Medicine in 18th Century United States

On April 5, 1797, Elizabeth DeWitt penned a letter to her father, presumably located in Europe at the time. In this letter, she referenced “the ill state of health of [her] friends” and let her father know that in the states, “a great many people die of different disorders the most common [being] pleurisy…” (“Letter from Elizabeth DeWitt to her father”). Pleurisy is defined as “a condition in which the pleura – two large, thin layers of tissue that separate your lungs from your chest wall – becomes inflamed” (“Pleurisy”). This condition causes difficulty breathing and chest pain, but in the modern era, it is not life-threatening with timely diagnosis and proper treatment. Pleurisy is a condition caused by underlying disorders, most often an infection of some sort. According to Mayo Clinic’s entry on “Pleurisy,” the condition can be caused by “viral infection, such as the flu (influenza); bacterial infection, such as pneumonia… [and] Tuberculosis (TB),” to name a few. So, why is it that during the 18th century, people were commonly dying from this secondary disorder? To answer that question, one must first understand the medicinal beliefs and practices of the 18th century.

Letter from Elizabeth DeWitt to her father

Prior to the 18th century, the prevailing theory on how disease was contracted and spread was based on a miasmic, humoral model: “traditional theory held that disease was caused by bad air, a miasma that upset the balance of humors” (Breslaw 29). It was not until 1721 that this theory was challenged by a Cotton Mather, who believed that “’little animals’ that existed in pus from smallpox victims had something to do with causing the contagion” (29). Mather was a revolutionary thinker in this regard, as he took his theory further and “also suggested that the eggs from that ‘animicular’ matter could invade the body through the pores or the mouth” (29). In the present-day, we can recognize that Mather was referring to microscopic organisms called viruses spreading through droplets in the air. While Mather was taking a different approach to the causes and treatment of illness, other diseases were still being treated with outdated methods. When measles epidemics affected communities, “doctors followed the usual regime of bleeding, vomiting, and purging, which probably increased the danger of death” (39). Methods of purging could involve “laxatives… [which] could leach nutrients and electrolytes from the body,” or “calomel (a combination of mercury and chloride)” which is now an ingredient in “insecticide and fungicide” (46). While bloodletting could have had medicinal properties – “by lowering the availability of iron in the blood, some pathogens lose their ability to grow and multiply” – such a practice hardly helped treat the disorders it was typically used for, such as “smallpox, yellow fever, [or] pneumonia” (46-47). Moreover, physicians relied more on their perceived ability than any other tool they might have had at their disposal. Even if a physician’s methods caused 80% of his patients to become seriously injured or to die, “the doctor was considered successful if he seemingly cured one person” (47). This way of practicing medicine is harmful to patients at any time. If a doctor is unwilling to explore other options when their treatment methods are outdated, harmful, or outright dangerous, then patients cannot get adequate and informed care. Physicians were put on a pedestal, patients “[endowing] their medical practitioners with enormous authority” (47). Additionally, it was much more difficult to diagnose illness in the 18th century than it is now. Typically:

Diagnoses were generally based on symptoms as described by the patient. The doctor seldom touched the patient except to take a pulse or check for fever and thus was dependent on how individuals described their pains or discomforts. He would then diagnose a flux as anything from simple diarrhea, to dysentery, typhoid, or typhus… A pleurisy referred to respiratory or lung diseases such [as] influenza or pneumonia. (45-46)

This is a significant contrast to methods of diagnosing illnesses and disorders today. According to Noah Webster’s “A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases…” published in 1799, “in periods when plague and other mortal epidemics rage in summer, the diseases of winter assume new symptoms. The pleurisy, at such times, has often become epidemic and even infectious” (331). Based on the methods of diagnosis during this time, it can be presumed that the “epidemic” or “infectious” pleurisy being referenced was a respiratory disease, such as influenza. It is possible misdiagnoses or missed diagnoses were more common during the 18th century due first to a misunderstanding of illness, which was then compounded by the lack of reliable diagnostic tools. Physicians during this time did not believe, and often rejected, notions that “science [or] technology had any application to medicine” (47). For example, even though a “very primitive form” of the thermometer was available during the 18th century, physicians did not use them until “at least… the middle of the nineteenth century” (47). Diagnosing “pleurisy” or any other respiratory illness would not have been able to be done accurately during the 18th century, undoubtedly resulting in the deaths of “a great many people” Elizabeth DeWitt would come to write about in the letter to her father.

In the present-day United States, “we have antibiotics to cure contagious diseases and vaccines to prevent them” (Breslaw 1). In the 18th century, this was most certainly not the case. Elizabeth DeWitt lived in the states at a time that medicine was not making many strides. Outdated thinking and a refusal to be open to new or improved methods of treatment prevented advancement. Doctors not having reliable and consistent methods of treatment meant that they believed “diseases were peculiar to individuals; each individual required different medications or combinations and depended on the physician’s special understanding of illness” (48). Rather than recognizing that a standard approach would probably be best for the patient, physicians rejected newer ideas or modes of treatment “in favor of established practices” (44). People were exposed to illnesses and diseases that they had no experience with in their homeland, they then relied on the authority of physicians who were not open to new ideas – even if those new ideas could prevent injury or death – and, due to a lack of understanding by the general public, patients took their doctors at their word and did not question their diagnoses or treatment methods. When one takes these facts into consideration, it is not difficult to understand why people were dying due to secondary disorders such as pleurisy. It is possible that these people were afflicted with such infections as influenza, pneumonia, or tuberculosis, but received improper or incorrect treatment, leading to the development of the aforementioned condition. However, it is also possible that when Elizabeth DeWitt mentioned “pleurisy,” she was not referring to the inflammation of tissues within the lungs at all but was rather referring to an epidemic caused by influenza, the measles, or any of the other contagious respiratory diseases that afflicted communities. Thinking about the medicinal practices of the 18thcentury can help us to understand the conditions of individuals living during these times.

Works Cited
Breslaw, Elaine G. Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic Health Care in Early America. New York Univ. Press, 2014.
“Letter from Elizabeth DeWitt to her father,” Hudson River Valley Heritage Exhibits, accessed November 22, 2021, https://omeka.hrvh.org/items/show/2908.
“Pleurisy.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 Jan. 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pleurisy/symptoms-causes/syc-20351863.
Webster, Noah. A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases: With the Principal Phenomena of the Physical World, which Precede and Accompany Them, and Observations Deduced from the Facts Stated …. United States, Hudson & Goodwin, 1799.

Writing a Letter: An Analog Experience

Communication is something people take for granted every day. Whether you reach out to a family member or friend via a quick phone call from the comfort of your home, an email while you’re on the train, or a text message you dictate to Siri while you drive, communicating has never been easier. Even if a family member or friend lives in another country, there are apps like WhatsApp or Telegram that allow people to talk to each other across borders without having to worry about fees from their phone company. My friend, Gabriela, and I have used WhatsApp to communicate since she lived in Venezuela, and we have continued to use the service now that she lives in Canada. I decided that it would be an interesting – and potentially fun – exercise to handwrite a letter and mail it to her.

Writing a letter is more involved than one might realize! Stationery is not as popular as it used to be – even if it is making a comeback – so I was unsure of what to write my letter on at first. I don’t feel right writing a letter on paper with holes in it, so after much deliberation, I decided to find a template of college-ruled, lined paper online – this was the only part of the analog experience that was digital. I then debated whether I should use a pen or pencil for my letter. I thought back to the days when people used quill-pens to write letters – the writing was so fanciful and pleasing to the eye – but then I remembered that my pen is so inky, it is nearly impossible to write a full-page of text without having dark smudges scattered throughout; for this reason, I decided to write my letter with a pencil and give myself more flexibility to make mistakes. I began to write my letter at 2:23 PM on November 20th and I finished at 3:00 PM the same day; by the time I had finished, I had written her a four-page letter! From the outset, the feeling of graphite on paper was very satisfying – it is no wonder I wrote such a long letter – and I only found myself frustrated when the point began to dull. However, even the feeling of a dull pencil against a piece of paper produces its own pleasing sound. After approximately two minutes, my hand and wrist began to hurt. While I typically take class notes by hand, I have recently been using my laptop, so I was surprised to see that I have already grown unaccustomed to a method of notetaking I have used since the early 2000s! After some time had passed, my body got used to how it felt to write by hand, so the discomfort subsided, or I was not consciously aware of it. When I first began writing the letter, I was concerned with the aesthetics of the page and making sure it looked neat. I was worried it would look ugly if there were graphite smudges or eraser marks, but by the time I got halfway through writing I was no longer concerned with appearances and more so concerned with letting my thoughts flow freely. Allowing my thoughts to flow freely made it so that my letter was technically only three paragraphs long, something I would be more worried about if this was an email or text message. The uniformity of the space between each letter, word, and punctuation mark as well as the font itself makes it jarring to look at several sentences without a break in a digital medium. However, variations in spacing and even in handwriting makes it less obvious on paper that there aren’t breaks in the text. Moreover, writing this letter by hand allowed me to ask questions and tell stories without worrying about an immediate, real-time response. I try to refrain from asking too many different questions in a text, for example, because the implication is that the questions will be answered quickly. In my experience, there is more pressure when sending a response digitally than by hand, being that we live in such a fast-paced world. Slowing things down and writing a letter allows people to let their thoughts flow, to pause and return to the letter-writing, or even to scrap the entire letter and begin again. When it comes to letter-writing, there is an understanding between the sender and receiver that a response may not come for several weeks. Less anxiety about when to respond – or when to expect a response – makes letter-writing a much more calming and enjoyable experience! 

The experience of writing the letter was pleasant, but I was surprised at how much I also enjoyed mailing it! I wrote the letter on a Saturday so I knew I would not be able to mail it out until the upcoming Tuesday, the earliest. On Sunday, Monday, and then on Tuesday – due to a change of plans – my anticipation kept growing! Gabriela is sentimental, so I was excited thinking about her reaction upon receiving a letter from a friend! I decided not to let her know the letter was on its way so that it would be a true surprise. When I finally went to the post office on Wednesday, I was almost giddy with excitement. How long would it take the letter to arrive? Should I add tracking? Is it more authentic and analog to send the letter without knowing when it would arrive? What if it gets lost in the mail? These were all questions I had while I waited in line to purchase an international stamp – only one is needed when mailing a letter, or three regular stamps. I decided to send the letter without tracking it, not only because it is more authentic to the analog experience of writing a letter, but also because it costs seventeen dollars to track a letter internationally! It has now been four days since the letter was mailed, and with each day that passes, my anticipation grows. I hope that the letter gets to Gabriela within the next week, and I am looking forward to her response! I hope she writes me a letter, too!

Medicine in 18th Century United States

On April 5, 1797, Elizabeth DeWitt penned a letter to her father, presumably located in Europe at the time. In this letter, she referenced “the ill state of health of [her] friends” and let her father know that in the colonies, “a great many people die of different disorders the most common [being] pleurisy and inflammation of the head” (“Letter from Elizabeth DeWitt to her father”). Pleurisy is defined as “a condition in which the pleura – two large, thin layers of tissue that separate your lungs from your chest wall – becomes inflamed” (“Pleurisy”). This condition causes difficulty breathing and chest pain, but in the modern era, it is not life-threatening with timely diagnosis and proper treatment. Encephalitis – which is inflammation of the brain – is another disorder that if diagnosed and treated properly does not always lead to serious injury or death. Both pleurisy and encephalitis are caused by underlying disorders, most often an infection of some sort. According to Mayo Clinic’s entry on “Pleurisy,” the condition can be caused by “viral infection, such as the flu (influenza); bacterial infection, such as pneumonia… [and] Tuberculosis (TB),” to name a few. Mayo Clinic’s entry on “Encephalitis” names such viruses as “measles (rubeola), mumps and German measles (rubella)” as “fairly common causes of secondary encephalitis” in the past. So, why is it that during the 18th century, people were commonly dying from these secondary disorders? To answer that question, one must first understand the medicinal beliefs and practices of the 18th century.

Letter from Elizabeth DeWitt to her father

Prior to the 18th century, the prevailing theory on how disease was contracted and spread was based on a miasmic, humoral model: “traditional theory held that disease was caused by bad air, a miasma that upset the balance of humors” (Breslaw 29). It was not until 1721 that this theory was challenged by a Cotton Mather, who believed that “’little animals’ that existed in pus from smallpox victims had something to do with causing the contagion” (29). Mather was a revolutionary thinker in this regard, as he took his theory further and “also suggested that the eggs from that ‘animicular’ matter could invade the body through the pores or the mouth” (29). In the present-day, we can recognize that Mather was referring to microscopic organisms called viruses spreading through droplets in the air. While Mather was taking a different approach to the causes and treatment of illness, other diseases were still being treated with outdated methods. When measles epidemics affected communities, “doctors followed the usual regime of bleeding, vomiting, and purging, which probably increased the danger of death” (39). Methods of purging could involve “laxatives… [which] could leach nutrients and electrolytes from the body,” or “calomel (a combination of mercury and chloride)” which is now an ingredient in “insecticide and fungicide” (46). While bloodletting could have had medicinal properties – “by lowering the availability of iron in the blood, some pathogens lose their ability to grow and multiply” – such a practice hardly helped treat the disorders it was typically used for, such as “smallpox, yellow fever, [or] pneumonia” (46-47). Moreover, physicians relied more on their perceived ability than any other tool they might have had at their disposal. Even if a physician’s methods caused 80% of his patients to become seriously injured or to die, “the doctor was considered successful if he seemingly cured one person” (47). This way of practicing medicine is harmful to patients at any time. If a doctor is unwilling to explore other options when their treatment methods are outdated, harmful, or outright dangerous, then patients cannot get adequate and informed care. Physicians were put on a pedestal, patients “[endowing] their medical practitioners with enormous authority” (47). Additionally, it was much more difficult to diagnose illness in the 18th century than it is now. Typically:

Diagnoses were generally based on symptoms as described by the patient. The doctor seldom touched the patient except to take a pulse or check for fever and thus was dependent on how individuals described their pains or discomforts. He would then diagnose a flux as anything from simple diarrhea, to dysentery, typhoid, or typhus… A pleurisy referred to respiratory or lung diseases such [as] influenza or pneumonia. (45-46)

This is a significant contrast to methods of diagnosing illnesses and disorders today. Modern technology and modern medicine make it possible to diagnose and treat a plethora of diseases. In the case of pleurisy and encephalitis, diagnostic imaging (X-Rays, MRIs, CTs), blood tests, spinal taps, etc. are tools that can be used to determine whether someone is afflicted with pleurisy or encephalitis (“Pleurisy,” “Encephalitis”). Throat or nose swabs can be used to determine whether someone has influenza, strep throat, or now, COVID-19, among others. It is possible misdiagnoses or missed diagnoses were more common during the 18th century due to the lack of reliable diagnostic tools; additionally, even though a “very primitive form” of the thermometer was available during the 18th century, physicians did not use them until “at least… the middle of the nineteenth century” (47). Physicians during this time did not believe, and often rejected, notions that “science [or] technology had any application to medicine” (47). Regarding pleurisy or encephalitis, those conditions would not have been able to be accurately diagnosed during the 18th century, undoubtedly resulting in the deaths of “a great many people” Elizabeth DeWitt would come to write about in the letter to her father.

In the present-day United States, “we have antibiotics to cure contagious diseases and vaccines to prevent them” (Breslaw 1). In the 18th century, this was most certainly not the case. Elizabeth DeWitt lived in the colonies at a time that medicine was not making many strides. Outdated thinking and a refusal to be open to new or improved methods of treatment prevented advancement. Doctors not having reliable and consistent methods of treatment meant that they believed “diseases were peculiar to individuals; each individual required different medications or combinations and depended on the physician’s special understanding of illness” (48). Rather than recognizing that a standard approach would probably be best for the patient, physicians rejected newer ideas or modes of treatment “in favor of established practices” (44). Colonists were exposed to illnesses and diseases that they had no experience with in their homeland, they then relied on the authority of physicians who were not open to new ideas – even if those new ideas could prevent injury or death – and, due to a lack of understanding by the general public, patients took their doctors at their word and did not question their diagnoses or treatment methods. When one takes these facts into consideration, it is not difficult to understand why people were dying due to secondary disorders such as pleurisy or encephalitis. It is possible that these people were afflicted with such infections as influenza, pneumonia, measles, but received improper or incorrect treatment, leading to the development of the aforementioned conditions. Thinking about the medicinal practices of the 18th century can help us to understand the conditions of individuals living during these times.

Works Cited
Breslaw, Elaine G. Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic Health Care in Early America. New York Univ. Press, 2014.
“Encephalitis.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 17 Apr. 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/encephalitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20356136.
“Letter from Elizabeth DeWitt to her father,” Hudson River Valley Heritage Exhibits, accessed November 22, 2021, https://omeka.hrvh.org/items/show/2908.
“Pleurisy.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 Jan. 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pleurisy/symptoms-causes/syc-20351863.

Frankenstein’s Miniature

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein poses questions about humanity and what is natural or inherent to it, the dangers of science and scientific inquiry without considering ethical implications, and what constitutes as monstrous in a world so wrought with violence. It is no wonder that it has been read by millions worldwide since its initial release and rerelease in 1818 and 1831, respectively. An aspect of Frankenstein that is not often analyzed is Shelley’s mention of objects – such as the scientific apparatuses Victor Frankenstein uses or the books that Frankenstein’s creature finds. One object that caught my attention is the “valuable miniature… of [his] mother” that William Frankenstein has in his possession when he is murdered (Shelley 96). What exactly is a miniature, why was it so valuable, and were miniatures an important part of life during the 1800s when the book was written?

When William Frankenstein is murdered, his cousin Elizabeth Lavenza is beside herself with grief and guilt: grief because she has just lost someone so dear to her and guilt because she was the one who gave William what “was doubtless the temptation which urged the murderer to the deed” (Shelley 96). During the 18th and 19th centuries, miniature portraits were an important aspect of European culture, particularly in England. These objects were “intricately embellished with gems and enameling” and the portraits themselves were a “valuable artwork” whose containers required “particular skills, precious materials, and technological know-how” to create (Skolnik; Pointon 49). Seen as luxurious, miniature portraits could be found in royal households, often showcased publicly, transforming “what is essentially a private object (a small scale-portrait)” into a “museum piece” (48-49). There was a time where miniature portraits were showcased in “the queen’s audience chamber, behind glass, between the wood paneling and a line of full-scale portraits” (48). Miniature portraits “of the royal giver” also served as gifts from monarchs “to reward loyal subject[s]” (Skolnik). However, “spending on luxury goods” was not limited to the wealthy and the “middling sort” eventually began to collect these objects (49). Collecting miniature portraits for the express purpose of displaying them “proved one way of establishing a visual family tree” (49), and with the movement of miniatures from royal life to ‘commoners,’ “sweethearts and spouses replaced sovereigns” (Skolnik). It was not uncommon for women to wear miniatures of their husbands “not hidden but placed facing outwards as part of their apparel” (51) and women in 18th and 19th century paintings were depicted wearing such miniatures. With these facts in mind, an English or European reader during this time would have immediately recognized the importance of the miniature in William’s possession as well as its value.

While reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it is easy to gloss over the objects mentioned within the novel; the miniature portrait worn by William Frankenstein is one such object. Yet, I believe Mary Shelley sought to call attention to the miniature portrait, however briefly. When Frankenstein’s creature recalls the murder of William, he states that “…I saw something glittering on his breast. I took it; it was a portrait of a most lovely woman” (Shelley 155). In both passages where the miniature portrait is mentioned, Shelley alludes to the monetary and sentimental value of the object. During the 1800s, a reader would have been able to relate to having one – or possibly more – miniature portrait of their loved ones, so Shelley would have been able to elicit a strong response from readers as they put themselves in Elizabeth’s, or even William’s, shoes. While miniature portraits are not the elaborate and expensive objects that they once were, today’s locket often holds just as much sentimental – if not monetary – value as the miniature portraits of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Works Cited
Pointon, Marcia. “‘Surrounded with Brilliants’: Miniature Portraits in Eighteenth-Century England.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 83, no. 1, 2001, pp. 48–71. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3177190. Accessed 16 Nov. 2021.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, et al. Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the Original 1818 Text. Broadview Press, 2012.

Skolnik, Lisa. “A Heartbeat Away Lockets Hold the Treasures of Several Lifetimes: [Chicagoland Final Edition].” Chicago Tribune, 11 May 1997, pp. 23–10, 23:1. ProQuest Central Essentials, https://libdatabase.newpaltz.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/heartbeat-away-lockets-hold-treasures-several/docview/418268253/se-2?accountid=12761. Accessed 16 Nov. 2021.

“Sparking” Emotion

Marie Kondo’s “joy test” is one that seems extremely simple in theory. In practice, it is a bit more complicated. While the categories of clothing or books could have been sorted through, I felt this “joy test” should be done towards objects I feel more connected to, and so I chose my video games. I have several consoles and have purchased and been gifted many games over the years. I have played several of these games multiple times over and have spent countless late nights playing others with friends. I started with ten Xbox 360 games, thirteen Xbox One games, one Xbox Series X game, eight PlayStation 4 games, one PlayStation 5 game, and five Nintendo Switch games, for a grand total of thirty-eight video games across six consoles (not counting those that are still at my childhood home). If you can’t tell, I am more of an Xbox fan than a PlayStation fan!

Sorting through my video games was not as difficult as I expected but I was surprised by some of the choices I made. I expected that every game I own in the “Fallout” franchise would “spark joy” – even those I would rank lower on my list – but that was not the case. Both Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 were put into the “discard” pile. I was surprised by this because I love the “Fallout” franchise in its entirety – I have replayed Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas numerous times and have played Fallout 4 twice. Fallout 76 had its drawbacks, but I enjoyed the time I spent playing with my friends discovering a new post-apocalyptic wasteland. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, on the other hand, both caused immense joy. Not only was I flooded with memories of all the different times I have played the game, but I was also reminded of the passion I have for these games – how much knowledge I have of the characters, the setting, and the quests. Certain video games “sparked” conflicting emotions within me. If you know anything about The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II, they are not feel-good games, especially the most recent installment. Yet, when I held the games in my hand, I found myself yearning to go back into the cordyceps-infected world that Joel, Ellie, and Abby lived in. I wanted to relive the experience that playing those games was – even if it meant going through the five stages of grief all over again – solely because of the deep emotional connection I formed with the characters. I felt the same way about Death Stranding – a game I consider to be a work of art. The Last of Us Part II and Death Stranding both had me sobbing uncontrollably at certain points, and yet I love the games so dearly for the journeys they took me on and the lessons they taught me. So, while these games did not “spark joy” per se, they did illicit a strong emotional reaction. There were, of course, games that received a dull reaction from me. One I was surprised by was Skyrim: VR. Skyrim is tied for my favorite video game of all-time and I was in awe at how well-done the virtual reality version of the game was. However, all I could think about was the awful headache I got every time I played the VR version, and into the “discard” pile that version of the game went.

At the end of this “joy test,” I had “kept” six Xbox 360 games, five Xbox One games, one Xbox Series X game, six PlayStation 4 games, one PlayStation 5 game, and two Nintendo Switch games, for a grand total of nineteen games – exactly half of what I started with.

This exercise was very revealing and taught me a lot about my relationship to objects. For example, the two games from the “Fallout” franchise I chose to “keep” were the Xbox 360 games. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas were released in 2008 and 2010, respectively – they are both over a decade old and the graphics of Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 (made for Xbox One) far-surpass both games. Why did I choose to “keep” two games that are so old they can barely be played on my console without it crashing? Memory and emotion. Even games such as The Last of Us Part II and Death Stranding – whose poignant stories led to heartbreak and tears – I find great value in due to the way playing them made me feel.  This exercise taught me that I place the most importance on objects that I either have fond memories with/of, or that cause me to have a strong emotional reaction. Almost every game I chose to “keep” I could subcategorize into “games that I have fond memories of” and “games that made me deeply feel things, good or bad.” When I think of other objects I own, I see that same pattern repeating – even with my clothes! Overall, I found Marie Kondo’s “joy test” to be an enlightening and “joyful” experience and I believe many people can learn about themselves, and their relationship to their things, if they try the “joy test” themselves. 

Distributing-the-Bears

Three of my Build-A-Bears: Eevee, Sven, Rex

            Build-A-Bear Workshop (BABW) is a store that most people – adults and children alike – are aware of. Whether you have built a bear for yourself or for a loved one, chances are you have probably seen, heard of, or purchased a product from this store. I happen to love Build-a-Bears and have since I was a child and attended my first BABW birthday party in when I was eight years old. Since then, I have assembled a small collection of bears, whether made myself or by someone else – these bears are what I have chosen to focus on for this assignment. I have always loved stuffed animals since I was a young girl, but there is something magical about creating your own!

            According to the Build-A-Bear website, there are seven steps involved in the process of building your own bear. The first is to pick a “special furry friend – from a silly superhero to a sporty mascot and a cheerleading bunny to a snuggly teddy bear” (“The Workshop Experience”). After that, one has the option of picking a sound effect to insert into the bear – based on experience, the sound is usually in one of the paws. The third step involves stuffing the bear: “customize your creation with sounds, scents, stuffing, and, of course, our iconic special heart that holds your love and wishes” (“The Workshop Experience”). This step is often the most enjoyable for children (and I am a bit of a sucker for it, too)! When stuffing the bear, you can choose whether you would like it to be on the firmer or softer side, which usually depends on how the bear will be used. The Bear Builder (the employee who helps you build your bear) will also instruct you to do a few things with the small heart you choose for your bear, such as rubbing it in between your palms so that your bear is always warm, giving it a hug or kiss so your bear knows it is loved, doing a little dance so your bear knows how to have fun, and a making a wish on the heart so that your dreams may come true. The fourth step involves simply hugging the bear to make sure it is “stuffed just right” and is neither too soft nor too firm (“The Workshop Experience”). The next three steps involve dressing the bear, naming the bear (which involves creating a birth certificate), and then taking it home. 

            After thinking about this involved process, I wondered how the bear “skins,” clothing, accessories, etc. get to their destinations, so I will be focusing on the distribution aspect of this company. According to their 2019 Annual Report, Build-A-Bear Workshop:

[Owns] a 350,000 square-foot distribution center near Columbus, Ohio which serves the majority of… stores in the United States and Canada. [They] also contract with a third-party warehouse in southern California to service [their] West Coast stores. (“Annual Report”)

Outside of North America, BABW “contract[s] with a third-party distribution center in Selby, England… In Asia, [they] contract with a third-party distribution center in Shanghai, China” (“Annual Report”).  A few things come to mind when I read about the locations for their distribution centers and the locations these centers service. First off, while I am sure the distribution centers that serve these locations are enormous, one must wonder about the working conditions there. To only have one distribution center per continent, the workers likely work long hours. Depending on where the centers are located, they could be working under grueling conditions, as labor laws in other countries can be more relaxed – and working conditions more dangerous. The next thing that comes to mind is pollution – what, if anything, is done to ensure that these centers are not contributing to the pollution within their respective countries? Considering that “shipments from… distribution centers are scheduled throughout the week… and [they] typically distribute merchandise and supplies… once every other week or once a week,” it does not seem that emissions is something BABW considers a priority (“Annual Report”). On the other hand, Build-A-Bear Workshop has policies and regulations in place to ensure that forced labor, child labor, or human trafficking does not occur at any step within their supply chain:

Our policy mandates termination of contracts and dismissal of any supplier found to use human trafficking, slavery or child labor in the production of products or components of products for Build-A-Bear Workshop. (“Supply Chain”)

This information is readily available on their website, something I found to be promising, as transparency about such issues is extremely important. 

            I would like to see Build-A-Bear Workshop address their emissions and how they can cut back as we face a global climate crisis. Moreover, I hope that they do more than terminate contracts with companies found in noncompliance of labor laws and report such facilities to their respective authorities.

Works Cited

“Annual Report.” Annual Report SEC Form 10-K Filing for Fiscal Year 2019, Build-A-Bear Workshop, Inc, https://ir.buildabear.com/static-files/a8db7a4d-e120-4909-9ddb-1f502d1984cd. 

“Supply Chain.” Build-A-Bear Workshop, Build-A-Bear Workshop, Inc, https://www.buildabear.com/brand-help-supply-chain.html. 

“The Workshop Experience.” Build-A-Bear Workshop, Build-A-Bear Workshop, Inc, https://www.buildabear.com/brand-about-story-experience.html. 

A Memory Box

Front of jewelry/music box

Before me I have a jewelry box, about 12.5” long and 10.3” inches wide. With measurements it can be hard to envision, but this is no average-sized jewelry box. Next to a box of cereal or a bottle of dish soap, the box looks abnormally large – even though the cereal box is slightly taller. This is a jewelry box with some heft! There is a thin layer of dust atop the box and on the edges of the bottom molding. The brown wooden jewelry box is worn, small scratches found on nearly every individual surface, even smaller chips on the corners. On the left-hand side of the jewelry box, there are five small drawers, each about 4” wide and 1.5” deep. The first drawer has a foam ring-holder that feels unpleasant when my fingernails make their way across the surface.

Dusty top of jewelry box

The drawers have decorative handles, which probably sparkled and shined when the jewelry box was new. Now the handles have lost their color – they may have been gold-plated or a sparkling silver at one point, but now they are a dull gray with specks of black. Each drawer has a small, rectangular outline painted on its front in a faded gold, about 3.3” in diameter. These rectangular accents have inverted corners, giving the design a more refined look. On some of the drawers the paint has not lifted at all; while on others, the paint has begun to wear away, chipped and stripped. On the right-hand side of the jewelry box there are two compartments, the first a door about 9” long. The door has the same rectangular accent around its edges, and within that accent there is a plastic window into the compartment. This plastic window has another muted gold design, which upon investigation is painted on the inside of the plastic. The design feels rough against my fingertips. This compartment is meant for necklaces and chains and has a small mirror at the very back of it. The box is too cluttered to see myself clearly.

First and fifth drawers open, necklace compartment open – blurred so the focus can be on the first drawer.

The second compartment on the right-hand side of the jewelry box is what makes this box more than just a jewelry box, and more like a memory box. Before I can tell you more about this sixth drawer, I must describe the back of the box. The back of the jewelry box has a small, shiny sticker that says, “Quality Products Designed for Jay, Jay Import Co. Inc. MADE IN TAIWAN.” On this same, plain surface, there is a small crank or “winder” that one might find on a music box. There are two visible screws underneath this crank. I turn it, wondering if it still works… to my surprise, it does (though it did give me some resistance at first)! That sixth drawer? When opened, it plays a beautiful lullaby – one that I rediscovered in August, played on an instrument called a Kalimba, and immediately recognized but could not place. This jewelry box doubles as a music box, one that I loved so dearly during my adolescence that you can see it was opened often – the drawer does not fit perfectly within its mold any longer, being slightly crooked when closed.

Close-up of sixth drawer

This jewelry box has not been used by me since I was in high school, at least 6 or more years ago, and has since been in my younger sister’s closet. However, this is a box with history, filled with memories of a different time in my life. Before me, my mother owned this box, a gift from her mother – my grandmother, Rocio. A tiny sticker of my preschool photograph adorns the window on the right-hand side of the box. Underneath that sticker is a sticker of Santa Claus I surely placed there – and later tried, but failed, to peel off. There seems to have been another sticker underneath that one which was successfully peeled off, at least to the point where you can no longer see the image. Opening each drawer one-by-one, I was taken back in time. I found a crisp, bright $2 bill in the first drawer – this is a lucky $2 bill I received from my stepfather’s coworker when I was barely a teenager, maybe 12. In the second drawer, I found a pair of earrings I wore to my junior prom. The third drawer held rubber bracelets from my Twilight days – “vampire girl” written across one. The next drawer held a silver jewelry box with my name written on it in my mother’s handwriting. Inside that box I found a small, gold pin that says “Mother” and underneath it has a heart with the initials “M.V.” engraved on it. I cannot easily recall knowing anybody with those initials.

Back of jewelry/music box; manufacturer label and music box crank visible

The fifth drawer on the left-hand side held two student IDs – one from eighth grade and another from tenth grade – a pride ribbon pin which I wore on my gown during my high school graduation, and several gold charms that can be put on a necklace. In the sixth drawer I found a dog tag which belonged to a close friend, given to me in middle school, and the tag for a mood bracelet. My necklace compartment holds a pearl necklace, a necklace made by an ex-boyfriend, and a carved-wooden turtle necklace I bought at Oktoberfest in Bear Mountain in 2013. Interestingly enough, I had been thinking fondly about that exact necklace last week, wondering where it had gone.