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Army hospital administrator preferred York-made cast iron stoves

CDV image of one of the buildings of the U. S. Army General Hospital in York, PA (Photo by Charles E. Wallin, author’s collection)

In the late spring of 1862, the United States Army established a 1,000-bed hospital on the grounds of what is now Penn Park on the south side of York, Pennsylvania. Over time, the hospital expanded to 1,600 beds and finally to 2,000. During the course of the Civil War, more than 14,000 patients received treatment in the fourteen-ward facility; less than 200 died, giving it one of the lowest mortality rates of any army hospital in the entire war.

Philadelphia-born Dr. St. John W. Mintzer assumed command of the hospital on August 24, 1864, replacing Dr. Henry Palmer, who took a furlough for health reasons. Mintzer immediately began upgrading the grounds, wards, and general appearance of the facility, which had been somewhat neglected for some time as Palmer’s health deteriorated. Mintzer had previously operated army hospitals in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey and was an experienced, talented administrator. He would lead the York facility the rest of the Civil War and then be transferred to an army hospital in Texas to continue his career before eventually mustering out and returning to Philadelphia.

In one of his early letters, he praised a local York company for the quality of their work. Here is the transcript of that letter, courtesy of the Medical Historical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, located in the Mutter Museum.

In December¬† 1864, Dr. Mintzer requisitioned several new stoves from the quartermaster’s department. Not just any stoves would do, however. He specifically requested “cast iron egg shaped stoves” from the York firm of Small and Smyser.

On the 23rd, he penned a letter explaining the reasons for his specificity, add at the end of his note a complaint about brittle coal shovels and requesting a change of raw materials for them.

“Sir, I have the honor to present my reasons for asking on my requisition for Small and Smysers pattern of the cast iron egg shaped stove — all the stoves used for here for heating except the last requisition were their make. The foundry is here and any part of a stove can be had convenient when repairs are needed when repairs are needed. Their stoves have been in use since the organization of this hospital, this is the third winter they have given entire satisfaction; they burn less coal, give more heat, and are far more durable than the sheet iron stoves recently furnished; they were offered at $16.50 for the stove, while the sheet iron stoves were invoiced at $25.00; the latter will not last one third the time as the men will, if not watched, heap up the coal above the fire clay or non-conducting cylinder and burn out the sheet iron above; one stove is already unservicable from this cause. Besides being a superior and cheaper stove the cost of transportation would be saved. These facts are known to the Quartermaster at this post before the sheet iron stoves were furnished; he informed me that he had no power to procure, that it resided in you. I therefore respectfully request, if the above reasons are sufficient, that the purchasing quartermaster be directed to procure the above stoves. I am unacquainted with any member of the above firm; I am only actuated by recommending their make for the good of the service. If desirable I will report from close experiment the save of coal, the cubic capacity of cylinders, the thermal radiation and such other facts as may be conclusive. The cast iron shovels are brittle, many are useless and therefore ask for sheet iron; as I am responsible, I desire such articles that can be relied on for service.

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

Surgeon U. S. V. in charge”

Dr. Alexander Small, a well-known physician and capitalist, in York partnered with Edward G. Smyser in the ownership of a large iron foundry on N. Beaver Street by the intersection with North Street. Small, the benefactor of the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry regiment from York County, died in 1862 and Smyser assumed full control of the company. Small & Smyser produced a wide variety of iron products, including stoves for railroad usage, and would later change its name to Variety Iron Works. Small & Smyser parlor stoves and other models can still be found at antique auctions and sales.

Fellow York blogger Stephen Smith has presented more background information on the company in one of his blog posts.