1917 Army camp photo by Henry M. Beach
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    Auction Finds

    World War II Army Carlisle first aid kit

    The beautiful little raspberry red tin must have been hiding from me, because I had not seen it among the packed table of miniature items. Some of the items were no bigger than my thumb, but in mass they crowded the tabletops like locusts against a sky.

    I had perused those tables several times – carefully, I had thought – but I had missed this little gem. I watched as the auction-house staffer set it on a table of items waiting for bids, attracted by the dark red color and the unfamiliarity of it. I immediately scooped it up for a closer look. I noticed a tab on one side, pulled slightly on it but it wouldn’t budge, and looked for another way to open it. Then the staffer and I realized that the tab was the opener, and the tin peeled like a can of sardines.

    Army First Aid Packet - Carlisle Model

    The front of the Army First Aid Packet, Carlisle Model, tin. The copper tin has depressions on the front and back.

    Then I read the top a little more closely. It was completely covered with heavy embossed wording:




    The tin contained some type of first-aid dressing likely for a soldier, but since it was sealed, I had no idea what was in it. And I certainly didn’t know what sulfanilamide was.

    I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy the tin. The auctioneer, though, was having some fun with it, joking that it still held its bullet marks. In the center of the front and back were depressions that had stripped the paint, revealing a copper color. The tin had obviously rubbed against or been hit by something.

    When the tin came up for auction, surprisingly, no one else wanted it. When the auctioneer dropped the asking price ridiculously low, my auction buddy Janet egged me on to get it. So I did, because like her, I was very curious about the contents of the tin and its history.

    Army First Aid Packet - Carlisle Model

    An opened tin in olive green with pouch and contents. Photo from sportsmansguide.com

    This tin seemed to have been manufactured and used by the U.S. Army during World War II. These types of first aid tins, however, had been around since World War I, according to a history about them. Googling, I found that it actually contained dressing and a packet of sulfanilamide, which was used against infection.

    Tins like mine were first designed at the Carlisle Barracks military post in central Pennsylvania (just east of the state capital of Harrisburg) in the early 1920s. The base was the home of the Medical Department Equipment Laboratory, and the first brass tins were called “First Aid Packet – U.S Army.” The dressing itself had been around since the turn of the 20th century, and during the first world war was sealed in a brass container to both protect its sterility from gas attacks and treat wounds in the field.

    The tins were painted olive green, came in a cloth envelope-shaped pouch with a snap, and soldiers attached them to their pistol or cartridge belt. The dents in the tin at auction may perhaps have been created by a bullet by happenstance.

    Through the years, the Army tried different ways to improve the first-aid packet, even at one point using a plastic container, which did not work too well. The tin was not the only medical equipment of its size produced for soldiers, according to the history. Some of the dressing and other items came in sealed packages, which also changed over the years.

    By the 1940s, the tins were called the “First-Aid Packet, U.S. Government – Carlisle Model,” still in the drab green color. A year later, a small envelope of sulfanilamide was included – first as tablets, then as powder, then as tablets again – along with the back-of-tin embossing noting such. The tins were produced in the color red to denote that they contained the substance.

    Army First Aid Packet Carlisle Model

    The back of the Army First Aid Packet, Carlisle Model, noting the sulfanilamide inside.

    The early brass containers were replaced by other metals during the second world war as the Army sought less-expensive ways to manufacture them and the country was short on metal. Brass was replaced by copper, then steel and then a paper container dipped in wax and finally tin. Even that was eventually replaced around 1943 with a packet in laminated paper reinforced by lead foil in a waxed cardboard shell, with a new name.

    The Carlisle tin’s namesake, the Carlisle Barracks, has an interesting history itself. It is the second oldest Army post in the country. It was built by the British in the mid-1700s, burned by the Confederates during the Civil War and was the site of several schools. The most controversial was perhaps the Carlisle Indian School, a boarding school set up by the federal government to teach Native American children how to assimilate, to “kill the Indian and save the man,” as founder Richard Henry Pratt would say.

    The school was opened from 1879 to 1918, and Native American boys and girls were removed from their homes on reservations in the Dakota Territory to attend it, according to a history of the school. Pratt, a military officer who had commanded Buffalo Soldiers and Indian scouts, coerced tribal leaders to consent, but many of the children were removed from their homes against their parents’ wishes. As part of their schooling, the children were placed in the homes of white families to learn “English and the custom of civilized life” and as cheap labor in a system called “Outing.”

    Jim Thorpe, a champion of the 1912 Olympics and a versatile athlete who is a baseball hall of famer, was one of the 10,000 children who attended the school. He was born in Oklahoma to an Irish father and Native American mother, and was apparently raised as Native American.

    The Carlisle Barracks is now home to the U.S. Army War College.

    As for the tin, I’m certainly glad I bought it. It’s amazing how so much history can be packed into such a small item.

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