Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Palmer Patent Leg

From: nineteenthcenturydisability.org

In 1846, B.F. Palmer filed the first patent for an artificial leg in the United States. His product, characterized by its smoothly articulated knee, ankle, and toe joints, as well as its elegant and lifelike appearance, was an immediate success. It won awards at dozens of industrial fairs and competitions in the United States, but Palmer was most proud of his invention’s performance at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Not only did the Palmer Patent Leg win a silver medal, it was also celebrated in the London Times and lampooned in Punch, a popular satirical magazine.[1] By 1857, Palmer had sold nearly three thousand of his famed appliances, and almost five hundred of them belonged to women.

The Civil War (1861-65) resulted in thousands of amputations and dramatically changed the retail landscape for prostheses. The number of patents issued for artificial legs in the United States more than quadrupled from 21 between 1846 and 1860 to 88 between 1861 and 1873.[2] In 1862, the United States government agreed to supply artificial limbs to injured soldiers, and manufacturers fought vehemently for both government contracts and the patronage of wounded clients. Palmer’s advertising included this brochure, The Palmer Arm and Leg, Adopted for the U.S. Army and Navy by the Surgeon-General, U.S.A., which featured testimonials from surgeons and artificial limb wearers, both military and civilian. The three letters excerpted here articulate three different experiences of disability in nineteenth-century America, but their perspectives remain limited, as they were curated and likely edited by a manufacturer who aggressively controlled his product’s reputation. Still, the testimonials illustrate how the artificial limb intersected with popular ideals of military masculinity, as well as men’s physical command over railroads and other symbols of industrial growth and achievement, even as these technologies were responsible for much civilian limb loss. Both men and women put a premium on physical activity and ease of movement, and many of these advertising letters, including the third excerpted here, also appealed to the conventions of sentimentalism. In the end, Palmer’s greatest achievement was his ability to present the artificial limb as a desirable consumer product, bearing the diverse values and priorities of his time and place.

[1] “The Great Exhibition,” Times [London] (19 September 1851): 4; “Palmer’s Legs,” Punch (27 September 1851): 137.

[2] Laurann Figg and Jane Farrell-Beck, “Amputation in the Civil War: Physical and Social Dimensions,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 48 (1993): 461.

Image: Illustration of the mechanism inside a Palmer Patent Leg. From The Palmer Arm and Leg, Adopted for the U.S. Army and Navy by the Surgeon-General, U.S.A. (Philadelphia: American Artificial Limb Company, 1865), 27. Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD.


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