Monday, June 29, 2015

Lubricators and Puns

by Erin Doane, curator

The other day I came across an odd item in collections storage. That in itself is not unusual. With over 20,000 historic objects here at the museum, I’m bound to find things I haven’t seen before. This item is a group of 50 advertising cards for The Swift Lubricator Co. of Elmira. A small picture is glued to the back of each card with a number written in pencil above it and a word or phrase below – Bird or Fowl, Animal, Vegetable, Flower, or Composer of Music. The pictures themselves show a wide variety of things, from a teacher in front of a classroom to children in a field to a goat crashing into a mug. The whole pack of cards was a mystery and I decided to investigate.

Advertisement on one side of the card
Game on the other side
The Swift Lubricator Co. was started by Allen W. Swift around 1885. Swift first appears in the Elmira city directories in 1877. He is listed first as a steam engine manufacturer and then as a lubricator manufacturer. In 1882 he was granted a patent for a steam engine lubricator that he had invented. An October 3, 1884 Commercial World & United States Exporter article describes how Swift’s lubricator worked. “…the steam passes it [the lubricator] on its way to the cylinder, a small portion of the live steam carries with it into the valve chest and through this into the cylinder, a constant succession of drops of oil which it reduces to the condition of vapor, so finely are its particles divided. The oil vapor enters with the steam into every part of the valve, chest and cylinder and secures them a perfect lubrication.” Railroads including the New York, West Shore and Buffalo Railroad and the Chicago and Alton Railroad used these lubricators on their locomotives. Over 200 of them were sold in June 1884.
Swift's lubricator patent
So, what does all that have to do with the pile of cards I found? Not much, really. The cards were obviously used to advertise the Swift Lubricator Co. but I think the pictures on the back were added later and have little to nothing to do with the company. My guess is that someone repurposed leftover cards. When the cards were produced, the company was located on 730 W. 1st Street. Around 1900, the business moved to 729-731 W. 2nd Street. The cards with the old address then became useless. Someone, perhaps a member of the Swift family, perhaps not, took fifty of the cards, added pictures to the backs and created a game. Fortunately, someone included a numbered list with the cards so we can understand how the game was played. Each picture represents a bird, an animal, a flower, etc. as indicated by the category written below it in pencil. You have to guess what the picture is. For example, the picture of the teacher at the blackboard I included above is from the vegetable category and represents peas. Got it? Here’s some more to try with the answers at the bottom of this post.

Answers: 1: pheasant; 10: robin; 14: woodchuck; 21: tomatoes; 32: hollyhock; 40: buttercup; 41: Schumann

Click here for a pdf with all 50 cards and the answer key. Disclaimer: a couple of the images are racist. There’s no other way to say it. The game is a product of its time and CCHS does not endorse any such cultural depictions.

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