Kaegi Pharmacy Exhibit | Interpreting objects in virtual space

By Greta Smith ::

The Kaegi Pharmacy exhibit at the Clackamas County Historical Society Museum of the Oregon Territories

This fall I worked on a project for the Clackamas County Historical Society Museum of the Oregon Territory (MOOT) where I wrote interpretive text for 13 items that belong to the Kaegi Pharmacy collection. The Kaegi Pharmacy operated in Wilsonville from 1927 until it closed in 1989, after which brothers John and Richard Kaegi donated their collection of pharmaceutical objects and ephemera to MOOT where much of the collection is on display today.

The Kaegi Pharmacy exhibit, with all of its tinctures, tonics, arcane medical equipment, and previously commonplace items, many of which seem alien to us now (hello, fire extinguishing hand grenades!) is so visually exciting that it cusps on being overwhelming—and it certainly can be overwhelming to interpret such an impressive collection of small, strange items in a museum exhibit. In order to address this problem of interpretation, the creative staff at MOOT decided that it would be ideal if they could use virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to help enliven the exhibit display and enhance experience for museum visitors. Through an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, MOOT was able to secure funding for Kaegi VR. They hired a technical design team to collaborate with on the construction of the VR and AR component, and employed me to write interpretive text for 13 pharmacy items.

The pharmacy collection included tooth powder, arsenic, heroin, quinine, S&H Green Stamps, Swamp Root, Wizard Oil, Rattlesnake oil, Lydia Pinkham’s Tonic, Unicorn Root (both true and false), placebo, fire extinguishing hand grenades, and show globes. I worked to tease out the stories of these objects in around 300 words or less, sometimes more. It was really challenging, but a lot of fun and I learned more than I ever thought possible about nineteenth-century medicine, the motivations behind the production of different kinds of medicines, and the struggle to find a way to regulate it all.

Below you can see an example of one of my favorite write-ups, but you’ll have to go see the exhibit when it opens on February 15th in order to see more.

Hand Grenade Fire Extinguisher:

Originating in England during the late 1700s, glass globe extinguishers known as “Fire Grenades” were a popular type of fire deterrent and were common in homes, workplaces, schools, and a wide variety of public places from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. The grenade itself was made of thin glass that was designed to be thrown into the center of the base of a fire where upon shattering on impact, the liquid inside would be released and squelch the flames.

There are many different makes and models of glass fire grenade extinguishers and there is a level of uncertainty surrounding what exactly the mysterious liquid is inside each one. The liquid could range from a harmless salt water solution to carbon tetrachloride (a.k.a. tetrachloromethane), which is harmful to the human body if inhaled, ingested or absorbed. More importantly, when carbon tetrachloride comes in contact with the heat of a fire, it can produce phosgene gas, a lethal chemical weapon used in World War I. Chemicals are more likely present in glass globe fire extinguishers manufactured after 1900; however it is difficult to know for certain without testing. Needless to say, fire grenades were, in some cases, more dangerous than the fires they sought to extinguish.

One of the most famous models of fire grenades was made by Hardens Hand Fire Extinguisher Company of Chicago Illinois. Hardens advertised the effectiveness of their grenades, claiming that over 600 fires were extinguished through its use. Patented just before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Hardens Hand Fire Extinguishers, such as the one you see here, were apparently no match for Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.