A Victorian lady opens her fan and holds it aloft. A gentleman bows graciously, cane in hand. Across the dance floor a handsome man watches, his eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. A matronly chaperone hugs a vase full of flowers. All are hiding something. Ah, but what could it be?
Would you believe hearing aids?
During the 19th century hearing aids came in all shapes and forms—yes even flower vases. Parasols, umbrellas, muffs, reticules, opera glasses and hats were also designed to hide a person’s hearing problems. One plantation owner ordered a water canteen hearing device to wear on horseback while supervising workers.
Some hearing aids were designed to
be hidden in beards or hairpieces.
“The ingenuity and taste of the instrument maker are required to construct mechanical aids to hearing which shall combine gracefulness of form and appearance without detracting from their efficiency, for the burden of deafness is great and the sensitiveness of the sufferers should not be wounded by the necessity of announcing their affliction to the public by having to use instruments either unsightly in form or objectionable in color or material.” -1883 hearing aid catalog.
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone by mistake while trying to invent a hearing aid.
He was originally an instructor of deaf children and invented the telephone to help his wife and mother hear.
Bell wasn't the only one who worked to make life better for the deaf. An article in the Texas Daily Herald written in 1892 describes how one man was able to converse with deaf-mute children in sign language learned from Indians. It’s interesting to note that some similarities still exist between Indian sign language and the current system used today by the deaf community.
Friends sitting around a hearing vase.
Measles, smallpox and malaria were some of the diseases that caused deafness. Boiler makers and blacksmiths suffered hearing lost as did many military personnel. Artillery fire and wartime wounds sent many soldiers home deaf.
Deafness and the War Between the States
William Martin Chamberlain had been deaf since five from measles, but he faked hearing and talked his way into the Union army. His deafness was discovered during combat and he was discharged.
The Confederate Army seemed to be more tolerant of its hearing challenged soldiers and used them to good advantage. Benedict Oppenheimer (don’t you just love that name?) claimed that his company always picked him to fire the cannons because he was already deaf.
Following the Civil War Capt. Allen G.P. Brown founded the “Silent Army of Deaf Soldiers, Sailors and Marines.” It was through the efforts of this organization that deaf soldiers and sailors were able to secure an increase in pensions.
And what about those gunslingers?
Reading about all these deaf soldiers one has to wonder about gunslingers of the old west. How many of our early western heroes were deaf (or would have been had they lived long enough)? Those ten gallon hats could have been hiding more than we know.