Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Material Culture Minute: "Are you a doctor?" Or, the Continuing Saga of Collecting Disability History

Combing the aisles of an antique mall in Chadd's Ford, PA, a few weeks ago, I was looking for something special. A friend, who was out and about on a pre-Labor Day 'tique hunt, had just emailed about a mid-late nineteenth-century wheelchair he stumbled across at this mall.

I have plenty of tintypes of people with disabilities, but I am lacking a wheelchair, I thought, and it looked like this one was (to borrow Sandra Lee's phrase) "semi-homemade."

With some extra money burning a hole in my pocket and few encumbrances on that sunny August afternoon, Tyler and I schlepped into Pennsylvania to find the artifact in question.

It didn't take long. We looked it over carefully and were pleased with it overall, but I wasn't happy with the sticker price. Reluctant to ask for a reduction, I nearly walked out and drove home. But thanks to Tyler's encouragement, I found it in myself to demand not the customary 10% discount by rather a whopping 20% discount.

What did I have to loose but a really awesome wheelchair?

To my shock (and the shock of the woman manning the counter), the dealer took my offer. The counter lady walked me back to the chair, slammed her hands on the crest rail, paused, looked at me, and asked in a thick, vaguely New Jersey accent, "What are you going to do with this?"

"Put it inside my office," I declared.

"Are you a doctor?" she asked. 

"No. I'm a historian," I said.

"Well, maybe it belonged to FDR," she offered.

"Hm," I muttered, rather ravenous and therefore in no shape to dole out a history lesson.

Instead, I took it home... 

...and tried it out.

Since we have limited space for large pieces of furniture and infinite space for tintypes and crutches, the next big purchase might only be justified if it's a good hundred years older than this puppy. But even then, I'd have a hard time deaccessioning this fascinating piece of the past from my collection. 

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. I never thought I'd be one of those people who collects what they study. But there's no going back now, and I wouldn't undo what I've done for the world.

Further Reading

Want to learn more about why I collect the material culture of disability history? Check out my blog post at the Disability and Industrial Society Blog.

Looking for more? On the web, see the Smithsonian's excellent online exhibition EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America.

Finally, if you want to check out a physical book (I can't blame you), see Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics, edited by Katherine Ott, David Serlin, and Steven Mihm. 

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