The 19th Century Prosthetic Leg

Ah yes the joys of working in a 150 year-old Doctor’s Office: dust, bugs and an assortment of the weird and macabre. Over the next few weeks I, Deryn, the Lewes Historical Society Intern, will be your guide into the world of antique torture devices medical equipment. While the Old Doctor’s Office houses the obvious assortment of surgical and amputation tools, the collection also includes a bleeding bowl, cranial drill, at home shock treatment machine and a prosthetic leg.

Yes, a prosthetic leg dating from the 19th century, which greets visitors as they step into the office and begin their tour. The leg of course offers a distinct creepy factor to the whole experience, (trust me, holding it is even creepier), but it also demonstrates how advanced science was for its time. In fact, many of the medical instruments featured in the exhibit have changed very little over the past 150 years. The limb has the ability to bend and even has individual toes and toenails carved into the wood. While not quite on the same level as Luke Skywalkers arm it is certainly more advanced than Captain Hooks hook.  It also features a leather body socket which would have been a new development during the time. In 1863, Dubois L. Parmelee of New York City created the body socket that would attach to the limb and be held in place by atmospheric pressure. Parmelee was however not that first to use prosthetic limbs, in fact the use of prosthetics can be traced back to the early Roman Empire and possibly as far back as Ancient Egypt. Archaeologists have recently discovered a wooden toe on the foot of a female mummy while digging in ancient Thebes. Although it is unknown whether or not this toe served a functional purpose or was simply added upon death to complete the body for the after-life. So far the earliest known prosthetic dates from 300 B.C., known as the Roman Capua Leg and was made from bronze; the leg was destroyed during the German bombing of Britain during World War II.

The science of prosthetic limbs has been slow to develop and has historically been driven forward by times of war, when there is an increased need for new technology and expansion. During the Civil War not only was the body socket developed but gaseous anesthesia was also being used on a wider scale. This allowed for longer surgeries as well as an increase in the survival rate of amputatees. Doctors were also then able to be far more meticulous when performing an amputation, which allowed for a better fit. During World War II the United States government funded extensive research into the development of artificial limbs and also standardized prosthetic training. Currently huge strides are being made thanks to the use of plastics and improved computer technology.

These improvements not only benefit veterans of war but also those who have lost limbs because of complications from disease. In the United States more then 80,000 people a year have a lower limb amputated due to the effects of diabetes. It is projected that there will be 3.6 million people suffering from the loss of a limb by the year 2050. The history of prosthetics is still developing and The Lewes Historical Society holds a great-albeit eerie-piece of this scientific progression.


Lewes Moth Sails Home

One of our newest acquisitions is a classic Lewes moth sail boat that raced in Lewes Yacht Club regattas in the 1930s and 1940s.  She appears to have pine or spruce decking and a painted duck canvas hull.  Many thanks to long-time member Amelie Sloan and Serge Trotter for donating [accession # 2010.12] this fantastic part of Lewes’s past to the Society.

According to the website

Classic Moth Boats are a class of small fast singlehanded racing sailboats that originated in the US in 1929 by Joel Van Sant in Elizabeth City, NC. The Classic Moth is a development class with an eleven foot over-all length, a maximum beam of 60 inches, a minimum hull weight of 75 pounds, 72 Sq Ft sail area, and very few other restrictions A Moth can be a skiff, pram, scow, skinny tube, dinghy, or any combination thereof. As such the Classic Moth Boat is an ideal class for amateur designers builders and tinkerers, an can be easily built from inexpensive materials.

Over the years various “Moth” classes have appeared around the world. In addition to the Classic Moth, one can find reference to “Australian Moth”, “British Moth”, French Moth, Modern Moth, Vintage Moth, and “International Moth”. All have eleven foot hulls, and all can trace their origins to either the US or Australian Moth (or both!).

In looking at the boat it appears to be in very good shape and could float right now.  Our plans call to refinish the deck, check and seal the hull and replace the mast, boom and rudder.  The original mast, boom and rudder are with the boat and will be kept but the originals will not be used.  Used, you say?  That’s right, our goal is to rehab her, get her back on Delaware Bay after a 60+ year hiatus and hopefully race her in a LYC Sunday afternoon regatta!

If you’re interested in taking part in her restoration, would like to help purchase a new sail (and a Society burgee!) or in maybe sailing her one day, please call the office at 302-645-7670.

Oyster Shell Painting: Restoration Complete!

A couple posts back we introduced you to our painting on oyster shell (1974.10) of the Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Boat Winona.  Just last week the painting was returned and took its place again in the Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Station exhibit at the Cannonball House Lewes Maritime Museum.  Yesterday our conservator Gene Boemer stopped by with his final report and digital photography documenting the process of restoring the shell.

The painting is signed by “S. Morse 1892.”  Boemer’s research points to a Susan Mary Morse who was active at this time period and lived and traveled in the region.  Other examples of her style suggest she could be the artist behind this work and her signature matches almost exactly.  Not only was our piece professionally restored, the research on the piece (including information and photographs of Winona) truly make this piece even more special.

Enjoy the pictures below of the steps (and challenges) in bringing this unique artifact back to life!

Front of the shell, during examination and before any work has been performed. © The Lewes Historical Society

Inside flange showing inscription and signature before any work has been performed. © The Lewes Historical Society

View of front of shell before the in-fill process begins. © The Lewes Historical Society

Detail showing flaking and particulate damage to portion of the painting featuirng the Winona. © The Lewes Historical Society

Oystershell painting after cleaning and prior to in-fill and in-fill painting. © The Lewes Historical Society

Detail showing gold paint along lips of shell and upper and lower edges discovered during cleaning. © The Lewes Historical Society

Painting area after cleaning, in-fill and in-fill painting. © The Lewes Historical Society

Detail of buildings on Delaware Breakwater - Maritime Exchange and West End Lighthouse. © The Lewes Historical Society

Detail showing restored area featuring Winona. © The Lewes Historical Society

Port of Lewes Log Book

One of our newest acquisitions is the Protest Log from the Port of Lewes Customs Office, 1876-1889 (2009.47).  Thanks to Society member Stephen Robinson for finding the log and purchasing it for the Society.

I picked the log for today’s collection blog because when I was examining it yesterday, I happened to open up to the page for a wreck account from today’s date – April 16 – in 1877.

The account is from a Capt. T.C. Coffin regarding damage to the for’topmast, main topmast and jib boom of his brig Derigo. He sailed through heavy weather with his cargo of sugar from Cardenas bound to New York; he noted that he “was obliged to cut the rigging to clear the spars from the hull.”  Seeking safe harbor and a port where he could receive repairs to his vessel, he pulled into the Delaware Breakwater and reported his losses to Joseph Lafetra, Customs Official at Lewes for the District of Philadelphia.

This is one of hundreds of accounts of loss, some harrowingly tragic, many mundane that Lafetra recorded.

Lewes was an essential port, providing entry to Philadelphia for inbound vessels with pilotage service, exchange service for papers, quarantine service and ship chandlery and outfitting businesses in town along the canal.  Additionally, Lewes provided the only harbor between Norfolk and New York – a critical transit route for coastwise and international shipping traffic.

The Port of Lewes, Lewes Customs Office and Maritime Exchange activities are exhibited at the Cannonball House Lewes Maritime Museum and are well represented in our Archives.  Our sincere thanks to Mr. Robinson for providing the Society with this important and rare part of Lewes’s maritime heritage.

Del. Breakwater Quarantine Station Oyster Shell Painting

It’s been a while since our last post but we’re back!  This week we’ll take a look at one of my favorite objects, a painting on oyster shell of Delaware Breakwater Quarantine tender Winona with East End Lighthouse in background.

Painted in 1899 by an artist who signed his or her name “S. Morse,” (about whom we know nothing) the shell measures 10″ x 3.5″ and is usually exhibited at the Cannonball House Lewes Maritime Museum.   The painting, accession number 1974.10, is the Gift of John Purnell.

At the end of the 19th century, Lewes was the “Ellis Island” of Delaware Bay.  As ships entered the bay, a small boat carrying a doctor would board the ship and examine the passengers who were entering the country as immigrants.   If a person did not pass the physical they would be detained here at the Quarantine Station which was located close to where the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal is today. Names of those brought ashore were not recorded.  When passengers were declared healthy they then would be transferred to the port of entry.  If not, they might be returned to their country of origin.  Official admission into the United States would take place at either the ports of Wilmington, Chester, or Philadelphia.

Opened on October 20, 1884, the Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Station was part of the Marine Hospital Service and local physicians were assigned to the Quarantine.   As the 1900s approached and volume of immigrants arriving at Cape Henlopen increased, it was obvious that the quarantine facilities at Lewes needed to be expanded.    The Navy assumed control of the station in 1917 and after 1918 the facilities were kept ready but not active.  Beginning in 1926, the Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Station was dismantled and the last building removed in 1931.  There is no official count of people inspected by the station but estimates exceed 200,000.

The painting is beginning to show some severe signs of wear including fading and flaking, especially in the center of the work.  Gene Boemer, a local art conservator who specializes in works of art on canvas and mediums other than paper, is currently working on the piece to stabilize it and correct the flaking by infill painting.  Gene has worked on dozens of other conservation projects for the Society.  Previous conservation work has led him to be part of the teams that conserved the U.S. Capitol dome and Vincent Van Gogh’s famous self portrait.  When Gene issues his report and the artifact is returned, we’ll fill you in on some of the specifics of restoring this special part of Lewes’s maritime past!

Early 20th Century Scrapbook Comes Back to Lewes

An early 20th century scrapbook came to our attention on eBay about a month ago and we were fortunate enough to be the winning bidder.

The scrapbook appears to have been created between 1910 and 1912 and the parts dealing with Lewes were added in 1911.  Aside from Lewes, University of Pennsylvania fraternities are documented as is a summer trip to Maine by the unknown creator of the album.  The scrapbook is in our Miscellaneous Archives collection, 2010.2.1.

The pictures in the book (those showing Lewes, at least) depict sailing on the Delaware River and Delaware Bay and a cottage referred to as “The Virginia Cottage” – perhaps also known as the Marshall Cottage; Hazel Brittingham is checking into this for us.  Several beautiful views of the pilot schooner J. Henry Edmunds are included as well.

Perhaps the most interesting picture is labeled “U.S. Submarine at Lewes, Del., 1911.”  Not knowing much about the U.S. Naval submarine fleet, we contacted our friends at the U.S. Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C. to see if they could help identify the sub pictured.  Based on the date and hull shape they determined that the sub in our picture was the G-1, USS 19 1/2 SEAL.  It was launched in 1911 and was likely on one of its initial transits when it was photographed at the U.S. Government Pier at Lewes (interested in the U.S. Government Pier?  Check out collection 2009.42 in our Archives).  It was used for torpedo practice in 1942 and sank in Massachusetts Bay.

Another great find on eBay for the Society.  We’ll keep you posted as to the identification of the mysterious “Virginia Cottage!”

The Society actively collects all kinds of materials relating to Lewes and the Cape Henlopen region. Our collections have grown primarily through the generousity of others. If you are considering donating materials or are aware of collections that are suitable to ours, please contact us. The Society is a recognized 501 (c) (3) organization and all donations are deductible to the fullest extent of the law.  Please call 302-645-7670 if you a collection or item you would be willing to donate!

A World War II Letter Written Back Home to Lewes

Barry & Stephanie Boright purchased the house formerly owned by the Donovan family on Mulberry Street in November, 2003.  Facing a vast collection of mementos from Walter Donovan’s life that had remained in the house for a number of years and that were included in the sale, the Bowrights knew that many important papers and artifacts detailing life in Lewes would probably be found.  On a sunny autumn Saturday morning, the Borights contacted Society Executive Director Michael DiPaolo and invited him the house to search for Lewes material as they emptied the house readying for restoration.  What was found was a treasure trove of Lewes history – particularly that of the middle of the twentieth century.  Extensive files on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, the Lewes American Legion Post #17, general clippings files on Lewes, ephemera from local – and now defunct – restaurants and businesses, yearbooks and other parts of Lewes’s more recent past.

Included in this is this  letter – the first page of which is depicted at left – from Walter’s time in France during World War II.  A transcription of the text follows below:

Monday Mar. 19 [1945; postmark Mar. 29, 1945]

Dear Mom,

I received your v-mail yesterday sent Feb. 13th and Hes’s sent Feb. 11th.  Glad to hear everybody is well and I hope the good health continues.  I received a Beaconite from the school today that was printed the 15th of Feb.  I never though they would waste three cents on me but I did appreciate it very much.  They had my name in it and also mentioned Dec. 1 but it should be Dec. 7th.  I hope you understand what I mean but it don’t make much difference anyhow.

[p. 2]  From it I can tell how many of my buddies are here in France and I can write to a few of them.  The Coast News is coming regular now and I get all the town gossip from it.

Tell Hes I saw one of her favorite movie stars today.  Marlene Dietrich.  She came into our clinic today to have a tooth pulled.  She is over here with a U.S.O. group putting on shows for the soldiers.

I didn’t receive the fruit cake as yet but maybe it will get here after awhile.  I’m OK and there is very little to write about.  The weather [p. 3] is swell now and we can run around in our shirt sleeves.  Like you say the war is progressing very good and it should be over soon

Well I’m going to hit the hay and get a little sleep.  Write soon and say hello to everybody for me.

Take care of the kids and write soon.



The Lewes Historical Society is extremely grateful for the Boright’s thoughtful consideration of the Society when confronted with such irreplaceable pieces of Lewes’ recent history.  By notifying the Society that they were going through all the material, many previously unknown documents, letters and artifacts were brought to life and saved for posterity to enjoy, learn from and cherish.