Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dr. John S. Sappington - Part III - A Paper Chase

One of many folders of the Dr. John Sappington Papers - State Historical Society of Missouri - Jim Schmidt
"Medicine sales very light; stock is old, labels become old and soiled." - Letter, January 3, 1852, J. D. Gregory to Miles Marmaduke.

Earlier this year I had the great pleasure and privilege of being part of a nonfiction author panel at the 2014 Montgomery County (TX) Book Festival.  One of the authors on the panel was the well-known True Crime writer, Kathryn Casey. She was really nice and interesting.  In answer to a question from the audience about how she does her research, she mentioned that she conducts dozens of interviews for each book - often more than a hundred.

When asked about my research techniques, I said - only half-tongue-in-cheek - that I also did dozens of interviews.  Then I explained that in my case, I didn't interrogate people...I interrogated their "papers" - letters, diaries, receipts, etc. - in order to get the best feeling I could for them, in their own words.

And so it was, as part of this continuing adventure (Part I and II here and here) to learn more about Dr. John Sappington of Arrow Rock, Missouri, I went to his collection of papers (and the Sappington Family Papers), which are right here in Columbia, Missouri, at the State Historical Society.

To - er - paraphrase Boromir from Lord of the Rings:

Created by Yours Truly Using the Meme Generator :-)

That's right! It takes some preparation to make the best use of your time and to help the (ever-helpful) archivists help you!

So, I revisited the great advice my good friend Guy Hasegawa gave me, which proved helpful in my last visit to an archival collection at the Galveston and Texas History Center (blog post about that visit here):

“First, do your homework, and be as specific as possible in stating your research interest,” he told me...His second suggestion is to allow plenty of time: “It takes time to locate microfilm or have paper records retrieved,” he said. He also noted that Civil War documents are generally handwritten and are difficult to read quickly. In short, he concludes: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that any sizable project can be done in one day.”

So, first I did my homework!

The SHS-Columbia has some excellent online manuscript finding aids for the Dr. Sappington Papers (here) and the Sappington Family Papers (here), which helped with making a list before I arrived of items I wanted to see. Also, Lynn Morrow's excellent and scholarly article, “Dr. John Sappington: Southern Patriarch in the New West.” Missouri Historical Review, v. 90, no. 1 (October 1995), pp. 38-60 (here) - included references to a lot of material that would be interesting, so I "mined" his footnotes and made a list of papers I knew I'd want to see.

Second, I limited the amount of material I would ask for, especially since the Saturday hours at the SHS are more limited than weekdays. I identified a few folders I was interested in.  There was indeed more that I would have looked at (and will!)...the time spent in reading and transcribing sometimes doesn't allow for seeing everything, so be sure and prioritize!

It's also important to know the policies and procedures of an archive before you visit as to regulations for what paper, writing utensils, computers, photography, etc. are or are not allowed. The SHS policies are here.

The staff at the SHS-Columbia were VERY helpful and courteous...I look forward to visiting again!

In looking at the Sappington Papers I got a wonderful glimpse into the day-to-day mechanics of his patent medicine enterprise:

Letters from entrepreneurial spirits of all kinds seeking permission to have an exclusive Sappington's Anti-Fever Pills agency.

Handwritten testimonials from satisfied users, some of whom also sought an agency

Letters from agents in the field complaining about the blight of all successful patent medicine proprietors: counterfeit medicine.

Correspondence on the quinine (the principal active ingredient in his pills) market.

Reports that his medicine was not doing as well as the medicines of local proprietors

One of many folders of the Dr. John Sappington Papers - State Historical Society of Missouri - Jim Schmidt

Letters from agents urging Dr. Sappington to advertise that his pills did not contain mineral ingredients

Letters about collection efforts - Sappington was vigilant in collections - more than one set of papers detailed his procurement of slaves in settlement of a debt.

And - much interesting correspondence about the publication and distribution of his book, Sappington on Fevers, discussed in the previous post

It was a great trip and I look forward to returning! Many thanks to the helpful folks at the SHS-Columbia! And: please USE and SUPPORT your local archives...often, if people aren't using them, they'll have a harder time justifying the necessary expense of professional archivists and proper storage and conservation.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Lol, great meme:)