Some might say Iowa City is full of them. Others might argue they’re a rare find. While locals eligible for this title might be thought of as callous, the oldest douchebag in town is actually quite fragile.
So fragile, in fact, University of Iowa project archeologist Angela Collins said, “By just touching it, I could tell it wanted to crumble.”
Collins is referring not to an aged alumnus, but rather to Dr. F. Wilhoft’s (Original) Lady’s Syringe, meant for vaginal cleanliness. A literal douchebag.
Raiders of the limestone well
On Sept. 12, 2013, construction workers were using backhoes to clear soil from the future site of the Voxman Music Building on the corner of Burlington and Clinton streets. Thump. One of the machines hit something. It was limestone.
As per protocol, the construction crew called in Collins from the Office of the State Archeology (OSA). She and other OSA employees had been excavating since June, thanks in part to a requirement that structures built with federal funds need to allow archeological research on site.
Trowels in hand, Collins and colleague Bill Whittaker walked five blocks north from the OSA to the site. After some initial digging, the two determined the limestone structure was a well. The well dates back to the 1850s, when the residential building also located on the site was built.
As Collins and Whittaker dug deeper and deeper, they began to unearth various objects: glass bottles, metal buckets filled with lime. Many were encased in ashy sill, presumably from the residents’ fireplace. Clearly, at some point the well was no longer used for water. OSA research concluded that after the city began providing water in the 1890s or early 1900s, residents decided the well was a convenient pit in which to throw trash.
Whittaker was digging when he unearthed an object unlike all the others in the well: a bulbous, light cream artifact covered in dirt, ash and cinder. Neither he nor Collins had any idea what it was.
“We both scratched our heads on that one,” Collins said. “We were like, ‘What the heck?’”
Collins says her first guess was that it was a pot. But after poking at the rubbery exterior, it was clear the bulb was not ceramic. Her second guess was that it was a gourd. After all, at approximately seven inches tall with a spherical lower pouch and slender neck, it does resemble a smooth ornamental squash.
When found, the douchebag itself was moist. Since the well was dug to obtain water, the area where the objects were found was affected by the natural dampness of the watershed. As soon as it was exposed to the air, however, it started to dry up.
Key to the artifact’s preservation was the light and ashy sill it was cushioned in. Collins says that if the douchebag had anything hard on top of it, it would have been crushed.
‘The Only Perfect Vaginal Syringe’
Back at the lab at the OSA, the disguised douche was placed in a sieve and its exterior was gently washed with water and a toothbrush. The inside of the douchebag was not washed because the opening was too small. The object was partially collapsed and some of the exterior rubber was flaking off.
Washing away the dirt and ash revealed the ultimate clue: a raised circular stamp on the side of the artifact with the imprint reading “Dr. F. Wilhoft’s Patent,” and a plus sign in the middle that could be interpreted as a four-petal flower.
After reaching out to other researchers online and discovering it was most likely a douche, Collins scoured newspaper archives for advertisements. In a 1900 publication of Women’s Physical Development, she found the earliest advertisement for the item, which reveals that it was produced by Goodyear Rubber Co. and came with an illustrated booklet called Useful Information for Women.
The ad reads: “Dr. F. WILHOFTS (ORIGINAL) LADY’S SYRINGE. THE ONLY PERFECT VAGINAL SYRINGE. Its principle of action — that of INJECTION and SUCTION — assures a thorough cleansing. ALL in one piece of best soft rubber; always ready for instant use [sic].”
The process of injecting water — sometimes combined with vinegar, iodine, fragrances or other chemicals — into the vagina to “cleanse” it became prominent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Douching is still practiced by millions of women today with devices not too different from Dr. F. Wilhoft’s, but is not recommended by most physicians, as douching has been shown to throw off the natural balance of bacteria in the vagina and leave women more susceptible to infections, fertility problems and cervical cancer.
A century ago, douches were advertised as not only good for overall vaginal health, but often implied as a form of contraception. They are far from reliable birth control, but at that time, women had limited options, Collins said.
From census data, Collins knows that the former residence at South Clinton Street had at least six female residents at the turn of the 20th century who could have purchased the douchebag. It is unknown whether it was used or not, but if it was, Collins suspects that it was not used for very long, as it was in the trash pit. She also suspects that the item was ordered via catalogue, considering its private nature, but has no way to know for sure.
Also found in the well were several other women’s items: a porcelain hatpin holder, razors, leather purses and corset stays. The metal corset straps were blistered from extreme heat, indicating the corset was burned, perhaps in a feminist move not unlike bra burnings in the 1960s.
Speaking of, the ’60s are when the term “douchebag” began to be used as a slur.
Personal object, public display
You’re free to visit the douche yourself: it rests in the Striking a Chord with the Past glass case in the Voxman Music Building. The display includes details about the history of the site, as well as other items that tell the story of the location’s past, including Native American trade beads, a pig’s knee bones and a small music sheet holder. The display is located on the second floor of the building, in the hallway just beyond the Recital and Concert Hall entrances.
Beck O’Brien is a writer, budding environmental conservationist and chai connoisseur. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 249.