Willie in the Well
By Dick Sheaff
The other day, looking at a set of common trade cards got me to thinking about several things. One was the rich imaginations of Victorian card makers, who often created wonderfully exaggerated - sometimes quite bizarre - images. The set of cards for Acme Soap, a Lautz Soap product, shows a little boy named Willie who falls into a well. Fortunately, Willie has a bar of Acme Soap with him, which works up into a lather so thick that the foam lifts young Willie right back up to safety: "Saved by Acme Soap." A silly, perfectly charming way to claim that Acme soap produced a thick lather.
It occurred to me that I've seen a number of trade cards that deal with children falling down open wells. We ephemerists constantly speak of the fact that vintage paper often opens windows into Victorian culture, and provides information not found in the formal histories. A century and a quarter ago, many people got their water either from a water pump or an open well like Willie's. The chance that a child might drown in a well worried many a mother.
Including mine. Where I grew up, three quarters of a century later, there were still dangerous wells. No longer built up, sporting a winch and water bucket, they had been leveled and covered by boards decades ago. In many cases the boards were rotting and weak. Accidents still happened.
Curious about the dangers of open wells today, I went online and was surprised to find many contemporary reports of folks and animals drowning in wells : a leopard, two lion cubs, a donkey, a drunken man . . . all sorts and ages of people. Many of these accidents happened in other countries, but not all.
As for the Acme series of trade cards, I realized that there are two variant sets. One, done by Major & Knapp in New York, the other by Gies & Company in Buffalo (home of Lautz and Acme). Interestingly, while the storyline is the same in the first three cards of each set, the #4 "Saved by Acme Soap" cards differ. In the Major and Knapp version, wet Willie and his older sister (mother?) walk away from the well, with Willie holding aloft his bar of Acme Soap. In the Gies version, we see Willie being helped out of the well after the foam has lifted him completely to the surface. Perhaps Lautz felt that that the second, more literal version made it clearer that the thick Acme foam had brought Willie all the way back to safety . . . ?
All of which probably just goes to show that I am easily entertained.