Thursday, October 23, 2008
A local community member has contacted us for some information about an antique wheelchair in her possession. The piece, which has a wooden back and seat but wire-spoked wheels and pushrims, bears property stamps from the University-State Tuberculosis Hospital and the Portland Center for Hearing & Speech. Given that the Tuberculosis Hospital was first opened here on Marquam Hill in 1939, it would seem that the chair must date from the late 1930s or early 1940s at the latest. A manufacturer's label, "Arrow, Erie, Pennsylvania," hasn't yet allowed us to narrow the date further.
A check of the literature for the history of wheelchair design turns up surprisingly little. The most comprehensive source still seems to be Herman Kamenetz's 1969 work, The Wheelchair Book. The author lays out an impressive amount of information about the evolution of the wheelchair, from ancient times to his own day. We learn that the first commercially produced wheelchairs in the United States became available in 1890; that the bicycle craze of the Gay Nineties and the increased availability of rubber tires allowed for the replacement of iron rims on wheelchairs; and that the first extant report of the use of wheelchairs in America comes from the Civil War, when the chairs were used to transport sick and wounded soldiers.
Unfortunately, Kamenetz's well-illustrated book does not include any images of a chair similar to that belonging to our patron. If anyone out there can definitively date this item, please let us know!