Friday, January 30, 2015

The Sugar-Coated Pill of Secession (and Other Civil War Patriotic Covers)

In previous posts (here, here, and here) I have written about my interest in Civil War patriotic covers (envelopes), especially those that have a medicine-related theme. 

In this post, a share some additions to my collection since I last wrote about them as well as an article about medicine- and bottle-related covers that I had the privilege of writing for Bottles & Extras, the official magazine of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors (FOHBC).

First, a couple of new covers!  Both have a "pill" theme - a common motif in medicine-related covers (see more on this in the article below).  I really like the "Cure for Rebellion" cover as it's my first (and only, for now) "used" cover (generally more difficult to find and/or more expensive than unused covers).


The "Sugar-Coated Pill" above is also very good and carries several motifs: again, the "pill" (this time in terms of "taking one's medicine" rather than a bullet, with the added emphasis on "sugar-coated" - making something unpleasant more palatable; also - lampooning Jefferson Davis (another common theme described in article below); and, finally, some political commentary on the initial reluctance of Virginia to secede coupled with the reward of securing the designation of Richmond as the capital of the Confederacy (taking it over from Montgomery, Alabama).

Enjoy the article!

“Lincoln’s Renowned Rebel Exterminator”
Civil War Patriotic Covers with Bottle or Medicine Themes
By James M. Schmidt
Bottles & Extras - July/Aug 2014

It’s funny how two or more hobbies can collide to form an entirely new one. Such it was when
no less than five of my special interests – Civil War history, bottles, patent medicines, postal history, and 19th century ephemera – combined in the form of collecting Civil War patriotic covers featuring bottles and/or medicine themes. It’s an especially good time to feature these covers in the pages of this magazine as the country is presently commemorating the 150th anniversary of the war.

Civil War "patriotic covers" - that is, envelopes printed with mono- or multi-color images and/or slogans - have long been treasured and collected by philatelists and people interested in Civil War ephemera or postal history. The covers have also recently attracted interest from scholars who study postal history, 19th century art and popular culture, politics, political sloganeering and propaganda, and other related fields.

Besides their practical use for the mail, the images were intended to personalize, inspire, educate, amuse, anger, and elicit other emotions in wartime. It is estimated that between 10-15,000 different covers were designed and published by more than two hundred different printers, North and South, and sold by mail, in stores, by traveling salesmen, by camp sutlers, and other means.

Typical newspaper advertisement for wartime patriotic envelopes from The Big Blue Union, Marysville, Kansas, Feb. 21, 1863
As with bottles, the cost of acquiring patriotic covers depends very much on rarity and desirability.  William R. Weiss, Jr., expert collector and author of the premier catalog of Civil War patriotic covers, states that prices for unused covers start around $5.00 and range into the hundreds of dollars. “Used” covers (addressed, stamped, and cancelled during the war) can run into the thousands of dollars. Mr. Weiss is confident that few fakes exist, but does acknowledge that some firms do sell reproductions as stationery, for living history displays, etc. (1).

Many of the images on the covers - of politicians, famous generals, and battle scenes - are readily familiar to us even today. However, some of the iconography or symbolism may be lost on a modern audience, yet was readily understood by Americans in the mid-19th century. Like any kind of art (and, indeed, that is what these covers are: many of them simple, but many more elegantly engraved and/or hand-colored), some of the images had a deeper meaning. To aid in interpretation of the covers, I highly recommend Steven Boyd’s Patriotic Envelopes of the Civil War: The Iconography of Union and Confederate Covers (2010). (2)

The surprise – as I started collecting – wasn’t that there was a need to specialize; with thousands of covers, there is a plethora of categories to choose from (Weiss has categories of famous people, scenes, army corps and regiments, caricatures, animals, flags, male and female icons, and much more; each with subdivisions). The surprise is how many examples I have found that fit my rather narrow category; I continue to find new examples in online auctions, published catalogs, archival collections, and other sources.

In this article I share some covers from my own collection (as well as covers in other collections I’d like to add to mine). Why not start with a favorite: “Lincoln as Pharmacist.” Indeed, presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were popular subjects on patriotic covers as they personified their respective nations (on Union covers, Davis is generally lampooned and caricatured; likewise, Lincoln on Confederate covers).

In a nicely-engraved, multi-color cover, a beardless Lincoln appears in a red-and-white lab coat and blue star-filled cap. He is surrounded by “remedies” to Southern secession, with cleverly-named proprietary/patent medicines, including “Lincoln’s Renowned Rebel Exterminator,” “Scott’s Extirpation Powders”, “Butler’s Mineral Pills”, “Schenk’s Volatile Pills” (Scott, Butler, and Schenck were generals in the Union army), “Pure Refined National Elixir of Liberty,” and others. If you look closely, you’ll notice the likenesses of “Jeff Davis” and “(P.G.T.) Beauregard,” hanging by nooses and preserved in jars on a shelf.

Lincoln as Pharmacist - James M. Schmidt Collection
Another popular national image was “Uncle Sam” such as below where he appears in covers featuring another clever “medicine” (“Uncle Sam’s Infallible Remedy for all Rebel-ious Complaints”) or holding a bottle labeled "Davis" as he stands over a snake labeled "Secession."

Uncle Sam's Infallible Remedy - James M. Schmidt Collection

Uncle Sam's Recipe for Treason - James M. Schmidt Collection
The covers below carry a theme of “pills” or “Lincoln’s pills,” a common moniker for bullets, balls, shot, and shell during the Civil War, given their resemblance to the shape of a pill.  An example can be found in a letter from an Ohio soldier (3):

“We crossed the stream and took shelter under the opposite bank just in time, for the rebel line dropped into a ditch about twenty-five feet in front of us. We were not long in giving them some of Lincoln’s pills and they returned Jeff’s best.”

Likewise, lines in a poem written by an Indiana soldier state (4):
At New Hope Church and Dallas Hills
We gave them more of "Lincoln's pills”;
And with an aim that always kills,
To show them we have "powder drills."

A Grave Wish - Library of Congress
Lincoln's Pills - Library of Congress
The Union Pill - James M. Schmidt Collection 
To Cure Rebellion - James M. Schmidt Collection
Given that the abolition of slavery was an important aim of the Civil War, it is not surprising that African-Americans – free and enslaved – appear in patriotic covers. Below is an example of just such a cover, again with a medical theme. The "Black Drop" cover features a caricature of an African-American "bottled up" (enslaved) with the text: "A popular medicine used by the C.S.A. aristocracy, that cannot be obtained in any Northern apothecary shop, being com-pound-ed exclusively on the sacred soil." "Black Drop" is a reference to an actual period medicine composed of opium, vinegar, spices, often with sugar, that went by several proprietary names.

Black Drop - Collection of James M. Schmidt
While the cover features a message sympathetic to abolition, it also uses a cartoonish image of an enslaved African American, an all-too-common practice in the Civil War era, even in the North. Indeed, some covers used even more explicit racial epithets or dehumanizing imagery (a sad practice carried in medicine, bitters, and other bottle-related advertising into the 20th century).  Other patriotic covers featured African-Americans in a realistic and humane manner.

I will close the article with another favorite of mine, which features the “Secession Physic Cure” with engravings of “powder,” “Union Bitters,” and “Dr. Scott’s Pills” and the  verse:

To cure secession and its ills
Take Dr. Scott's Cast Iron Pills
Well mixed with powder of saltpetre
Apply it to each "Fire Eater"
With Union Bitters, mix it clever,
And treason is warned off forever
Secession Physic Cure - Collection of James M. Schmidt

There are other bottle- and medicine-related Civil War patriotic covers, but I hope this sample has given readers a flavor for the art and meaning to be found in these interesting pieces of history.


(1) William R. Weiss, Jr., The Catalog of Union Civil War Patriotic Covers (1995); also see his collecting guide
(2) You can read my interview with Dr. Boyd here
(3) History of Knox County Ohio (1881)
(4) A History of the Thirty-First Regiment of Indiana Volunteer Infantry (1900)

1 comment:

Mark said...

Lol, that's some pretty impressive "medicine." Then again, it's probably better than nothing, especially considering what passed for doctors back then.