Mappin & Company, Surgical Mechanicians of Birmingham, 1885

Today it’s a very special post – a guest post from Dave of the ace crime fiction blog http://whatareyoureadingfor.wordpress.com

It’s funny what you come across when you’re looking for something else. Hunting for references to an electric car company (don’t ask) in the library stacks, I came across this wonderful 1885 catalogue for Birmingham surgical instrument makers Mappin & Co. I’ve long been fascinated by surgery and pathology (my childhood hero was Jack Klugman, growling his way through Monday night episodes of Quincy M.E), so as soon as I cracked it open I was hooked.

The index at the front is enough to make even the strongest stomach flutter, with references to all manner of ‘bespoke’ items: Haemorrhoidal Clamps, Harelip Pins, Necrosis Chisels, Rectum Plugs, Gunshot Probes, Mouth Gags… You get the idea. But it’s when you get into the body (ahem) of the catalogue that the fun really starts. Many of the items are beautifully illustrated; who wouldn’t want a full dissection kit, complete with Brain Knife, Bowel Scissors and Spine Chisels, all presented in a strong mahogany case for the bargain price of £4 12s (equivalent to £300 in today’s money)?

And if that doesn’t paint a vivid enough picture, some of the products are shown in use. On one page, a sad-faced man is seen inserting one end of the nasal douche into his – well, nose, whilst a jet of unidentified liquid shoots out of the other nostril. According to the blurb, it’s good for ‘Hay Fever, Bleeding from the Nose, Offensive Discharges and Thickness of Speech’ – curing rather than causing them, I’d hope. I wouldn’t be first in the queue to try it out.

Should living patients not do it for you, how about a skeleton? £10 10s for the full body, or £1 15s for top half only. If your budget doesn’t stretch that far, maybe a skull is more tempting (£2 5s) or just a hand (linked with cat gut, a bargain at just 7 shillings). But the catalogue’s best surprise is left until the end. Mappin & Co didn’t just supply doctors – the general customer could also purchase their table cutlery from them. I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be with that – especially the ones with ‘white bone handles’. You’d always wonder who – sorry, where – they’d come from.

Mappin & Co continued to trade up until the early 1920s, at which point they drop out of the documentary record. Trade directories for the period suggest their premises at 121 New Street were subsequently taken over by a pianoforte showroom, and then a jeweller’s. The address is still there, and is currently (I swear I’m not making this up) a branch of The Body Shop. If history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes sometimes.

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