Helfand's Prescription is a Winner
William H. Helfand may have spent 45 years researching
and writing about quacks, cheats, charlatans and conniving purveyors
of useless and dangerous nostrums, but as a scholar and generous
collector this year's winner of the Maurice Rickards Award is, without
a doubt, the honest-to-goodness real thing.
He started his career in his father's pharmacy about
the same time he started collecting images, as he says, "of
things medical." Unable to afford paintings, he bought prints.
The first, naturally, was of a man holding a mortar and pestle,
the age-old symbol of the apothecary. But he also began buying trade
cards, posters, sheet music, bookplates, and any other paper bearing
medical text and images.
he joined Merck & Company Pharmaceuticals the collecting continued.
In his 33-year tenure with Merck he rose to senior vice president
of the firm's international operations having spent a few years
living in Paris, a posting, he said, that was very good for a young
When ESA board member Gigi Barnhill introduced Helfand
during the March 11 awards banquet, she described his collecting
as a "passion." Helfand admits as much, but also says
he looks upon his 45 years of collecting as stress relief, too.
"Even though I retired from Merck as a senior
vice president, I still always had a boss," Helfand smiles.
"But as a collector, I was the boss. I got to decide what I
wanted to buy and what I wanted to do with them. I could come home
and play with these things and be the decision maker. It was a very
effective safety valve."
His collections grew dramatically, but not in a vacuum.
Helfand continues to believe that serious collectors bear an obligation
to use and share their collections with others rather that merely
succumbing to acquisitiveness.
"It does no good if I keep my collections filed
away in boxes at home," Helfand stresses. "It's better
if I write about my material or lend material to others and let
them write about it. Collections allow us to learn something about
the world. They are filled with historical evidence about what happened
and how things work."
This passion for sharing the core of his collections
is obvious when you look at Helfand's record of scholarship and
generosity. He has written five books about his medical and pharmaceutical
ephemera, and enough essays, monographs, and articles to fill several
Helfand's popular 2002 exhibit at the Grolier Club
in New York City, "Quack, Quack, Quack: The Sellers of Nostrums
in Prints, Posters, Ephemera and Books" was accompanied by
a book of the same name. Visit the catalog of publications on the
American Institute of the History of Pharmacy's Web site www.pharmacy.wisc.edu/aihp/
and you'll see still more material by Helfand like "Medicine
and Pharmacy in American Political Prints." A 1995 exhibition
of Helfand's material at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was titled
"Potions, Pills, and Purges: The Art of Pharmacy."
Others have based their work on his materials, too.
"I found a scrapbook that had been assembled
by a worker in a 19th-century medicine show," Helfand recalls.
"It contained a suggested contract that could be used to rent
an opera house for a medicine show and other pieces that revealed
inside information on how a medicine show worked. A friend of mine,
Brooks McNamara, used it to illustrate a book he wrote called Step
Helfand the scholar is also Helfand the philanthropist.
He has donated 10,700 postcards on medical subjects to the National
Library of Medicine in Bethesda, MD. About 8,500 trade cards for
proprietary medicines and medical practitioners, and 2,500 pamphlets
and broadsides on these topics went to The Library Company of Philadelphia.
Several thousand of his prints and posters on medical subjects in
the fine arts and popular arts have been donated to the Philadelphia
Museum of Art. Helfand and his wife, the late Audrey Helfand, also
endowed the Audrey and William H. Helfand Senior Curatorship of
Prints, Drawings and Photographs with a $1.2 million gift to the
museum in 1997.
Even though Helfand has been generous with his collections,
he isn't worried about running out of material soon. He continues
to comb through ephemera shows looking for worthy additions.
On the morning of the day that Ephemera Society of
Am-erica President Nic Ricketts would slip the silver Maurice Rickards
Award over his head, Helfand bought a cigar box label bearing another
image of a mortar and pestle. He also acquired a broadside advertising
an itinerant doctor who was visiting a number of states in 1877
"promising to cure almost any disease in sight."
Helfand's prize that day, however, was an elegant
text-only trade card from Boston's Dr. L. Dow who discretely offered
"warranted" cures for "all private diseases"
using a variety of secret "French Remedies" for gonorrhea
"Don't worry, I still have plenty of toys to
play with," Helfand says.
The Maurice Rickards award is not the only recognition
Helfand has received. The Ephemera Society (U.K.) awarded Helfand
the Samuel Pepys Medal in 1986 for outstanding contributions to
the field of ephemera studies.
Helfand says his greatest honor is having two daughters
who also collect ephemera. His older daughter, Rachel Frankel, collects
regional cookbooks (including one that offers 100 recipes using
Velveeta cheese), while his younger daughter, Jessica Helfand, collects
a variety of paper, including vovelles or "wheel charts."
Jessica Helfand, and her husband, William Drenttel, who operate
Winterhouse, a design studio, spoke during Saturday's conference
on how they use ephemera in contemporary design projects.
Helfand also is watching the collecting passion sprout
in two grandchildren, 10-year-old Malcolm Drenttel has begun a sports
card collection and eight-year-old Fiona Drenttel stopped by the
Ephemera Society of America desk to announce that she had just bought
her second vintage paper doll.
"I'm very proud of my daughters and their collecting,"
Helfand concludes. "Parents can't make them do it, they have
to want to. I guess they inherited the family passion."