MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Showman or Scientist?

While recently on the hunt for the invitation to Truman Capote’s now legendary Black and White Ball, held in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in November 1966, I spent some time digging through the Museum’s “Balls and Excursions” and “Social Events” collections.

Nitrous Oxide Gas Entertainment, ca. 1846, in the Social Events Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 34.80.245.

One of the more puzzling objects I came across was the card depicted to the right, advertising “Nitrous Oxide Gas Entertainment.”  Based on the curious poses depicted by the figures on the card, as well as common knowledge about the effects of nitrous oxide, commonly known as “laughing gas,” I immediately wanted to learn more about this unusual source of “entertainment.”

The card itself initially didn’t provide many clues, so I turned to the ever helpful online archive of The New York Times  to learn if this strange event had been documented.  One of the first articles I came across, dated February 8, 1862, is the announcement of “An Interesting Exhibition,” in which a Dr. Colton would be providing “an exhibition of the ‘Laughing Gas’ at the Cooper Institute [that] evening. Twelve gentleman have volunteered to inhale the gas.   To add to the attractions, the full National Band of the Seventh Regiment have been engaged to perform.”

Unknown photographer. Cooper Institute, between 3rd and 4th Avenues, ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.83.

Twelve gentleman?  The National Band of the Seventh Regiment?  The Cooper Institute (pictured left), now known as the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, is one of the most selective colleges in the country!   An event which I assumed was marketed as a sideshow appeared to be considered a legitimate scientific lecture.   I looked back to the card, and noticed that “Colton” was handwritten on the verso, leading me to feel pretty confident that this card was distributed to promote one of the same Dr. Colton’s events.

Further research into the Times archives revealed that Gardner Quincy Colton (1814-1898),  in conjunction with dentist Horace Wells, arrived upon the idea of using nitrous oxide as an anesthetic during tooth extraction following one of his exhibitions.  A young man gashed his leg while running around under the influence of the gas, but he noticed no pain until the effects wore off.  The very next day, dentist John Riggs extracted a tooth from Horace Wells while Dr. Colton administered “laughing gas,” a term coined by him.    Colton went on to establish the Colton Dental Association in New York in the 1860’s, and according to his obituary, at the time of his death, he or his assistants had extracted nearly one million teeth aided by the use of nitrous oxide.   In fact, if you examine the image above closely, you’ll see there is a sign reading “Colton’s” above two of the windows, and the awnings read “Colton’s Dental Association.”

Print issued by Currier and Ives. Commodore Nutt, 1861. Museum of the City of New York. 41.419.3.

Despite the clearly legitimate scientific gains achieved by Dr. Colton’s exhibitions, the card still puzzled me to some extent.  When examining the figures depicted on the card, the male inhaling from the rubber bag of gas on the left, and the female in the back right seem much smaller than the other figures.  Was Dr. Colton performing this exhibition on children?  Well, it seems that perhaps the showman in him couldn’t quite sit back and let the scientist move forward with his dental career.  The announcement for Dr. Colton’s exhibition the night of April 8, 1863, advertises that Commodore Nutt, who was a frequent star in the shows of P.T. Barnum (the two are pictured together to the upper right), and later went on to join the performing troupe of General Tom Thumb and Minnie Warren, would be partaking of the laughing gas that evening.  So, perhaps the shorter than average man depicted on the card is intended to be Commodore Nutt, or perhaps it really was a child.  I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the answer to that question, but I do know I’ll have something else to take my mind off the pain the next time a dentist suggests the use of laughing gas before a complicated procedure.

About Lindsay Turley

As the Museum's Director of Collections, I oversee projects involving the stewardship and access of the Museum's collections objects.

9 comments on “Showman or Scientist?

  1. Kathy Benson
    September 13, 2011

    What fun! I think you should share this with the New York Times, as it is excellent publicity for its excellent archive.

  2. Lynn Turley
    September 13, 2011

    An interesting story, and a thought to ponder!

  3. Elizabeth
    September 13, 2011

    Such a fascinating post that had me laughing from the start.

  4. Spencer
    September 13, 2011

    Neat story! Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  5. Lynn Meister
    September 14, 2011

    I work in dentistry and found this very interesting. We just used the nitrous oxide today!

  6. Melissa Fox
    September 15, 2011

    What an interesting and cleverly written account!

  7. Marcia Keiter
    September 20, 2011

    Very interesting, thanks for writing it. I believe that is the same Cooper Union where my son-in-law teaches an art class!

  8. nickfalkner
    March 21, 2012

    I realise this is a while ago, but did you ever locate the Black and White invitation and is a copy online anywhere? Thank you for a most interesting diversion!

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