee was clear, however, that the theme should reflect the hopeful and positive aspects of the current stage of the pandemic. We are currently vaccinating over 3,000,000 people every day in the US, and are within weeks of the time when everyone will be eligible to receive a vaccination. This is indeed hopeful and positive. At this rate Maryland Archeology Month 2022 may mark the return to the usual menu of in-person public-engaging events including lectures, workshops, public excavations, open labs, and more.

2021 Maryland Archeology Month Poster - Featuring images of medically-related artifacts.
2021 Maryland Archeology Month Poster

That was no typo. I meant 2022. This year will mark the second COVID-19 affected Maryland Archeology Month (MAM). The virus hit with a vengeance last March just as we were preparing to celebrate. We were all reeling from the changes the response to the state of emergency meant in our day-to-day lives, and for MAM event sponsors this meant cancelations. Yet we
persevered! Governor Hogan declared that April 2020 was Archeology Month in Maryland. The mailing went out as usual. Within the confines of the restrictions that were being put into effect, efforts were made to mark the celebration. Several blogs and video lectures were posted on the internet, and a web-based storymap was launched.

This year we have the added benefit of being able to plan with the pandemic as the controlling factor. We know that most in-person events will not be possible. As a result, we have planned many more virtual events. Below is a sampling of events you can attend without leaving the comfort – and safety – of your home. Note that information regarding these and other events, as well as links to the host organization’s website, can be found on the Maryland Archeology Month website at www.marylandarcheologymonth.org. Visit this website often as the list of events will no-doubt grow!

Digging History: Screening with Q&A: Archaeological Discoveries at the Hagerstown Jonathan Street Cabin. This virtual event will stream live from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM on Tuesday April 6th. Hosted by Preservation Maryland with the Maryland Department of Transportation, Maryland Public Television, and the Western Maryland Community Development Corporation, this free event will feature a 5 minute mini-documentary featuring the archaeological investigation of the Jonathan Street Cabin in the heart of an African American neighborhood in Hagerstown. Archaeologists will answer questions from the audience following the mini-documentary screening. Visit https://www.preservationmaryland.org/ and look for Upcoming Events to register.

How Do I Get a Job in Archaeology These Days? If you are looking to get a job as an archaeologist then this webinar, hosted by the Council for Maryland Archeology and the University of Maryland is for you! Join host Jessica Brannnock and a panel of employed archeologists on Thursday April 8th from 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM to learn how you too can get the job you want! Visit https://cfma-md.com/ and click on Announcements for information and to register.

Maryland Archeology Month: Rockville Students Excavate the Riggs House. Join this free Zoom lecture at 12:00 PM Thursday April 15th . Join the Peerless Rockville Historic Preservation, Ltd., and retired Richard Montgomery High School teacher and avocational archaeologist Bob Hines as they discuss the four seasons of archaeological investigations at the home site of one of Montgomery County’s most influential families. Visit the Peerless Rockville website (https://www.peerlessrockville.org/) and click on Events to register.

Finding Common Ground: Can Relic Hunters and Archeologists Work Together? Are metal detectorists and archaeologists the oil and water of the search for the material past? Is there a way the two can coexist and perhaps even benefit each other? Join a diverse panel of experts on Thursday April 15th at 1:00 PM for this free webinar, hosted by Preservation Maryland (https://www.preservationmaryland.org/, look for Upcoming Events).

Unearthing St. Mary’s Fort, the Founding Site of the Maryland Colony. Found it! If you follow the news you know about this national headline story. Funded by an MHT Historic Preservation Non-Capital Grant, archaeologists at Historic St. Mary’s City found the first fort built by the English colonists who settled Maryland in 1634. Learn about this historic discovery from the Director of Research and Collections Dr. Travis Parno between 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM on Thursday April 15th (visit https://www.hsmcdigshistory.org/events/ and click on Visit Us, then on Events to learn more about this YouTube event).

The Archeology of Healing and Medicine. Three authors of essays published in this year’s Archeology Month booklet will discuss their topics in a free webinar hosted by the Council for Maryland Archeology and the Maryland Historical Trust on Thursday April 22nd between 2:00 PM and 3:00 PM. Visit https://cfma-md.com/ and click on Announcements for information and to register. In addition to these live streaming events, the Council for Maryland Archeology and the Maryland Historical Trust will be posting short video interviews with each of the eight authors of the essays published in this year’s Archeology Month booklet on the Maryland Historical Trust’s YouTube channel. These video interviews will be available on demand this month (and beyond!)

You can expect additional written blogs and other online content as well. You’ll want to visit the Maryland Archeology Month website (www.marylandarcheologymonth.org) often as new content will be developed and links will be posted throughout the month. This website is also your source for this year’s Maryland Archeology Month poster and booklet, both of which can be downloaded there. Other content, including a listing of year-round volunteer opportunities, is available from this website, and will be updated often throughout the year. Cross listing of events on the hosts’ websites, as well as on the website of the Archeological Society of Maryland (www.marylandarcheology.org) will help to spread the word as widely as possible.

You’re going to be busy this April!