Unearthing the story of the future NGA site, as told by broken bottles, abandoned toy soldiers and shattered dishes
By Jessica Daues, Office of Corporate Communications
Peek through cracks in the fence surrounding the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s new facility site in North St. Louis, and you can catch a glimpse of yellow-clawed machines digging. All that dirt-moving is part of the City of St. Louis’ preparations for the construction of NGA’s new campus in 2021.
This is the second dig the city has commissioned on the site. The first: an archeological excavation to record the history of the 27 urban blocks contained in future NGA site.
During the five-month dig, which ended in October 2017, the Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis employees unearthed 503 boxes worth of broken dishes, glass pitchers, empty medicine bottles and more thrown away by former residents in pits, latrines, cisterns and water closets.
The archaeologists cataloged 16,390 items that give modern-day Americans a better understanding of what life was like for the neighborhood’s residents the past 150 years.
Joe Harl, vice president of the Archeological Research Center, picked some examples of the thousands of items archaeologists found and provided a glimpse into life in the footprint of the new campus the past 150 years — just as NGA begins its own history there.
Likely from 1860s-1880s
The future NGA site didn’t hold much appeal for permanent settlement to its earliest visitors, American Indians, Harl said, because of its lack of nearby water source. German and Irish immigrants and first-generation Americans were the first to build homes on the future NGA site, around the time of the Civil War, as the City of St. Louis grew and expanded north.
Many of these first residents purchased completely white dinner settings, sometimes with molded shapes on them. These white dishes were popular due to influence of Victorian-era ideas on purity and eating.
“The Victorians thought your environment could impact a person,” Harl said. “So if you ate spoiled food or unwholesome food, it could affect your physical health as well as your mental abilities, and ultimately your morality.”
As a result, highly decorated, colorful plates were discouraged, because the decoration could hide or distract from tainted food. “Pure white implied the wholesomeness of foods,” he said, “so that’s what everyone wanted.”
Likely from late 1800s or early 1900s
As Irish and German Americans built and rented homes and two- and four-family flats in the area, they also opened small businesses to serve the new residents: harness-makers, bakeries, groceries, shoemakers and more.
William Kuhlmey, born in 1861 to German immigrants, rented a property in the site with his wife, Emma, born in 1870, and young daughters, Ruby, born in 1891, and Irene, born in 1892. William opened a drugstore at North Market Street and 22nd Street around the turn of the century and continued to operate the drugstore into the 1920s.
This personalized shaving mug likely belonged to William, Harl said.
“Personalized shaving mugs were popular during the late 1800s to the early 1900s, though most people could not afford to have their names on shaving mugs,” Harl said. “This was the only one we found during these excavations.”
The archaeologist said that luxurious mug indicates that William’s business was likely very successful and that he may have enjoyed fishing.
One item that could have been sold at Kuhlmey’s drugstore was Kohler’s One Night Cough Syrup, produced by the Kohler Manufacturing Co., in Kohler, Wisconsin. It contained chloroform, cannabis and morphine.
“That will cure your cough,” Harl said.
This was a typical patent medicine sold during the late 1800s and the first part of the 1900s, the archaeologist said.
“These medicines temporarily provided relief from the symptoms but did not cure the affliction,” Harl said. “Most contained now-illicit drugs or a high percentage of alcohol.”
With coal used to heat homes, cook foods, power factories and operate trains throughout St. Louis, polluted air sickened many residents of North St. Louis. “The city had coal waste and smoke constantly raining down upon it,” Harl said.
He said cough medicines were one of the more common medicines found across this site and were likely used by both wealthy and poor residents.
Decorated plate and pitcher
Likely from late 1800s or early 1900s
As the Victorian era faded, so did preferences for solid-white plates, and ornately-decorated dishes, pitchers and platters became in vogue.
New inexpensive methods of applying floral decorations and gilding made the decorated plates affordable.
Families collected many of these dishes to show off their wealth to friends and neighbors. This set up a sort of social competition among many of the working- and middle-class families of the time, Harl said, including those who lived within the NGA footprint.
“Poorer families wanted gold-covered plates because it made them look like they had more expensive dishes,” Harl said.
“Dining was a sort of social competition, to show off how ‘well-off’ they were. They would show off different kinds of foods, on different plates, using special utensils.
“And then each family would try to out-do each other.”
While many residents of the future NGA site tried to make themselves look wealthy, others that lived at the site genuinely were wealthy. Mansions lined St. Louis Avenue to the north, and the area became a destination for well-to-do, self-made businessmen of Irish and German descent.
These opera glasses with mother-of-pearl inlays were found behind a four-family flat owned by Minnie Lippelmann, the widow of H. Lippelmann, a merchant who owned a store on Jefferson Avenue in 1880. The Lippelmanns immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1869 and appear to have settled in St. Louis by 1880, Harl said.
The opera glasses likely were Minnie’s, he said, because the other residents who lived near where the glasses were found worked as clerks, wagon drivers and laborers, and likely could not afford to go to the opera or purchase opera glasses, let alone these glasses.
“With the mother-of-pearl inlays, this would have been even more expensive than an ordinary pair of opera glasses,” Harl said.
World’s Fair cup
In 1904, St. Louis hosted the World’s Fair in Forest Park, about 5 miles west of the NGA site. This tin cup from the fair — which depicted Napoleon, the United States in 1903 and the border of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 — was likely an inexpensive souvenir brought back home by a resident after a visit to the fair, Harl said.
The archaeologist said his team found many other artifacts relating to the World’s Fair, showing the fair was a popular destination for residents of the future NGA site.
He said it’s difficult to determine exactly who would have owned the cup, but a possibility is the family of William Haberbeck, who likely owned the residence near where the cup was found from 1880–1920. Haberbeck and his children worked at a dry good store.
A visit to the 1904 World’s Fair would have been an exciting experience for someone like Haberbeck or his family, Harl said.
The fair boasted grand palaces, huge exhibits, exotic foods, animal acts, performances featuring people from other cultures — all on a scale that most residents of the future NGA site had never experienced.
“Exhibition halls like the Palace of Manufacturing displayed and sold products from 900 different industries,” Harl said.
“There were more than 6,000 performers and 1,500 trained animal acts at the fair. They would have experienced newly developed technology, like electric lights.”
Celery Cola, advertised as “exhilarating” and “refreshing,” was sold nationally from St. Louis, Harl said, and enjoyed by residents of the future NGA site. Invented in 1887, it contained cocaine and high levels of caffeine.
In 1910, what’s now known as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prosecuted the company for including harmful amounts of cocaine and caffeine in its product not disclosed on its labeling.
“The bad publicity caused the company to close,” Harl said.
In the 1920s, Celery Cola was revived by its inventor, James Mayfield, along with others known as Dope and Cherri-Kick.
The new-old company did well for a decade, he said, but the Celery-Cola Corporation of America in St. Louis closed during the Depression.
From early 1930s
In January 1920, the production, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages was declared illegal in the United States. But Prohibition didn’t stop some from continuing the party.
Illegal saloons, called speakeasies, popped up to provide alcoholic drinks to those who could afford them — and find them — and a source of income for entrepreneurs and members of organized crime.
Archaeologists found what could be evidence of a speakeasy within the future NGA site, near what had been a moving picture theatre and a meeting hall. There, archaeologists uncovered a pit filled with more than 3,000 bottles of different types of beer — many with the caps still on.
“This suggests that at least some of the beers were unopened before they were broken,” Harl said.
The bottles date to the early 1930s and could have been victims of a raid on the speakeasy by the authorities, Harl said. Law enforcement may have smashed the bottles of illegal alcohol, leaving them to be discarded in a nearby pit.
The era of speakeasies ended with the repeal of Prohibition Dec. 5, 1933.
While adults created their own entertainment at the future NGA site, kids found ways to have fun, too. Archaeologists found dolls, roller skates, alphabet plates, marbles and other toys scattered throughout the future NGA site.
These plastic toys date to the 1950s, Harl said. That the toy soldiers are plastic, he said, tells archaeologists that they were made after World War II. Before 1940, toy soldiers were made of tin.
Children played with these toys at the NGA site just as the residents of the area were changing. After World War II, new housing in the suburbs attracted the children of the European immigrants. African-American first-time homeowners bought up the residences they left behind.
These toys were among the most recent artifacts collected by the archaeologists who excavated the NGA site. Archaeologists typically follow the 50-year rule, Harl said, which meant NGA site archaeologists only collected items dating up to the 1960s.
How do archaeologists know so much Celery Cola, Kohler’s One Night Cough Syrup and people like the Kuhlmeys? A lot of research.
To collect information on residents, archaeologists consult old records: censuses, street maps, birth and death certificates, city directories, fire insurance maps and more.
Harl said there can be many ways to identify and date artifacts themselves. Toy soldiers, for example, sometimes can be dated by referring to private collectors’ holdings. Sometimes a part of a bottle label survives and provides clues as to what was in the bottle, who made it and when it was used.
He said one object they found stumped them. It was finally identified after one researcher combed through the 1902 Sears Roebuck catalogue: It was a currycomb.
“People don’t realize how much work goes into the analysis of the artifacts,” Harl said. “That takes about as much digging as digging in the ground.”
The artifacts unearthed at the future NGA site offer an invaluable peek into the past.
Objects people used tell us what their everyday lives were like, Harl said, and sometimes what archaeologists learn from artifacts is a contradiction to written documents or common-held beliefs about the past.
Archeologists’ work is vital, Harl said, to help us understand the people who lived before us — their values, challenges, mistakes and successes.
“To understand the past is to better understand ourselves today, which is the ultimate goal of archaeology,” he said. “If we had just gone through and destroyed everything at the NGA site, important information could have been lost about our cultural heritage.”
“Now we have it, for future generations to use and appreciate.”
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