July 25, 2013
While Nicole is working on the taxidermy specimens, I have the great pleasure of delving into the history and treatment of a range of objects collected by Martin Itjen and George Rapuzzi for the Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum to illustrate life at the turn of the century. A large, early slot machine, a gambling wheel, and even an old beer keg speak to the gaming and alcohol industries that moved here with the early miners. A pair of bellows would have been essential to the metalwork that helped build the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, making Skagway, rather than rival Dyea, the boomtown that stayed. In more modern times, a desktop frame would have allowed visitors to the Parlor Museum to sign in the guest register as tourism became a leading industry in Skagway.
On the lighter side, an early Edison phonograph sparks the imagination, wondering about the music people would have played on those old wax cylinders. And a gum machine, designed to dispense sticks of gum for a nickel. The flavors? Peppermint, obviously a long-lived stand-by, and “blood orange”…that one did not stand the test of time as well.
When I arrived here this summer, I had just completed one year into my three year graduate school program back in Delaware, so this internship is a great opportunity to continue working with a variety of materials and designing treatments so that they can be used for many years to come in the new museum. It has also been my first opportunity to visit Alaska. Although the weather is definitely different than what I am used to in the summer, it has been easy to get out and take advantage of the wonderful hiking trails in the area.
The gum machine also traveled a long way to get here. The turn of the century saw a growing network of connections across the country that happily fed the funneling of goods that supplied the Klondike Gold Rush. So here we have a luxury consumer good made by a company in New Jersey, with a sales office in San Francisco, that finds a home in Alaska.
The gum machine actually has its roots even farther away, in London, where the first vending machines were used to dispense postcards and then books. But when the technology came to the United States and was installed in the New York City subway, the first product sold was sticks of Tutti-Frutti gum. (It wasn’t until 1907 that gumballs, and subsequently gumball machines, were invented.) This led to a chain of patents for automatic machines, including ones for a peanut-vending machine and even a coin-controlled electric-shock machine.
All this change was not greeted enthusiastically by all. In my research I came across a news piece in the British Medical Journal from 1897, which bemoaned the sight of so many young women partaking of this new fade, gum chewing, and warned of the dangers it posed for young children who swallowed their gum. Thinking of the warnings I received as I was growing up about chewing gum in school or, worse yet, swallowing gum, maybe not that much has changed after all.
This particular brand of gum can be seen in the label across the front: “Automatic Clerk Mansfield’s Choice Pepsin Gum”. The now classic Beeman’s gum, sold in retro candy shops around the country, was originally a pepsin gum, created by Dr. Beeman as a digestive aid (though the Beeman’s gum sold now has a different formula).
One of the most interesting parts of researching the gum machine was figuring out how it worked. For this, I had the help of Mr. Scott Logan, one of the maintenance employees here at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, who is much more mechanically-minded than myself. With his help, we figured out how the gum machine worked, including how it was designed to stop dishonest customers from putting in just a penny rather than a nickel. To do this, a piece of wire is designed to push coins to the outside of a track- a nickel is just large enough to remain in the track and continue, setting in motion the mechanisms to release a stick of gum. A penny however is just slightly too small, and falls into a cup at the top of the track, leaving the cheating customer one cent poorer and still without the gum.
Over time, the glass case of the gum machine had become dirty, making it more difficult to see all these mechanisms. These had contributed to our understanding of its operation, so we wanted visitors to be able to see them as clearly as possible as well. The first step of treatment therefore was to remove the glass case and clean it, inside and out.
Another goal of the treatment was to re-secure the felt lining between the pieces of glass, so that these parts did not suffer further damage and we could keep the piece as close to its original structure and condition as possible. We also wanted to re-secure the paper label on the back, because it had information on the company and instructions for loading gum into the machine, important for the object’s history. The treatment therefore included carefully feeding the felt back into its original location, and using a specially prepared glue to keep the edges and tears of the paper label in place.
With this treatment completed, it will be time to continue forward with the many other objects on my list for the summer, learning more about the past as I examine and treat each one. It will be exciting to see what new information the Parlor Museum collections hold in store.