Navigating the World: The Material Culture of Physical Mobility Impairment in the Early American North, 1700-1861

Nicole Belolan is a Ph.D. candidate in History of American Civilization at the University of Delaware. Read about her research as a 2014-2015 Research Fellow of the Consortium below. Opening the first volume I requested at the American Philosophical Society last April when I started my Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine fellowship, I was delighted to learn that William Parker Foulke, an early nineteenth-century prison reformer, noted that James Steward, the keeper of the prison Foulke was reviewing, used a wooden leg. This seemingly mundane fact is just the type of “needle in a haystack” I get excited about when I do my archival fieldwork. Just a handful of artificial limbs survive in museum collections, and most are associated with elite Americans and battle. Very few associated with ordinary Americans such as Stewart survive. I need clues like this to understand more fully the better-remembered peg legs used by military heroes. Stewart is representative of many others like him who used an object to go about his day-to-day life in an era before curb cuts, accessible public restrooms, and medical supply companies. I rely on passing comments like Foulke’s to learn about the experiences and meaning of disability as they related to eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Americans (rich and poor alike) in private and public space. The time I spent recently at Consortium institutions was invaluable to advancing my research and writing. My dissertation uses material culture—extant and not—such as the wooden leg of prison keeper James Steward—as an interpretative touchstone for disability in the early America from about 1728-1840. As the only book-length project on the subject, my dissertation promises to shed new light on what it meant to be disabled in early America. My research highlights the critical role that objects—including furniture, conveyances, clothing, accessories, prosthetics, visual representations of people with disabilities, and disabled bodies themselves—played at home, on the street, and inside institutions. Managing and living with what we call “physical mobility disabilities” or “impairments” shaped and continues to shape everyday life and how Americans have thought about bodily appearance, identity, longevity, and citizenship. People like Steward filled early American streets, but evidence of them can be difficult to find without having the intellectual and financial support such as what I received from the Consortium. The research I completed in the Philadelphia region with the support of the Consortium played a critical role in building on research I have completed to date. Many of the most fruitful collections I examined at the American Philosophical Society, for instance, added more voices about managing disability materially in the early nineteenth century. For example, reading about explorer Elisha Kent Kane’s experiences with stroke in the 1850s offers invaluable material for comparing and contrasting data I have already gathered on eighteenth-century Americans’ experiences with stroke and related impairments. What I learned from the Kane papers will round out my chapter on disability at home. In addition to spending time at the American Philosophical Society, I also enjoyed my time at the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. There, I harvested gems of insight about living with impairment in an unexpected place: death certificates. Most listed a name, date, cause of death, and a doctor’s signature, but a few added tantalizing details about life. For example, I learned that one man who died in 1814 was confined to his home in his final months. This and other data I gleaned from collections at the Medical Library about the working poor and their injuries and disabilities provides me with crucial fodder for contextualizing elites’ experiences (about which they tended to write a lot) with disability in early America. While culling pages of valuable insights about disability in early America in the Medical Library’s vast manuscript collections, I also learned about its robust printed collection holdings I hope to explore in more depth in the near future. In addition to spending time in Philadelphia, including at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I also took advantage of Consortium members in the region such as the Hagley Library and Museum in Delaware. At Hagley’s library, I searched for clues as to whether one Philadelphia industrialist who lived into the mid-nineteenth century left any documentary evidence supporting the oral history that he installed an elevator in his now Philadelphia Museum of Art-owned home, Cedar Grove. I found just one newspaper clipping attesting to the industrialist’s impairment, but the story raised the tantalizing question as to when Americans began incorporating elevators into their private homes. This highlights just a few of the many treasures about material culture and physical mobility impairments I unearthed while a Consortium fellow. I am grateful to the Consortium and the many librarians and archivists who assisted me with my research not only for the financial support but also for a temporary intellectual home in the region. I greatly benefitted from the brownbag lunch conversation I had about my research with fellow Consortium scholars and look forward to making the most of what I learned from the archives and from the people I interacted with this past spring as I go forward with my research and writing. I am excited to illuminate the early American material experience and meaning of disability and thereby inform how we grapple with our evolving material relationship to the disabled body today.

Nicole Belolan