Helfand’s Prescription is a Winner

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May 22, 2012 by Ephemera Society

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.

When 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 print collector.

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 other books.

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 Right Up!”

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 and syphilis.

“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.”


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