If one has never written an historical book, be it fiction or nonfiction, he/she likely does not quite grasp the idea that having accuracy, even in the smallest of details, is essential.
In my latest release, Captain Stanwick’s Bride: A Tragic Characters in Classic Lit Series Novel, there is a short scene in an operating tent upon a battlefield. The hero, Captain Whittaker Stanwick is a British army prisoner being held with others in tents outside Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, Maryland.
The heroine is the daughter of a Scottish born and trained surgeon and a Powhatan Indian princess. Being an uncouth “Injun,” Beatrice assists her father during the surgery. Whit has been recruited also to assist, but his stomach nearly does him in and provide him shame, when a soldier suffering with dysentery vomits all over the ground, right in front of Whit.
Personally, I understand Whit’s reaction. Even with my own child, I could clean up every mess — and there many such occasions — but I had to find air quickly if my son decided to expel the contents of his stomach into the toilet or on the floor. One thing that always made me feel better was a toothpick, which had been dipped in mint oil, held between my teeth. [As a side note, when I was in junior high school, clove, cinnamon, and mint flavored toothpicks were all the rage. We kept them in our mouths during class until the teachers and administration banned them.] Therefore, I thought to provide Whit a ready solution to his queasy reaction. Unfortunately, in an afterthought, I realized toothpicks were not mass manufactured in America, where the story takes place during the War of 1812, until the 1860s. Even so, the keywords in that sentence were “mass manufactured.” With a twist of the idea and a some research, the scene still worked.
In truth, early Neanderthals used some sort of tool to pick their teeth. We know this because scientists have identified tooth indentations, assumed to be indicative of picking one’s teeth, among Australian Aborigines, prehistoric Native Americans, and even the earliest finds of the Egyptians. “Mesopotamians used instruments to keep dental crevices clear and artifacts such as toothpicks made out of silver, bronze and various other precious metals that date back to antiquity have also been unearthed. By the Medieval period, carrying a gold or silver toothpick in a fancy case became a way for privileged Europeans to distinguish themselves from commoners.” [A Short History of the Toothpick]
It is said that Queen Elizabeth I received six gold toothpicks as a gift from an admirer. She was known to show them off at gatherings at the palace. Supposedly, there is a portrait of an elderly Queen Elizabeth wearing a chain around her neck with a gold toothpick in a case, similar to the one pictured below.
Others made toothpicks from whatever was available. The Romans used bird feathers, chopping off the quill and sharpening the tip. Native Americans carved deer bone to form toothpicks. Eskimos used walrus whiskers. Wooden toothpicks can splinter and cause injuries.
The American Charles Forster had lived and worked in Brazil. It was there that he noticed the excellent condition of the people in the area. The Brazilians credited the imported toothpicks available from Portugal. Inspired, Forster developed a machine that would mass produce toothpicks. Regrettably, Americans were not buying something they could create for themselves with a piece of wood and a whittling knife.
Forster was not abandoning the idea; therefore, he created an unusual marketing campaign. “Some of the unusual marketing tactics he employed included hiring students to pose as store customers seeking toothpicks and instructing Harvard students to ask for them whenever they dined at restaurants. Soon enough, many local eateries would make sure toothpicks were available for patrons who somehow developed a habit of reaching for them as they’re about to leave.”
“In 1869, Alphons Krizek, of Philadelphia, received a patent for an ‘improvement in toothpicks,’ which featured a hooked end with spoon-shaped mechanism designed to clean out hollow and sensitive teeth. Other attempted ‘improvements’ include a case for a retractable toothpick and a scented coating meant to freshen one’s breath. Towards the end of the 19th century, there were literally billions of toothpicks made each year. In 1887, the count got as high as five billion toothpicks, with Forster accounting for more than half of them. And by the end of the century, there was one factory in Maine that was already making that many.”
Enjoy this excerpt from Chapter Three of Captain Stanwick’s Bride.
When he entered the area set aside for the surgical services, Miss Spurlock was separating the injured based on the degree of seriousness of the injuries. Whit had witnessed more than one field hospital and the horrors the surgeons faced, often in a feeble attempt to save the wounded.
She motioned him deeper into the large tented area. Stepping over the legs of a man who had collapsed from exhaustion or injury, Whit was uncertain of which, he turned to haul the fellow up onto a cot. A sourness clung to the soldier, the distinct smell of a man suffering from dysentery.
Whit found himself holding his breath while he assisted in removing the man’s boots. “Someone will be with you soon. Can you tell me if you have an injury?”
The man shook his head in the negative, rolled to his side, and retched. Whit quickly turned away, his stomach churning violently as he heard the man dump the contents of his stomach on the ground. He slapped his hand across his mouth to prevent his own humiliation.
“Are you well, Captain?” Miss Spurlock asked softly. “Should we discover another to assist my father? There is no shame. This work is not for everyone.”
Whit fought hard to swallow a quick intake of fresh air, but the fetid smell was too strong. He rasped, “I can assist with the blood, seen more than my share of blood, but not—”
“I understand.” She turned his shoulders toward where her father examined a man’s bloody wound. “Make yourself useful to my father.”
He forced the lead in his feet into movement, finally claiming a bit of air not laced with miasmic odors, but rather with the metallic scent of blood, something too familiar to every soldier.
“Good to have your strong arm, Captain,” Spurlock said as Whit approached. He had no doubt the surgeon had observed his reaction to the soldier’s vomiting. “I have presented the sergeant, here, laudanum, but, if I can claim any chance to save it, I cannot wait until it completely takes affect to start on the man’s hand. I ask you hold him still so I may begin.”
“Just position me where you think best.”
Spurlock maneuvered Whit to lie across the man’s chest and down on the shoulder to hold the arm in place. The injured man’s shoulders flexed, but quickly slumped back against the wood table, covered with a sheet. Whit was beginning to understand that Spurlock was one who believed in cleanliness.
“Water, Beatrice,” Spurlock ordered as he unwrapped a cloth holding several sharp instruments.
In less than a minute, Miss Spurlock brought over a bowl of water, a bar of soap, and a clean rag. She positioned a small metal tray on the table’s edge and filled it with some sort of alcohol. Then she circled to where Whit laid across the injured man. “Open your mouth,” she ordered.
“Pardon?” he asked.
“Open your mouth,” she repeated. When he did as she asked, she popped a toothpick in between his teeth. “Bite down.” She tapped his cheek, and he closed his lips around the toothpick, using his tongue to position it in the corner of his mouth. Before he could ask, she explained. “Made of wood, not like the deer bone ones my Indian relations would use, and dipped in oil of mint. The scent shall assist in disguising the more disgusting odors, and the taste will assist in settling your stomach.” She wicked at him. “Just do not permit the sergeant to punch you in the mouth while you hold him down. I understand passing a toothpick in your stool can be quite painful.”
A chuckle escaped his lips as she walked away. “Your daughter possesses an unusual sense of humor, sir.”
Spurlock glanced to where Miss Spurlock had returned to the other side of the tent. “My Beatrice be of her mother’s temperament.” The doctor sighed in what appeared to be melancholy. “There are so many nuisances of a woman’s nature a man must learn to appreciate. I miss Elizabeth’s sharp wit.” Spurlock smiled knowingly. “Among many of her other finer qualities. You are married, Stanwick. Surely you know what I mean.”
Whit fought the blush of embarrassment rushing up his chest to his cheeks. “I am no longer married. Mrs. Stanwick passed some sixteen months prior.” He nodded to the faint line where his ring had been, surprised how quickly both the line and his memories of Ruth had faded. “I traded my wedding ring for blankets and food for my men on our journey from Buffalo.”
“Then President Madison’s declaration of war precipitated your arrival in America,” Spurlock observed as he arranged his tools upon the cloth before him.
“I had been presented leave from my time upon the Continent, for I had been with Wellington for some two years upon the Spanish Peninsula. I had been in England, perhaps, two months, when I received orders to the Canadian front. At the time, I did not expect to be doing more than attempting to keep the Indian fears over American encroachment at a minimum. I was not expecting how deep the resentment between the competing parties was until I arrived in Upper Canada.”
Ready to begin the operation, Spurlock, lost in his duties, simply presented Whit a curt nod: Whit was uncertain the man had heard anything of his response, but it did not matter. Whit looked on as Spurlock unwrapped the sergeant’s hand to expose the torn flesh hanging on the white bone, which was covered in dried blood and mud. Spurlock grumbled, “I wish the army would ban muskets. Damn gun explodes nearly as often as it fires.”
Whit glanced to the wound while he sucked on the mint toothpick. He could learn to enjoy the flavor. “Can you save the fingers?”
“Probably not the small one or the ring finger, but the rest.” Spurlock began to clean away the blood and dirt from the wound. “I must remove the bone fragments. Keep him still. This can be time consuming, but necessary. If I do not remove all the fragments, infection will set in.”
“I have nothing on my social calendar,” Whit said with a grin.
“Excellent news,” Spurlock murmured with an answering smile. “You do realize the man beneath you is an American soldier.”
“The war is between our countries,” Whit responded with a shrug.