Antimony Potassium Tartrate, aka Tartar Emetic Property of U.S. General Services Administration
This glass bottle of Antimony was found among Clara Barton’s possessions in the attic of the Missing Soldiers Office.
What is Antimony, and why did Clara or one of the other tenants have a bottle of it? Antimony, also known as Antimony Potassium tartrate or tartar emetic, is a metallic compound that was used in Heroic Medicine.
For a brief crash course in the Heroic Age of Medicine, check out our post on Clara Barton’s use of mercury in 1868.
Tartar emetic was used as an expectorant and emetic. The intended use of this compound as a medication was to create and dispose of fluids, much like the use of mercury. Also like mercury, tartar emetic is very toxic. Surgeon General William Hammond banned both mercury and tartar emetic/antimony from use in military medicine due to their toxicity in 1863; the ban did not last long, as in the ensuing chaos, Hammond was removed from his position in 1864. That’s a story for another blog post, though!
Why did the tenants have a bottle of antimony? Probably because they were self-medicating! Just like how we’ll keep a bottle of aspirin around the house, they kept some medications around as well. Clara certainly talks taking medication in her diaries.
Antimony has seen a number of uses throughout the 19thand 20th centuries. Whether it is being used to induce vomiting, cure drunkenness, or even as a fairly effective treatment against some parasites, Antimony is a dangerous drug for anyone to take. Its use in medicine more or less stopped toward the end of the 20th century.
This bottle can currently be seen in the Clara Barton exhibit at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, but it, as well as the other medication boxes and bottles that were found, will most likely be used in an exhibit about boarding house life at the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office. As always, if you’re interested in seeing this artifact in person at the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office, please consider donating to the museum at www.gofundme.com/clarabarton.
The Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 11:00 AM – 5:00 PM for walk-ins. All other times, the Museum will be open only to groups of 10+. Click here to reserve a group tour.
Opens at 11:00 AM
Last Admission at 4:30 PM
437 7th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20004 Looking for our Mailing Address?
The preserved rooms are accessible by both stairs and elevator.
[She] toiled as few men could have done, stanching wounds which might otherwise have proved fatal, administering cordials to the fainting soldier, cheering those destined to undergo amputation, moistening lips parched with thirst [and closing the eyes of the dead].
An eyewitness account of Clara Barton at Antietam
The patriot blood of my father was warm in my veins.
I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.
I don’t know how long it has been since my ear has been free from the roll of a drum. It is the music I sleep by and I love it.
Clara BartonIn a letter to her father, March 19, 1861
I ask neither pay or praise, simply a soldier’s fare and the sanction of your Excellency to go and do with my might, whatever my hands can find to do.
Clara BartonLetter to Massachusetts Governor Andrew, seeking permission to go to the front, March 20, 1862
Though it is little that one woman can do, still I crave the privilege of doing it.
Clara BartonLetter to I.W. Denney, seeking permission to go to the front, March 30, 1862
I only wish I could work to some purpose. I have no right to these easy comfortable days and our poor men suffering and dying thirsting … My lot is too easy and I am sorry for it.
Clara BartonIn a letter to Mary Norton, July 4, 1862
It was a miserable night. There was a sense of impending doom. We knew, everyone knew, that two great armies of 80,000 men were lying there face to face, only waiting for dawn to begin the battle.
Clara BartonWriting about the night before the battle of Antietam
When I reached [home], and looked in the mirror, my face was still the color of gunpowder, a deep blue. Oh yes, I went to the front!
Clara BartonUpon returning from the battle of Antietam