How I started |
Who collects |
Mental Games |
Dating items |
Surgical blades |
This page last
There is no intent
on my part to profess to "know the all the answers" about the topics covered
on this web site. These are my personal notes and I'm sharing what I
know at this point with those who may be seeking their way into antique
My one advantage is
in knowing... I know nothing and nothing presented here is an absolute. Any
additional information or knowledge is welcome.
I have been
collecting medical antiques after having received an early brass microscope as
a present from a friend in the 1990's. The first year, I asked around among the
general antique dealers in my home town of Ft. Myers, Florida and found they
knew nothing about collecting the medical area. So, I figured if no one
was collecting medical antiques there should be a lot of it around as there
were so many retired doctors in this area of Florida. I was right and
quickly amassed a huge pile of "junk", any number of antique dealer "friends",
but also some real finds that spurred me onto the next level. Even
though I really started out collecting brass microscopes, I quickly found they
were way too close to the pathology department of my college days to keep me
entertained... so that ended.
Next I tried the
Antique Trader magazine and placed a display ad. This was
productive because it brought me in contact with two long-time closet
collectors who would sell me their medical collections. I got on a
plane, looked at the collections and then shipped them back home. Now I was
really hooked. (This was before eBay started.)
During the next two
years, in complete isolation (very dangerous!), I started looking for information to research
the areas that interested me and ran into a stone wall. There was no
published "how to" information and what was published, was closely guarded by
the temple priests. Let me digress a moment and tell you I was no
beginning collector. I had collected high grade gold coins and top of
the line Winchester rifles for twenty years. I had also been collecting
high grade antique fishing lures and was used to paying five figures.
Since I had been collecting at the top of the food chain, I thoroughly
understood the ins and outs of collecting high-dollar material. I knew
knowledge was your 'only friend' in any antique area, so I knew what I had to
do...get extensive knowledge.
accumulated related books and early surgical instrument catalogs so things
started to make sense. With the publication of Edmonson's excellent book
in 1997, American Surgical Instruments,
I saw the light historically and once again became deeply interested.
But, things were rapidly changing. Ebay had just begun and we all know
that story. With the Internet, all kinds of medical material becomes
available and once again knowledge is your ONLY friend. Emotional buying
will quickly turn you into a pauper if you have expensive tastes.
I had made the
acquaintance of a couple other collectors, to whom I shall always be grateful,
who wanted to know what I had in my collection. So I put some photos of
my "junk" on a Website I called 'medicalantiques.com'. It was no
big deal, just a couple weeks work and then I just sat back and waited
to see what would happen. The Website was quickly discovered by any
number of journalists and TV programs. The next thing I knew, I had a
huge bill for Internet server time due to all the "hits" the national coverage
produced. Most Webmasters would kill for that problem.
I didn't really know what to do about it, so I just played with the site and it has
evolved into what you now see on braceface.com. As of July 1999, my good friend and
fellow collector Doug Arbittier has joined me in being a part of the MedicalAntiques.com site as well as a contributor of information.
Eventually, I asked Doug to take over medicalantiques.com and I now maintain
this braceface.com/medical site for my personal use and research on Civil War
medicine and surgery as well isolating the Civil War collection. Together, we are able to spread the
"word" about our medical history and help other collectors.
I later sold off parts of my original medical collection, which I no longer wished to
collect and narrowed my interests to just surgical sets. Due to having
narrowed my interests, I created "American Surgical Antiques".
During the past few years, I have further narrowed my interests to only
Civil War era surgical instruments and renamed the site American Civil War
Surgical Antiques. I have a lot less 'stuff' too, which is good.
I've been fortunate to have purchased and added some unique
items to the collection and have settled back to what I hope will be a long
and interesting experience of collecting these unique pieces of our history
and meeting others with similar interests.
Who collects this medical stuff
The serious medical
collectors of early (pre-1900) medical and surgical instruments are generally
a quiet, well heeled, and knowledgeable group who tend to collect in
From what I have pieced together, most if
not the majority of the long-term collectors are doctors of some ilk.
If you had joined the Medical Collectors group (no longer in operation as of
2005), you would have noted the majority of the collectors were MD's. There are also
collectors who are in associated fields like, pathology, history, educators,
or medical manufacturing.
Some of the larger collections are in the hands of a few older physicians
and museums who started way back when and amassed significant collections
via auctions and dealer networks. This is not to cast dispersions on
any one who collects in other areas of medical antiques, but obviously my
collecting interests are now focused on the pre-1865 era and that is
the bias of this discussion for now.
There are several
general directions a collection can take:
collecting which covers it all
Historical pieces, to
include heavily used instruments and sets
mixed with some American makers
sets, mixed with some European sets
instruments without regard to 'sets'
collecting which tends to lean toward more complete and unused sets
collecting which will encompass a larger scope of sets and instruments
without worrying about the condition.
These directions can
cross and mix producing many varied types of collections which reflect the
taste and personality of the given collector.
Of course museums
collect and display many of the finest pieces, but some individual collections
would approximate the large institutional collections if not in size, then in
quality. Many of the museums acquired their collections from individual
collectors who donated or bequeathed their lifetime collections. Most
serious collectors are very quiet about their obsession and quietly display
their collections only in their homes. (Based on my personal experience, this
quietness about the obsession is due to the looks one gets when you tell
others you collect old steak knives and bloody saws) There are a few
collectors who display their collections in their offices or hospital
Most of us have
been confronted by other members of our respective professions who do not
understand or care about these historical items and scoff at their value or
show little interest. It's their loss and our gain. You may or may
not be surprised to learn that many sets are sold by antique dealers to parents of
individuals graduating from medical school. These gifts place individual
sets in the hands of non-collectors who may become collectors in the future.
collectors may be among the largest group of individuals who possess surgical
sets. Most Civil War collectors try to place at least one representative
set in their collections. My experience to date is that many of the sets
purchased for this purpose are not really of Civil War vintage. However,
collecting Civil War artifacts is a growing interest and sure to bury many
more sets than strictly medical collectors will acquire.
Another group of
individuals who actively collect medical instruments are the Civil War
re-enactors. The re-enactors recreate surgical and medical dramas
exhibiting procedures which took place during the Civil War . They
typically are not interested in being all that precise about which era or
makers' instruments are used for the drama, but they do tend to buy a lot of
instrument material which would normally be repatriated with the correct sets
by preservationists like myself.
Without doubt, the
greatest concentration of surgical sets is most likely in the hands of family
members of deceased doctors whose instruments have remained in the family.
Many isolated sets are owned by individuals who will never be known or seen
again within our lifetime. These individuals do not collect, but just
'own' a single set for any number of reasons. These are the people who
typically contact me through this Website to do research or offer their
heirloom for sale...
Most of the younger
collectors at this time are a diverse and scattered group who have little or
no connection with one another. There is no real "club" or
organized group other than "The Medical Collectors Association, run by M.
Donald Blaufox, M.D., Ph.D in New York has ceased to exist.
If you wanted to
meet with other collectors, the best route may be the two or three antique
scientific instrument meets which occur per year in the Northeast. There
are only a handful of active antique medical dealers who sell mainly medical
antiques, many of whom also deal scientific or Civil War antiques. The
patrons of those individuals are a closely held secret as there is much
competition for the really choice sets which rarely come to market. When
I talk about "patrons", we're talking the $3,000 and up for a single item
buyers. I caution you to be very, very cautious about working with some
of these individuals.
In general, the
community of collectors of medical antiques tend to be a highly educated group
with their interests concentrated in the area of their specialty if they are
in the medical field. It is not unusual to find a specialist, like an
ob/gyn, collecting the tools of the trade. Some of us are more eclectic
and collect widely out of curiosity or the love of well-made and historical
With the advent of eBay, medical collecting changed radically. The
antique dealer network appeared to be in total disarray for the first couple
of years due to the field pickers or general antique dealers taking
their "finds" directly to the Internet to sell and by-passing the more
specialized medical antique dealers.
The medical dealers
are complaining loudly about this fact, but it is in fact a blessing for the
collectors. In the past, the antique medical dealers bought pieces
in Europe or from places like the Brimfield Antiques outdoor shows and then
sold them to isolated collectors. One long-term collector remarked upon finding
eBay how he placed more material in his collection in one week on eBay than he
bought in antique shops in a year. The eBay route provides more material
at a lower cost because of the supply being available and it eliminates travel
and time costs.
me say that the comfort of buying an "authentic" piece from a reputable
collector or dealer will more than off-set the discomfort one feels from the supposedly
sweet deal on eBay that turns out to be a fake. EBay does have its share
of fakes and misrepresentations. When paying above the $1,000
mark, a knowledgeable collector who will help authenticate a piece is well
worth the effort.
What has happened
in all areas of antiques with the advent of the Internet auction and eBay in
particular, is collectors have been taught what they had been told by dealers
was rare and priceless was in fact not rare at all and prices fell....!
It has happened due to the vast amount of information now available on-line.
Knowledge is power
and that power has shifted from the dealers to the buyers.
started with medical collecting:
So you want to
start collecting medical antiques? First, and foremost, arm yourself
with every book you can buy. It's going to cost you several
hundred dollars, but will help direct your search and ultimately save you
thousands in mistakes. See the
of this Website for direction to sources for the books I use, but note that my
interests have narrowed and I do not list all collecting books.
first buy can be daunting, so finding someone to hold your hand and mentor you
can be helpful. Connecting with other collectors is your best bet.
Bannerman's 1904 catalog of Army Medical Dept. surplus
c. 1860-70's Stethoscopes
Mental games in medical
confronted with making a high-end buy, I have a number of mental tests which I
run to determine if I really want to make the buy or not. They are:
When was the last time I saw one of these and what is the likelihood I'll
see another one? (Dangerous test if you are a beginner and think
everything is rare!) After you collect for a while and build up contacts
among other collectors, the feeling that you will see another piece again is
more positive. The longer you collect, the more you understand what is
really rare and what is not. There are lots of items out there still in the
hands of non-collectors.
pass on this, can I find another one in the same condition? (Mental
masturbation at best.)
it really something I will enjoy in my collection? (Do you get warm and fuzzy feelings?)
With the passage of time, we all tire of parts of our collections. Today's
passion is tomorrow's trader. It happens.
want to go off in another collecting direction, or stay on the path I have
decided upon? (One tends to collect that which is available. Do what
works for you. Adapt.)
going to get mad at myself if I let this pass? (Who among us has not kicked
him or herself for passing on a piece because "it cost too much", only to
later wallow in regret?) There will be another, but the test is when and how
much will it cost next time around.
price out of line with my experience or that of other collectors of a like
mind? (One doesn't want to pay too much and be seen as "stupid" by ones'
peers? On the other hand, stupid today maybe smart tomorrow!) Always pay a
premium for quality. You never go wrong with the best. (I will keep
repeating this mantra.)
survived? Is it really rare? (Experience is the only teacher. When you first
begin collecting, everything is rare because you don't know how many are
a fad buy? Will this "hot area" pass and should I just wait until the demand
dies down? (One or two competing collectors can drive the prices on a
limited supply and when they drink their fill, the price will drop like a
rock. . A few competing collectors can drive the price through the roof but
once they finish their collections, prices settled back down as calmer
collectors re-enter the market.)
the item worth a premium to obtain at this time? (If it is a rare and a once in a life
time opportunity to fill a hole in the collection...just do it! That
post-purchase depression gradually fades after a while....I hope.)
people collect this item? (If you and two other guys are the only ones
collecting a given item, don't overpay for the right to own it.) If you are
the only person collecting a given item, then you have to think twice about
being held up for a high price. Where else are they going to sell it?
item so unique that no one else would want it but me? (A collectible is not
a good investment unless other people want it.) Yes, I realize that the pure
of heart collector doesn't really care, but at the levels which items go for
these days, you have to weigh the cost vs. return on investment equation.
And finally, how am I going to get out of this item if and when I want to
move it to another collector or dealer? (Is it a good investment? Is there a
market for the item?) Quality will always move. As long as you have the best
available, you won't have to apologize when it comes time to sell.
Dating Surgical and Medical Items:
parameters for determining the approximate age of cased medical antiques:
If you accept the assumption
that Lister's work on germ theory changed the habits of the surgical
community about 1880, then porous materials use on surgical instruments were
most likely eliminated post 1880. Instruments with bone, horn,
composite, ebony, or ivory handles will generally be prior to 1880, but they
continued to be produced in Europe even after the advent of "sterile"
technique. Some non-metallic handled instruments can be found being
produced in the the turn of the century. Metal handled saws
should be assumed to be post 1880 and more likely closer to 1900 in the USA.
A note from a German collector, Detlef
Frobenius: "In Germany, instruments with ebony, horn or tortoise handles
were still listed till 1920. In old catalogs you can find scalpels,
bistouries and saws with a non-metal handle until 1920, but we don't know if
they were still sold. So with European instruments, a non-metal
grip may not always a sure hint the instrument was
manufactured pre-1880. Marks of the instrument makers on the piece were very
common after 1850, instruments before that period only very, very
occasionally have a mark (stamp) of the manufacturer."
The gradual removal of porous
material like hard rubber, ebony, bone, or ivory handles would have followed
the acceptance of germ theory as the cause of infection and eliminated
because they could not be effectively sterilized. Civil War items were
not sterilized, but merely "wiped clean". When someone offers you an item
with a metal handle and claims it to be "Civil War", just draw them in to
the discussion of Lister's germ theory and the time frame when that
occurred. Watch for the seller's progressively rapid darting of the
eyes as you move into that logic.
manufactures of instruments moved to follow the "germ free" trend and
changed the materials used to construct handles. As this was before
the plating of steel, sterilization rapidly ruined the unplated steel and
this would account for the poor condition of many unplated steel or iron
blades or instruments. Plating can be found on earlier instruments,
but it was not common and would have been precious metals like silver and
gold. Nickel plating first occurred approximately during the
1860-1870's in the Americas and in the 1840's in France.
The earlier more ornate instruments had ivory or carved handles.
typical post 1890's all metal plated surgical set
Typically, the wood used on early surgical cases was either rose wood,
fruitwood, or mahogany prior to the 20th century. Usually cases from
the 1800's were in more ornate cases like mahogany and had brass inlaid on
the corners or tops and the interiors were lined with velvet, chamois, silk,
or other plush material. Later, post 1880 cases used oak, pine,
and walnut which were not lined. About 1890, some US companies used
the fake leatherette finish on wood boxes and this kind of container is
typical of the post 1900 era. Many UK and French manufactures started
using the leatherette finish much earlier.
here is a methodology for researching instrument manufacture dates:
Examine the artifact for manufacturer's
For later material, patent date/patent number
Manufacturer/distributor name or trademark
Country of production
Material of composition (sometimes revealed through plating)
use of instrument
Identify item in trade catalog via library or
Establish eponymic name
of item in print
Research historical context
Use in medical procedures
Appearance/non-appearance of aseptic joints, etc.
anatomy to determine age:
The blade of the longer American
made amputation knives (Liston's) can be curved (earlier) or straight
(later). Revolutionary War era sets would have long blade
amputation knives which are noticeably curved downward. By the time of
the Civil War, the blades were pretty much straight across the top or back
of the long blade and remained so through the end of the century.
the extensive photo article on surgical blades relative to dating them.
Blade shapes on
amputation knives are a good indication as to era. In general, the
earlier blades are more curved downward. The earlier handles are
heavier that the later handles. Later, post 1860 blades, were
straighter. As can be seen in the photo below, the upper knife (1840)
is more curved than the middle blade (1850) and the lower blade (1870) is
straight. Also, note the blunt point on the earlier blades as opposed
to the later more traditional knife blade design.
Older styles c. 1840 -
1850's two at the top.
Later c. 1860's - 1870's single at the bottom
about replacement parts in cased sets: since the early instruments were
handcrafted, the slots in the velvet lined tray or wood case in which the
individual instruments are seated are custom made for that specific
instrument. This means a given instrument will only fit in that one
slot. Replacements will rarely fit exactly into the slot of a case and
this is one of the tell-tale signs of a set having been 'monkeyed-with'.
If you know enough about the variations of different makers, you can match
correct era and styles of instruments to fill partial sets, but 90% of the
time, the instruments will not match or fit in a given set case.
buy an 1800's set with the hope of replacing a missing part, get ready for a
long wait. It isn't likely to happen unless it was someone like
Tiemann or the large commercial suppliers during the Civil War who had a
production line and standardized certain instruments. Smaller makers
made their instruments one at a time and the odds of finding a missing part
are slim and none.
Identification of various instruments found in amputation sets is listed
Replaced parts in
sets is the greatest problem in buying surgical sets. Some well-known dealers are
notorious for placing incorrect parts in sets they sell.
Pricing and Collectors:
Everyone wants to
know what their medical antiques are worth. Well, that's a
difficult question and I just don't know. If the condition is new in the
box, the interest level increases and the value goes up. Many times,
price is relative to demand and the demand varies with the exposure of the
item to collectors. Typically antique dealers pay very little for
medical items because there is great risk they will be stuck with the item for
long periods of time. There is also the great risk of a set or
item not being correct, or containing inconsistent substitutions.
The number one
problem with collecting this type of antique material is first identification,
and then figuring out if it's all there. Partial kits or instruments are
not very valuable. Unlike art, which you can look up in a text, medical
antiques are fairly undocumented other than in auction catalogs, texts, or the
precious few published museum documents available. Only a few true
experts exist. Via this Website, I am trying to share as much knowledge
as possible with other collectors, pricing, and availability of various
evaluating unknown sets;
valuation of a
surgical set; and
on this site.
really nice medical items have changed hands within the professional community
at what could only be described as relatively modest prices. When
major pieces have been sold at the auctions houses in New York or London, the
prices are not all that great due to a limited number of collectors or museums
willing to pay top dollar. Unlike art collectors, medical
collectors tend to be a quiet group and not display their collections.
They are typically collectors of the history of the profession, rather than
investor/collectors. So little is known about many medical
items found in the back alleys of antique shops that one is at great risk if
one pays more than a few hundred dollars. In general, the
items sold on eBay auctions are quiet often of questionable authenticity as
reflected in the lower prices realized. On the other hand, sometimes
prices paid at on-line auctions will be disproportionately high. It all
depends on who is bidding.
So, where do you go
to find comparable prices for sets or individual instruments? Search the
auction catalogs of Christies, Sotheby's, eBay, and the older auction houses
in the Northeast. Study antique magazines which cater to scientific and
medical sales. Contact museums and see if they will divulge prices paid
for their collections. (Doubtful!) Attend large antique fairs or
shows and see what is placed for sale and then try to figure out what was
actually paid. As you can see, it isn't easy. It really boils down
to "It's worth what someone is willing to pay and nothing more."
If you spend a huge
amount of time on eBay, you can get an idea of relative prices collectors or
dealer/buyers are willing to pay for a given item at a given time. If
you know the dealers who bid on eBay, you can get a pretty good idea what the
"wholesale" price is to them since they generally have a good idea what a
given piece will bring on the collector market. In some cases,
they will pay top dollar because they know some isolated busy doctor who will
pay whatever they say and not question the price.
Not everyone has
time to dig and watch the collectible market and that is why they employ the
use of a "good reputable" dealer. Again, just
ask and I'll try to point you in the right direction based on my or friends experience.
In my collecting
world, condition is everything. I have learned over the years that
collecting rarity is nice and interesting, but condition is where the real
long-term value lies. Rusty old instruments with pitting and broken
parts may be good teaching devices, but they are not worth buying unless there
is some over-riding historical or emotional reason. My personal
experience is to buy the best you can afford and trade up at the earliest
Buying partial sets
with major missing pieces is a gamble at best. Since so much of the
medical equipment made prior to 1900 was all custom made, the likelihood of
finding an exact replacement for a missing piece of a set is almost
non-existent. It is hard to find a medical kit with all the original
pieces and without substitutions. One or two minor pieces being missing
is no big deal.
Chromed vs. nickel
plating vs. unplated instruments: if it's chrome plated, it's too late for my
collecting tastes...chrome plate makes it post 1900. Unplated metal will put the instrument in an earlier time frame
(Pre-1870's), The French maker Charriere was plating instruments as early as
the 1840's, but it was limited to gold, and silver for the most part on
instruments or parts that would come long-term contact with the body, e.g.
catheters. Nickel plating of American instruments began in the 1860's. Of course unplated metal rusted so the finish won't be as
nice as the later plated pieces. Stainless would date to post 1920. If
it is flaking chrome plating, figure it's post-1877.
Gold, silver, platinum electroplating
introduced in 1839/40.
In 1842: Charriere plates surgical
instruments; Tiemann follows suit in 1843.
In mid 1860s: nickel-plating introduced, but
not yet widespread until early 1870's, when commerical production basis
begins. By 1876 nickelplating is fairly universal in surgical
Chromium-plating starts in 1908-08
desirable items will have ivory or bone handles which tend to be earlier.
Ivory and dense wood handles are normally found on pre-1860 items, but the
ebony and gutta percha or horn material extended in some areas into the
1880's or in later in some countries. Gutta Percha or a hard black
rubber-like material handles are much later (post 1840's) and usually are
found down into the later 1880's when sterilization began and porous
material went out of fashion. Again, an all metal handle which is plated
usually indicates post 1880 and more than likely post 1900.
A word about
gutta percha and animal horn handles and how they are made on a production
line. Regarding animal horn: it was pressed into a mold under steam heat
and high pressure to get the detail of the mold. Second, gutta percha
was not poured, but rather placed in a mold as a "puck" of the proper size and
also heated under steam heat and pressure. (Courtesy of Mike
Smaller pocket surgical knives called
bistouries, usually had ebonized wood or tortoise shell handles. These
small light weight folding knives usually are found in sets with folding
leather pouches or cases, but may be found individually too.
Not all makers of
amputation or surgical sets were great craftsmen. I've seen sets that
were an embarrassment due to the poor workmanship. These limited-use
utility type sets tend to be from smaller American or English manufactures.
On the other hand, most of the early European and English derived items, as
well as the majority of American-made pre- and post- Civil War era pieces
are works of art. The French were especially innovative in the ob/gyn
arena and much earlier than the English. These, of course, are
generalizations and quality could vary according to the maker. See the
extended list of American
dealers or manufactures who published catalogs like George
Tiemann and Co.
or J. A. Gemrig,
tend to be easily collectible because you can document your item.
Instrument catalogs, when you can find them, make identification an easier
Of note: after about 1889, the Germans
pretty much took over the surgical instrument trade in the United States due
to their superior mass production abilities and therefore reduced prices.
This is another reason I now limit my collection to Pre-1865.
look for to date an instrument or item:
Manufacture's date or when
the manufacturer existed and their address
Patent date or patent number
Manufacture or distributor
name or trademark (trademarks are later)
Country of production
Material of blade
composition, e.g. "stainless", "chromed", or "rustless"
all of which are post-1877
Material of handle
composition, e.g. ebony, bone, ivory, horn, metal (Metal is post-1870)
Unique use of the item.
Item in a trade catalog
Presence of aseptic joints or
Historical context (what was
it used for and when?)
Birth and death of the
developer or inventor
And, last but most
important, see Edmonson's book on
American Instrument Makers