Wheelchairs through the Ages
Mavis C. Slawson
Originally published in 2018 in the Surgeon’s Call, Volume 23, No.1
Today a wheelchair is defined as a chair used by a person who has difficulty walking because of sickness, injury, or disability. Wheelchairs come in a wide variety of styles for the specific needs of the user. However, finding the history of wheelchairs has been difficult. Only one book was found that was solely on wheelchairs, The Wheelchair Book by Herman Kametz, published in 1969. The first American patent for a wheelchair was issued in 1869, and Kametz claimed wheelchairs did not exist before that time. But a search revealed many pictures of chairs on wheels for various infirmities and uses. Finally, the mystery was solved by finding that such appliances existed but by several other names. They were called invalid chairs, movable chairs, couches, garden chairs, and even go-chairs. In the middle of the 19th century, they were usually called invalid chairs.
Early attempts at mobility for the infirm can be traced to antiquity. An ancient Greek vase exists with the picture of a child’s bed on rollers, so it could be moved outside for fresh air. A Chinese sarcophagus from about 1300 BC shows perhaps the earliest evidence of a chair on wheels. These innovations helped lessen the isolation of the infirm. The theory that fresh air was beneficial apparently started early in our history.
Spoked wheels on chariots may be the oldest form of “wheeled chairs.” The Crusaders brought the wheeled cart or wheelbarrow back to Europe in the 12th century. The wheelbarrow could carry any load and could transport invalids to the baths and spas. Today it is used primarily for gardening and construction rather than mobility. In 1531 a heavy armchair on rollers was used in bloodletting as a treatment chair. The patient’s feet were on a low stool and the chair had an upholstered back and seat for comfort. This chair is perhaps a forerunner of chairs for treatments in hospitals today. Hans Weiditz in his book, Loberra de Vanquete had a woodcut of this item.
Chairs on wheels are noted in Europe in the 16th century. King Philip of Spain became incapacitated by gout and arthritis as he grew older; in 1595 a servant made a chair for his master’s comfort. This chair had metal bars with notches to adjust the back, as well as leg rests to make the king comfortable, and the chair moved on four small wheels. In 1655 in Germany, a 23-year-old paraplegic watchmaker, tired of his immobility, used his watchmaker skills to construct a vehicle on wheels. This was a box on three wheels with the single front wheel used for steering. He pedaled the wheel with a hand crank using a tooth-geared drive. This vehicle looked very much like a modern soap-box derby car.
Sir Thomas Fairfax, commander-in-chief of Parliament Armies during the English Civil War, received at least eighteen wounds in battle. In old age, he suffered from these wounds and from rheumatism. By his retirement in 1659, he was able to walk no more than short distances and a chair was made for him. This chair had wheels for mobility and hand-operated levers for movement and steering.
In the 17th century, a French inventor named Nicolas Grollier de Serviriere (1590-1689) produced a wheelchair for his Cabinet of Curiosities. He worked on an ornamental lathe in Lyon, France, after he retired and built fantastic things that were displayed once a week for the public. He became famous with artisans and inventors. His wheelchair was an upright ladder chair on small wheels. The fifth wheel in the back was both used for stability and balance. There are two hand cranks with gears attached to the front wheels for steering and propulsion.
Between the 17th and 18th centuries, some chairs were put on platforms with wheels and were intended for use indoors, on one floor propelled by the occupant. This type of chair could also be used both indoors or outdoors, with someone pushing the rider. The ordinary citizen had to fend for himself to find a wheelchair. Wheelchairs were made by coach makers, furniture makers, and blacksmiths, or were purchased second-hand or made at home.
The “Bath chair” was invented by James Heath in 1750. It was named after the town of Bath, England, a popular destination for the wealthy for its baths and spas. The chair had two wheels in back with a front wheel so the occupant could steer the chair anywhere he wanted to go. This chair was pushed from behind while the occupant steered with a bar in front of him. This wheeled chair was comfortable for the occupant to travel to and from the spa. John Dawson was the principal maker of these chairs in1782 creating the first common use of a rolling chair for an immobile person. Dawson’s advertisement states “A large assortment of chairs for sale or to let on hire in town or country, and (that) he is enabled to give attention to the Chair line which is for the safety of invalids required.” Comfort started being important in the 18th century for the human body in relationship to body contours in chairs. The Gouty Chair made an appearance in England during the 1800’s. The maker is unknown. It was made from mahogany with brass fittings and black upholstery, using a Windsor chair. This comfortable winged chair on wheels kept drafts away from the invalid. The chair was self-propelled by hand cranks.
In 1751 Thomas Elfe, a cabinetmaker from England, settled in Charleston, SC. He stuffed and covered a “wheeled chair” for wealthy invalids. William Long, another cabinet maker who came from London, England, developed a “Go Chair” in 1785 in Philadelphia. This chair was for people suffering from gout. These chairs were a start to finding an answer for obtaining specialized seating for disabled people in this country.
In Lebanon, NY, a rocking chair was adapted into a wheelchair. This chair is dated from 1810 to 1830; the maker is unknown. It is a Shaker-style rocking chair with wheels attached but with no leg rests. The rocker is composed of birch, maple, beech, ash splint, and steel. A small wheel in the back was for balance.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, a principle leader of Italian unification, had a rolling chaise lounge in 1862. His physician ordered this chair bed to hasten his convalescence. Garibaldi used a tray for eating, reading and writing. The chaise lounge transferred into a bed by lowering the back to horizontal level and raising the leg section.
In the United States, Thomas Minnis made an improvement of an invalid locomotive chair on May 10, 1853, under patent #9708. He put a bearing between the shaft and the wheel to give better support to the chair. This afforded a smoother and cheaper ride for the invalid. This was the first patent for an invalid locomotive chair in America.
As has been shown, invalid chairs were available in the United States during the Civil War. These chairs have appeared in photographs of hospitals at the end of the Civil War, in 1864 and 1865. Whether any were used prior to this time is unknown. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion cite only three wheelchair prescriptions for specific patients: Private M. Burns of the 28th Massachusetts Infantry; Private H. Shetter of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry; and Private Jonathan Wallace, Co, F, 21st Georgia Infantry. All three were transferred to Armory Square Hospital in Washington, DC.
A photo from Ward K, Armory Square Hospital, shows a wheelchair looking like an ordinary chair with a foot rest. There are two large spoked front wheels with no hand rim and a small rear wheel for balance. The chair was either pushed from behind or by the occupant himself using the large wheels. A second photo from Amory Square Hospital shows another wheelchair. This chair has larger wheels with fewer spokes and no hand rims. It also has a foot rest. It looks more like our image of a wheelchair. A third photo was taken in Carver Hospital in Washington, DC, and it shows a heavy wooden chair with two front wheels with wooden spokes and hand rims for self-propulsion and a rear wheel in back. There is a foot rest.
In addition, two CDVs of soldiers in wheelchairs have been found. One is a CDV of Union soldier Hiram Williams, who was injured in the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse near the end of the Civil War. He is awaiting an artificial leg after his amputation. The second CDV is of James Armstrong, a South Carolina Confederate soldier who suffered a gunshot wound in his right leg at Petersburg, Virginia. He is in a wheelchair because of an injury to the tibia.
Recently, Jason White and his friend Mike Shuler visited an auction in South Carolina. They purchased a wheelchair, possibly custom-made by someone at home. This wheelchair was said to be of the Civil War era. It was made from a wooden chair with a padded seat and back. This wheelchair sits on a carriage axle with spoked wheels and iron tires with no hand-rims. There is a small rear wheel for balance and turning.
A group of partially disabled Civil War veterans were photographed at the Lincoln Institute in Philadelphia, PA, where training for new jobs was provided. One of the Civil War veterans in the front is sitting in a wheelchair. This person is looking for help from the government so he can support himself in the future.
In 1865 there was a patent for an invalid wheelchair designed by A. P. Blunt and Jacob Smith. The patent number is #86,999. The upholstered back may recline backward at any given point. The two large side wheels are attached to the seat by means of springs. The foot rest can be elevated or lowered independently. It is worked by two small cog-wheels turned by a small crank. This chair adjusts to an upright chair or a flat lounge chair as the occupant wishes.
Currently the NMCWM in Frederick, MD, has an 1870 Eastlake style wheelchair with metal-rimmed wooden wheels. There is a seat with a curved back, a footrest, and upholstered arms—all for the occupant’s comfort. Charles Eastlake started a new household movement in the late 19th century reflects that time period. The hand rims are for pushing the chair and to keep the occupant’s hands clean. There is a foot rest with no leg support.
A CDV of a lady in a wheelchair from 1870 is unusual. Harriet Baker Roe is seated in a wheelchair holding her cane in her right hand, appearing confident and relaxed.
George Wilson of New York City patented an adjustable wheelchair constructed totally of iron. There is an upholstered back, chair leg and arm rests. A stick shift on the right-hand side of the chair tilts the chair to any angle—from seat to bed and everything in between. A leg and footrest are also provided. This heavy iron chair can be compactly folded for transportation.
The NMCWM has a New Haven Folding Wheelchair from the early 1870s. The wicker back, seat, and leg rest are lightweight. The two front wheels of wood are lighter as well, and there a small rear wheel. At that time four- wheeled chairs were less common. Wheelchairs were becoming lighter in weight, smaller, handier, and more versatile.
The rolling chairs in Atlantic City, NJ, were first used on June 11, 1887. The chairs were introduced in an 1876 convention to be rented to tourists. This was the idea of local business man William Hayday. The chairs fashioned after wheelchairs were the only vehicles allowed on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. At first, they were used for people unable to walk. Then the rolling chairs became so popular that everyone used them.
Colonel Elijah Parkhurst and his wife Elizabeth had a CDV made of themselves. The Colonel was a Civil War veteran with a left leg amputation. He used an 1880 “self -locomotive-chair” made by Peter Gendron, with hand cranks applied to the wheelchair.
The self-propelled wheelchair was sturdy for outdoor use. These chairs were simple and practical commercial production. The bicycle furthered the development of wheelchairs. Wheels had changed from wood to iron in 1867. Truffaut, in 1875, developed hollow rubber tires. Standardized wheels became the norm after 1880. Wire-spoked wheels were fully adapted for the wheelchairs.
As the 19th century ended, the wheelchair became lighter and more portable weighing only fifty pounds when it had no push rims. Wire spoked wheels from the bicycle were fully adapted to wheelchairs. Thanks to these advances, wheelchair-bound people were very independent and worked for their own living. The Civil War created an expanding need for ways to help the wounded since it was the first war in which injured soldiers survived in large numbers. The disabled also had a bigger say in what was manufactured for them. This included purchasing special wheelchairs that were ordered by amputees.
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About the Author
Mavis Slawson has been a docent at the NMCWM in Frederick, MD, since 2000, working in the Research Center. She has been giving lectures and presentations on Civil War medical history and Civil War quilt history in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and Illinois. She is a Nurse and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Art.
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