The Victorian House’s top floor consists of a number of bedrooms and an ornate ballroom. One of bedrooms was converted into a doctor’s office in which there is a cabinet filled with forty-eight bottles from Millersburg’s now shuttered Hoffman’s Drugstore. I knew what a few items were for such as boric acid, but for the most part had never heard of any of them. So I chose several—curcuma longa, cassia buds, emery, ulmus, and sanguis—and looked them up in a couple of nineteenth dispensary books to figure out what pharmacists used them for.
Curcuma longa is a tuberous root from the East Indies that, when consumed, makes one’s urine dark yellow. It was used to treat liver diseases, jaundice, emaciation, dropsy (the accumulation of excessive fluid such as one sees in congestive heart failure) and fevers. The British stopped using it for these treatments around 1825, instead employing it as a coloring dye. Cassia buds come from the cassia tree from the East Indies whose bark is a cheap substitute for cinnamon. This is what most of us eat today. It was believed cassia buds prevented heart disease, fought diabetes, and served as an antitoxin. Lycopodium is a moss that showed up in most pharmacies as a pale yellow powder. It was used as an ingredient in pill making and was thought to treat epilepsy, rheumatism, and problems with the kidneys and heart. Its use for these ailments was discredited by 1885.
Ulmus fulva came from the inner bark of the elm tree. It was used to treat diarrhea, dysentery, and problems with urinary passages. In the nineteenth century source I consulted, there was one recorded case that a boy of fifteen eating this died, but an autopsy revealed he had consumed the bark raw and it was probably that rather than any poisonous properties that killed him. There were two recorded cases where the chewing and swallowing of the bark resulted in the removal of a tapeworm.
Emery is an exceptionally hard mineral whose powder can wear down anything but a diamond. It was used to polish hard stones and metals and was clearly sold by the pharmacy for purposes other than personal consumption. There are two kinds of sanguis. One is dried bull’s blood. It seems more likely most pharmacies would have had sanguis dragonis, or dragon’s blood, which is a resin from a plant found in the Maluku Islands, Thailand, and other places in that region of the world. It was once used to reduce bodily fluids such as blood or mucus, but by 1885 its was primarily an ingredient in paint and varnish.
One of the rooms on the house’s top floor belonged to the maid. It was sparsely decorated because one didn’t want one’s servant to get above her station. Until the advent of modern technologies such as electric lights, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, and so forth, upper class families in the United States usually required an army of servants to do the drudgery work so as to give the family leisure time. Some middle class families also employed servants.
The museum’s information sign on the topic of servants concluded, “For the most part, these domestic workers had an appreciation for their work, with the opportunity to live in an upper class home and have job security.” Although a bit too sweeping a statement to be accurate in all cases, it is true that servants who worked in rural houses such as the one the Brightmans had were paid better wages than what they would have earned in a large city such as Cleveland. The paradox here is that while rural servants made more, they had far less places in which to spend their wages.
In the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, if you wanted to find houses where an army of servants worked, you went to see Millionaire’s Row’s mansions on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. The family occupied the center of the house and the servants the wings. The latter cooked, cleaned, laundered, and, when their long day finally ended, slept. The wings were purposely constructed using inferior materials and built with less craftsmanship because servants didn’t need luxury around them. They had to share baths and had their own plain, functional back staircase that contrasted with the decorative main one used by the family. Mansions were better to work in because they often had luxuries such as central heating, flush toilets, and electric.
People had a number of reasons to enter domestic service in the United States. For unskilled laborers it was an opportunity to learn a trade. For immigrants off the boat, it meant a steady wage as well as room and board. Servants had their own social status and pecking order. At the top of that hierarchy was the housekeeper, exceeded in rank only in the rare home that had a man who served exclusively as a butler. Next came the cook who, in addition to preparing meals, had to keep track of cooking expenses, oversee the kitchen staff, and be good at time management. Housekeepers and cooks achieved their ranks only after years of service and experience. Personal maids came next. Those at this rank needed to be able to sew, groom, and deal with wardrobe issues.
At the very bottom of the servant rung were kitchen and scullery maids. Unlike the housekeeper and cook, they rarely if ever interacted with the family, instead taking their orders from higher ranking servants. The next step up would be assistant cook, maids-of-all-work, and parlor maids. The highest ranking maid was the aforementioned personal one. The laundress was independent from the hierarchy and often lived outside the home. She usually came once a week. Few homes had a fulltime laundress, and as laundry businesses began to populate Cleveland, the need to hire a specific person to do this work disappeared.
In England servants usually came from the lower classes, and knowing their station in society after centuries of a strict social order, they rarely showed signs of open rebellion against those considered their betters. American servants weren’t so docile and rebelled where they could. Employers dreaded having servants indicate they were quitting by going through the front door and slamming it behind them. This was known as the “wooden damn.” White servants resented being called by that name because of its negative connotations associated with serfdom, indentured servitude, and especially slavery. In time even non-white servants resented this appellation, forcing employers to adopt euphemistic terms such as “the help.”
Bottles from Hoffman's Drug Store
The Teisher family bear is in the house's lawn.
No self-respecting historical museum is without a least one piano or organ.