Popular Medicine in Early America

An Exhibition drawn from the Collections of

Charles E. Rosenberg
William H. Helfand
The Library Company of Philadelphia

Catalogue Essays by
Dr. Rosenberg
Mr. Helfand

Label Copy of Books and Prints by
James N. Green

The Library Company of Philadelphia

The exhibition and catalogue have been generously funded by the Louise Lux-Sions Exhibition Endowment, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, and the Quaker Chemical Foundation.

©1998 by the Library Company of Philadelphia

The exhibtion is open weekdays from April 17 to November 25, 1998, at 1134 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107. For information, call 215-546-3181.


During the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, most Americans healed themselves, as their ancestors had for centuries. Professional medical assistance was either too far away, too expensive, or both. Even wealthy urban families usually attempted some sort of home health care before the doctor was called. This care was usually administered with the aid of books and pamphlets such as those discussed here and displayed in the exhibition.

Today these books are important for what they tell us about how medicine was practiced not in hospitals or laboratories, but in the home, where most practice took place, whether lay or professional. They are also important for the insight they provide into popular ideas about health as well as disease, about diet, exercise, prolonging life, sex, mental health - everything, in short, relating to our bodies and our selves. These concerns are universal, and books about them were ubiquitous then as well as now.

This site is divided into four parts. Charles Rosenberg's essay, The Book in the Sickroom, provides an historical context for the approximately ninety books and pamphlets in the exhibition, which range in date from the early eighteenth century to about 1870. They range widely in subject matter as well, but they all have one feature in common: they were intended to be read by laypersons, not by doctors. Indeed, one of the main themes is the role played by the printing press in disseminating medical knowledge to the public and in promoting systems of practice.

Some popular medical books were little more than advertisements. This fact provides a link to William Helfand's essay on the history of the advertising of medical services and proprietary medicines in America in the same period of time. Mr. Helfand's essay, Advertising Health to the People, provides the context for the sixty or so broadsides, prints, and posters that line the walls of the gallery. Some of the most striking images are reproduced here.

A selection of images from the exhibition appears in Exhibition Highlights. Each image is linked to its appearance in one or the other of the two essays. Also, all the endnotes within the essays are "anchored" so that they can be easily accessed during the reading.

A complete listing of all the label copy in the exhibition forms the last part of the site. Most of them are also cited or discussed in the two essays. The list comprises only a small fraction of the popular medical literature in the Library Company. There is no bibliography of this literature, and the list is not meant to serve as one, but it is hoped that the exhibit and these two essays will draw attention to this important and understudied genre.


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About the Authors

CHARLES E. ROSENBERG is the Janice and Julian Bers Professor of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent books are Explaining Epidemics and Other Studies in the History of Medicine (1992) and The Care of Strangers: The Rise of America's Hospital System (1987). Dr. Rosenberg has been a member of the Library Company's Board of Directors since 1981 and is currently a Vice President.

WILLIAM H. HELFAND, of New York City, is a collector of prints and ephemera dealing with medicine and pharmacy. He is a retired executive of Merck and Co. and is the author of five books and numerous articles on the history of pharmacy. Mr. Helfand is a member of the Library Company's Board of Directors and is also a consultant to the National Library of Medicine, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and other institutions in areas relating to art and medicine.

JAMES N. GREEN is Associate Librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia.
Martha Ruszkowski has translated the catalogue Introduction into Belarusian.

All the information for this website was adapted from a catalogue that is
available for purchase and perusal at the Library Company of Philadelphia.
IntroductionBook in the SickroomAdvertising HealthExhibit HighlightsLabelsLibrary Co.