The work we do here at JonsBones is heavily informed by historical research. Before a skull or skeleton comes into our showroom, we engage in a thorough process of research to determine where the piece comes from. We do not deal in grave-robbed, anthropological, or tribal bones, so this means determining if the bones are in fact from the medical bone trade. After we establish that the bones submitted to us are medical, we use many different factors to determine the provenance of the piece.
The easiest and most compelling way is to engage in first-person research. Our clients are usually the descendants of medical professionals, looking to rehome their relative’s educational equipment. Sometimes the original articulator will be indicated from receipts, packaging, or a label directly on the piece. If these clues aren’t there, we speak with our clients to determine their knowledge of the piece, such as their relative’s educational record (where and when they attended medical school). This can help us place the piece in the timeline of the medical bone trade.
Our first-person research also includes interviewing employees of osteological supply companies. Individuals like Sharon Petronaci, an articulator for Clay Adams, can tell us so much about the medical bone trade through their lived experience. These accounts help us understand not only the inner workings of these companies, but the processes that were unique to each company, such as hand-lettering bones, or specific mechanisms used in articulation that these individuals used in their everyday work. When hearing these stories, we are able to apply that knowledge to pieces in our collection.
But sometimes, the pieces in our collection are from an era beyond living memory. The medical bone trade has existed for over a century, and some of the earliest pieces pre-date even the oldest person living on Earth. The historical research for these pieces is more difficult, it brings us into some interesting avenues. We are lucky enough to work with many libraries, private collections, and researchers to view their paper records regarding the medical bone trade. Items like catalogs, photographs, newspaper articles, and bills of sale all can help us determine the origins of a piece, and the context of the medical bone trade as a whole. Often we can narrow down the history of these pieces based on packing materials, like dated newspapers. While these might have seemed like irrelevant minutiae to the original owners, when they survive to the modern day, nerds like us are overjoyed.
Photographs also play an interesting role in our historical research. The photographs taken by medical students of their skeletons can not only give us insight into the uses of these pieces from their onset, but also means of early articulation. Because of Jon’s background in industrial design, looking at the fabrication details of hardware on these pieces in the context of design history can give us an idea about the origin of pieces in our collection. We value these antique photographs as the closest thing we can get to interviewing their subjects directly.
The medical bone trade may have died off decades ago, but the work to contextualize these pieces remains, and so does the need for bones. Unlike other medical histories, these pieces lack the kind of record keeping, date marking, or general awareness that other fields of study have. But the pieces remain. None of the methods of research we use can provide definitive answers, but they help us to put our pieces into a broad timeline. While medical textbooks might become outdated, human bones will continue to provide value to modern students, so we are happy to aid in the process of putting these pieces back into the educational sphere.