Collecting Nursing Relics

  1. I found this story of interest and thought you might too:

    When Jerri Rich, RN, settles into the office of her Sterling Heights, Mich., home to prepare to teach a first-aid or CPR class, she does so against the backdrop of nursing history. The office is a showcase for a growing collection of "nurse things."

    Collecting began with regrets of an opportunity lost. Years ago, in an Army surplus-type store, Rich said, "There was an old nurse's uniform that had the blue cape and everything from World War II. After I left, I just couldn't stop thinking about it."

    The store went out of business soon after she passed up the vintage uniform and efforts since to find it have come up short. She envisions it on a mannequin in her office, a fashion statement among nursing and medical artifacts that--by her own estimate--represents a few thousand of her dollars.

    "I started off with old books. I've got one book from the 1700s" and several from the 1800s, Rich said. "One of the really old ones, it does say, for example, that diabetes is characterized by sweet urine and is always fatal. So that was before insulin."

    Rich, 45, said she most cherishes a book dated 1898 that belonged to her grandmother. It's an anecdotal compilation of patients' symptoms. In reading what the patients said, "I would try to figure out what was really wrong with them," she said.

    The enthusiasm Rich carries from antique store to secondhand shop in search of history is matched by a love of education, both as a student and as an instructor.

    After earning her high school diploma in an adult education program, she graduated from Oakland (Mich.) Community College's LPN program in 1982. "I knew right then that's not where I could stop," she said.

    She earned her RN credentials at Macomb Community College and is within a class or two of a bachelor's degree in health services at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. She developed a nurses aide training program for local public schools and since 1995 has operated a small business, in which she teaches first aid and CPR certification classes to businesspeople, day care workers and dental staffs, among others.

    "I've always made it a point of reading or being in school or working in different areas in a hospital just to get that experience," said Rich, who works as a cardiac nurse for an agency. "I can pretty much drop in and out of places and feel comfortable doing whatever they need."

    One piece of her memorabilia comes from St. John Hospital and Medical Center, part of a multifacility health care system in Detroit, where Rich spent 15 years as an ER nurse. "I found one of their old cups from the '50s, where they used to serve coffee on the trays," she said. "It had the little St. John logo on it. I thought that was kind of cute."

    Logos provide clues to the origin and era of other items. For example, a porcelain pediatric bedpan marked 1812 is among Rich's favorite pieces.

    "About 10 years ago I was traveling, doing some reviews for the state of Michigan for their nurse training programs and I went all over Michigan," she said. In the southern part of the state, two or three antique stores yielded old bedpans, old urinals and an alcohol burner once used to sterilize equipment.

    "Then I got people looking for stuff," Rich said. "A friend of mine gave me a set of scalpels from a World War II ship. Then a friend of my husband gave me an old syringe, an antique glass syringe, which is totally fascinating. I'm not antique, but I got shots with those as a kid."

    Glass is a large part of the predisposable world of nursing and Rich's collection. "I have an old breast pump that's glass," she said. "I'd never seen one of those. I'm sure it's from the '50s."

    Her display cases also hold antique medical bottles. "One of them says 'For human flesh only,' " the words formed in the clear glass of the specimen bottle, Rich said. Another has the word "urine" formed in the glass and a pediatric medicine bottle is impregnated with the figure of a giraffe.

    Rich, who entered the profession in the era of nursing caps (and still has hers), said a complete vintage uniform remains a goal, as well as her latest quest for old nursing school pins worn on lapels. "I'll keep looking," she said.
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  3. by   Squeeta2
    I have a WWII nursing cape that my mother handed down to me.
    She got it from my grandmother & so on. The theory behind the blue cape was that the nurses used to go out onto the battlefields at night to see to the wounded & the dark blue helped to prevent them from sniper shots! Maybe we don't have it so bad after all!!
  4. by   WashYaHands
    Nursing History is fascinating. My great grandmother was a nurse beginning in 1913. She did home visits as a private duty nurse. She made $4/day. I have her hand written ledger that she used to keep track of her patients and their doctors. I had to put my research of her aside for a while, but I'd like to write a biographical sketch of her and give it to my dad and uncle.

    Thanks for the article, nightingale. And, Squeeta, the info about the cape is interesting.

  5. by   Mattigan
    I saw an old child's nursing costume in an antique store in Stillwater, OK several years back. Story was this grandmother had made a miniture one like hers for granddaughter. It was complete with blue cape and all. I was with people and in a hurry to get to football game - always meant to go back and get it - never did- still think about it.

    I keep a look out for old medical and nursing things, too. Have flowers on the wall sticking out of an old enamel enema/douche can. Potpourri in enamel emesis basins etc. I would like to find some old infant/invalid feeders. They have some really cool ones on the American Collectors of Infant Feeders web site.
    http// (i think that's how to get there).
  6. by   SmilingBluEyes
    I got a nice surprise in the mail from my mom one day: an OLD Obstetric nursing text from my grandmother's diploma program. Date? 1922. Being an OB nurse, I found the illustrations so charming, I am scanning them for framing one day. And a lot of the information, while dated, still makes sense today! I will cherish that book and pass it on one day, what a relic! That of all the things lost from my grandmother's nursing effects this book should survive, is so amazing to me.
  7. by   Mattigan
    I found this old photo (8X10)- it's not B/W but sorta yellows and brown. It's of 2 nurses outside. From their dress maybe the 40's. anyway, you can tell they are freezing and the background looks like there was an ice storm and they are just laughing their azzes off. It is the best picture. I have it on the bookcase in my office - it cheers me up to look at it - they look like they are having such a great time. I wish I knew about scanners and stuff so I could post it..... I don't really know why i was compelled to tell about that pic... sorry... I seem to be rambling.:imbar
    Last edit by Mattigan on Oct 18, '02
  8. by   nightingale
    Thank you to all those who posted comments. Mattigan, thank you for telling us the story about the pic. It makes my heart laugh just thinking about it.
  9. by   stressedlpn
    I love collecting nursing memorbila(sp) I have photos of my grandmother in her ww2 nursing uniform, my greatgrandmother was also a nurse and an aunt has alot of her stuff I cant wait to go see, I am really and truelly just beginning to start my collection so I dont have alot of neat things, but I know that I will add to it. what can I say It is my passion, finging old treasures
  10. by   KP RN
    I'm a collector of vintage medical and nursing textbooks, some dating to the mid-1800s.
    It's fascinating to read how accurate the experts understanding was about some things, and how totally absurd they were about other issues!!
  11. by   nightingale
    It sounds like an incredible hobby of those who collect it. I am so envious of those of you who have relatives handing down books and clothing.. oh how lucky!
  12. by   Q.
    I collect antique books, and I have a Dorland's Medical Dictionary, copyright 1900, and a Lippincott's Surgical Nursing Manual, copyright 1929. They are fascinating to read.

    Most of the books I collect are literature, but a few times when I stumble on medical/nursing books, I can't resist!
  13. by   jingy
    I'm so glad to hear that others collect items related to nursing history. I was beginning to feel like the only one...
    I began such a collection when my grandmother's cousin willed me her pin (Beth Israel Hospital School of Nursing, NY, class of 1924). Since then I've acquired 39 more pins, some caps, textbooks and yearbooks from the 20s to the 40s, two capes and a student's uniform, complete with blue-striped dress, bib, apron and detachable collar.
    I dearly treasure these things. They stand witness to history, and represent someone's hard work.
    I've been attempting to make some caps. It's difficult, but for most styles I can study a photo and then duplicate it on my sewing machine.
  14. by   karenG
    I have my grandmothers nursing text books- she was a nurse in the 1930s', plus I have a silver buckle for my belt that was my mums! its now 70yrs old and I wear it every day!

    my grans books make interesting reading!