Articles

What Did Disability Look Like in the 19th Century?

by Allison Meier on July 15, 2014

Self-portrait by William Dunlap (1812), watercolor on ivory (via Yale University Art Gallery)

Self-portrait by William Dunlap (1812), watercolor on ivory (via Yale University Art Gallery)

Clubs for ugly people, ear trumpets designed for mourners, mesmerism as a cure — disability in the 19th century reflected all of the Victorian era’s oddities and societal changes. Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts is a digital research archive of text and images on this more overlooked aspect of history.

John Everett Millais, "The Blind Girl" (1856), oil on canvas (via Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)

John Everett Millais, “The Blind Girl” (1856), oil on canvas (via Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)

The interdisciplinary reader, directed by Karen Bourrier and supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, joined the University of Virginia–hosted NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship) in May, and has a goal of completion in 2015. Focusing on both physical and cognitive disabilities, the platform sets out this mission:

Following the social model of disability, rather than emphasizing individual impairments such as blindness or lameness, the reader emphasizes the technologies, institutions, and representations in literature and popular culture that shaped ideas about disability. The reader showcases cultural objects such as an ear trumpet in mourning, a journalist’s account of a visit to a school for the Blind, and Eadward Muybridge’s photographs of people with disabilities in motion.

A double amputee climbing on to a chair, descending from a chair and moving. Photogravure after Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. (via Wellcome Library)

A double amputee climbing on to a chair, descending from a chair and moving, photogravure after Eadweard Muybridge (1887) (via Wellcome Library)

The roughly 40 items currently in the archive, all annotated and selected by scholars, focus on topics ranging from the Victorian fascination with mesmerism — which was used by quack doctors to supposedly cure disability — to the Ugly Clubs that spread from England to America, in which people united to satirize deformity instead of hiding it. Rather than single out disability as something divisive or singular, the resources here put it in the greater context of the time. A series of self-portrait miniatures by William Dunlap show “at least partial deference to prevailing conventions of portraiture” in the careful turning away of the figure, while still revealing his blinded eye. Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of “abnormal movement,” such as an amputee on crutches and a girl with multiple cerebral-spinal sclerosis, were juxtaposed with photographs of athletes, “reflecting late nineteenth-century conceptions of health and beauty.” There’s also the sad story of “Blind Tom,” who was the first African-American musician to officially perform at the White House and renowned for his music memory, but whose autism was widely seen as idiocy, an example of “how easily misinformation about autism allowed antebellum Americans to continue to conflate race with disability.”

Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts is an eclectic and fascinating collection of materials, as well as important for demonstrating how seeming idiosyncrasies can reveal different aspects of larger historical ideas. Hopefully it will encourage more academic research into the experiences and representations of Victorian individuals with disabilities, and how those influenced their contemporary counterparts today.

Access all of the Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts primary texts and images online.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.

Previous post:

Next post: