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Proper Care and Storage of Antique Medical Instruments

by Laura Collum (03/31/09).

Many of us have collections of antiques we wish to display but are not sure how. We do not always know what might look good, or what is safe for our precious antiques. This applies to medical antiques as well as art glass or comics. The thing most harmful to antiques, including medical antiques, is light. We must also be concerned with dust, oxidation and mishandling. So, we can leave our goodies in the closet or find a safe way to display them.

Finding a display case that meets these concerns is not impossible. One collector friend has a mid Victorian shop display cabinet he uses. It is later than most of his antiques but is very effective for protection and good looks. Ultra-modern cabinets such as Danish modern are effective since their simple lines do not distract from the antiques and many have built-in lighting. I have several old college chemical cabinets I use, as well as a 1940s medical dispensing cabinet for my instruments in my shop. Cabinets will keep out the dust and fingers, so part of the problem is solved.

Leaving this Civil War era amputation kit open all the time will not affect the metal instruments but will impact the fabric lining. For example, purple velveteen linings in many amputation sets have faded to a pale green where the inside was constantly exposed to light

Leaving this Civil War era amputation kit open all the time will not affect the metal instruments but will impact the fabric lining. But if the fabric lining of the kit is exposured to light for any extended period of time, the fabric can fade and become brittle.

Many medical instruments of the past came in beautiful, fine-wood boxes with fabric linings. Leaving the box open all the time will not affect the metal instruments but will impact the fabric lining. For example, purple velveteen linings in many amputation sets have faded to a pale green where the inside was constantly exposed to light. To avoid this, keep the box closed most of the time and showcase some of the more interesting instruments beside the box or keep lights low most of the time in the room your display inhabits. A closed cabinet, such as an armoire, is a good solution when you only want to display your treasures when guests are over.

When you first bring home your amputation set or dental forceps, oil the metal with a paper towel or lint less cloth to remove surface rust and keep more from forming. Make sure you remove excess oil from the instruments before returning them to their fabric-lined box. The oil will ruin the fabric. Then avoid touching the metal with bare hands, the moisture and salt on your skin is damaging.

Some collectors and dealers believe metal instruments, such as this amputation saw, should be polished back to their original “factory” finish. Others believe instruments should be kept in stasis, i.e. no more degradation but no artificial restoration.

Some collectors and dealers believe metal instruments, such as this amputation saw, should be polished back to their original “factory” finish. Others believe instruments should be kept in stasis, i.e. no more degradation but no artificial restoration.

Some collectors and dealers believe metal instruments should be polished back to their original “factory” finish. Others believe instruments should be kept in stasis, i.e. no more degradation but no artificial restoration. This goes for the polishing of brass in instruments as well. This is a matter of taste. However, brass polish is corrosive, and needs to be completely cleaned off!

If the fabric lining is dusty, brushing with a clean artist brush will help. (Artist brushes are good for dusting many different kinds of antiques in your collection). And if the fabric looks sturdy enough, and the dust or debris is difficult to remove, very carefully tap small areas with a piece of tape.

Many fabric-lined instrument boxes have makers labels attached to the fabric. If the label is loose, a good-quality fabric glue in very small amounts applied with a toothpick or other small instrument will solve that problem.

The boxes themselves can be polished with a good quality furniture wax. If it is a spray product, spray the cloth not the box. Some boxes have brass strapping and escutcheons. Leaving the original varnished finish on these is preferred. If the varnish has been completely removed, you can polish the brass, but remember, brass polish can be very destructive to wood surfaces, so be very careful.

There is one part of medical instruments that invariably degrades and is rarely found whole. That is old rubber. I have not heard of a solution to keep rubber from degrading except by keeping it out of the light.

Now that you have a cabinet, solved the lighting problem and cleaned your collection, the next step—the fun part—begins: how to arrange your treasures. A display that showcases the use of your instruments, with old pictures or engravings, would be interesting and educational to your visitors. If you don’t collect or have access to pictures and engravings, good copies can be effective. (Remember to respect copyrights when making copies). Showing the evolution of a particular type of instrument—such as the scalpel—through time is another way to display. Just remember not to display your full-size wax models of organ pathologies in the dining room! And as always, have fun.

Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.

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One Response to “Proper Care and Storage of Antique Medical Instruments”

  1. Michael says:

    Wow. I might have to visit that oddities shop to see if they have any of these kits. Strange balance between grotesque and grand.

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