Civil War Show Find: Finely Carved Spring-Loaded Lancet

The parts of a spring-loaded lancet include the cocking mechanism (a), the trigger (b), and the blade (c), as seen on this highly engraved spring-loaded lancet by Kolb from Furth, Germany

The parts of a spring-loaded lancet include the cocking mechanism (a), the trigger (b), and the blade (c), as seen on this highly engraved spring-loaded lancet by Kolb from Furth, Germany

My father and I participated in the Civil War Show at the North Georgia Trade Center in Dalton, Ga., during the first weekend of February this year. Participants exhibited items ranging from firearms, swords, dug relics, glassware, flags and medical items to household items used during the period. Wandering the show, looking for something to buy—which is half the reason for doing a show (the other half being selling your items at the show)—I found a little gem of a medical item: a spring-loaded lancet with fantastic engraving on the body. I haven’t seen one this old and nice in at least 15 years.

Bloodletting, as you recall from my article, Horn Bleeding Cups, was a very important procedure of the 18th- and 19th-century physician. It was believed bloodletting balanced the “humors” in the body and let out the “bad” blood. Not only were the multi-bladed scarificators discussed in that article used, but also fleams, thumb lancets and spring-loaded lancets.

A group of bloodletting instruments including (from left to right, top to bottom): a spring-loaded lancet in box, ($225), a multi-bladed scarificator ($525), a multi-bladed fleam in horn cover ($95), a shagreen-covered etui with four thumb lancets, one exposed ($1025), and a single fleam with ivory handle ($65).

A group of bloodletting instruments including (from left to right, top to bottom): a spring-loaded lancet in box, ($225), a multi-bladed scarificator ($525), a multi-bladed fleam in horn cover ($95), a shagreen-covered etui with four thumb lancets, one exposed ($1,025), and a single fleam with ivory handle ($65).

Fleams are leaf shaped blades, sharp at the point and down both sides. Multi-bladed fleams fold like a pocketknife, with the blades at right angles, most often covered with horn or brass, sometimes with silver or other fine material. The blade was pushed directly into the vein. Larger ones were meant for veterinary use, very small ones for humans. They range in price from $40 to $200, depending on type and condition.

Thumb lancets are pointed, double-sided blades in protective tortoiseshell covers. They could be purchased singly or in sets. The sets came in pressed paper containers ($100), leather or very fancy etuis made from silver, shagreen, tortoiseshell, etc. Depending on age, condition and the material the etui is made from, thumb lancets can be quite pricey, ($900-plus). Interesting provenance will also add to the price, such as military medical history or proof it was owned by a doctor of note.

The interior of the spring-loaded lancet is shown with iron spring mechanism evident.

The interior of the spring-loaded lancet is shown with iron spring mechanism evident.

Spring-loaded lancets are small devices made of steel or brass with an enclosed iron spring, a cocking mechanism, a trigger and a sharp blade. The idea of the spring was to help the patients experience less trauma, so instead of the physician pushing the blade into the vein, a “snap” of the trigger, releasing the spring, was supposed to be quicker and less painful. These instruments usually came in a leather-covered wooden box with a chamois lining; some boxes were more elaborate than others. I recently sold a Weigand and Snowdon-made spring-loaded lancet in a very nice box covered in red book leather with an embossed gold eagle on the center of the lid, for $350 (Weigand and Snowdon were in business in Philadelphia from 1821 to 1855). Normally, the boxes are subject to so much wear that the leather erodes, especially on the ends of the box. Plain lancets in plain boxes or lancets without boxes sell for $250 and less.

The makers mark Kolb is evident among the engraved flowers and leaves on the back of the spring-loaded lancet.

The makers mark Kolb is evident among the engraved flowers and leaves on the back of the spring-loaded lancet.

Now to my little gem. It is 2 ¼-inches long and is covered in the most exquisite engraving of flowers, leaves and vines, and has the name Kolb on the back as part of the engraving. Kolb was most probably Heinrich Theodor Kolb, who was known in Furth (Bavaria, Germany) in 1844. In 1845, he is mentioned in a German text as a manufacturer of surgical instruments of Furth . . . had several scarificators of new silver and brass . . . priced 6 Fl. 15 Kr, the latter 4 ½ to 5 Fl. per dozen. (I don’t know what new silver refers to and neither did my translator; perhaps it is what we refer to as German silver, a grade of silver alloy. If anybody does know I would love to hear from you). The engraving of lancets tend to be an earlier practice, with plainer ones made later.

The iron trigger is also of earlier date than the brass. I have not discovered how long Kolb was in business, whether it was a multigenerational business or when it was started. But, this type of engraving could indicate a date as early as 1750.

So, keep your eyes open at the various shows you attend. You never know what you are going to find.

My thanks to Mr. Weber-Unger for finding information on the maker Kolb and to Ms. Wildrick for translating German to English.

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


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