This post is brought to us by Laurel Daen, a 2014 Patricia D. and John Klingenstein Fellow. For more information on our fellowship programs, click here.
In 1836, William Woolley, a cabinetmaker from New York City, won a Silver Medal from the American Institute for his “bedstead for invalids.” As the editors of the Mechanic’s Magazine and Register of Inventions and Improvements described, his device “is moved by levers…and by means of a small crank can be raised or lowered, as best suits the patient’s inclination, by a child of 10 or 12 years.” In addition, they noted, the bedstead could be adapted for use in a “swing cradle, by which those who are afflicted with ulcers, &c can be frequently turned with ease and without incurring additional pain.” The judges of the American Institute, which was formally known as the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention, heralded Woolley’s invention as “of vast importance to invalids [and] persons with fractured limbs.” “It has already been used,” they declared, “in the New York Hospital with great benefit to the sick.”
Woolley was not the only cabinetmaker to construct furniture for people with disabilities in antebellum America. During this period, there was a rapid expansion in the availability of material technologies for disability. From bedsteads to bed rests, sick chairs to cradles for sickness, middle and upper class Americans with disabilities experienced a burgeoning array of options that increased comfort, ease, and movement at an affordable price. The papers of the American Institute (a massive collection of 491 boxes and 508 bound volumes at the New-York Historical Society) are an essential resource for recovering these oft-forgotten inventions and the histories of the people who produced and consumed them. In fact, the same year that the American Institute recognized Woolley’s bedstead, judges also awarded a Gold Medal to James Jones for a “Relief Bedstead,” which facilitated the change of bed linens during sickness, and a Silver Medal to Marcus Moody for an “Elevating Spring Bed,” which enabled an attendant to raise and lower a sick person without touching them.
Cabinetmakers who constructed technologies for disability often had experienced periods of acute sickness or disability themselves. John C. Jenckes, a silversmith from Providence, for example, began to develop accommodating furniture after he spent a summer “confined to his bed with a leg shattered and fractured.” The following year, in 1823, Jenckes patented what he termed the “Alleviator,” a machine that raised a person confined to bed “to such a height and for such a time as to give an opportunity for making the bed.” As Jenckes noted, “in warm weather the patient may [also] be much refreshed by being raised and kept at a distance from the bed” (Zion’s Herald, May 29, 1823). Ten years later, Jenckes was still inventing technologies for disability. In 1833, the American Institute awarded him a diploma for another invention: a “carriage chair” that enabled “sick persons to move themselves from room to room and also alter their position of sitting.”
Early technologies for disability also reveal the voices and experiences of sick and disabled consumers. Cabinetmakers often featured testimonials from customers in their advertisements. Uriel Rea, a mariner from Providence, for example, described his disabilities in an advertisement for Jenckes’ Alleviator. “[I] have been afflicted with rheumatism for several years,” Rea wrote, “some of the time confined to my bed for weeks in succession.” “So great was my pain that I could not bear to be touched,” he continued, but “having been raised with the above mentioned machine with the utmost ease, I do therefore recommend it to all persons who are similarly afflicted” (Providence Gazette, May 1, 1824). Levi Hutchins, a clockmaker and Revolutionary War veteran from Concord, NH, also endorsed Jenckes’ invention, noting that it was of great assistance when he was “long confined to the bed by disease of the hip.” Years later, Hutchins’ condition seems to have improved because he sold his Alleviator to the town of Concord for $30 (New Hampshire Gazette, July 4, 1825; “Proceedings of the Annual Town Meeting in Concord, 1847”).
People with disabilities and the technologies that they created and used played important roles in the antebellum economy. These inventions may seem primitive or even outlandish to us today; however, they provide valuable insight into the needs and desires of early disabled Americans and those who cared for them as well as the technologies that came, often for better or worse, to dominate their lives.