This exhibit brings together materials from the Clements Library at the University of Michigan that illuminate the history of disability in the nineteenth-century United States. Most of these artifacts are representative of a type or genre of items held at the Clements, allowing a degree of generalizability. A large number are extremely rare and some, like a manuscript by a man experiencing hallucinations or what he called “imaginations,” are entirely unique.
Each section of this exhibit explores a different dimension of living with conditions that would eventually be gathered under the umbrella term “disability," which now encompasses a wide range of physical and intellectual differences. We use it here in this modern sense rather than according to its nineteenth-century definition as the inability to work, even as we acknowledge that disability as an identity category was still a distant development. Together, the four sections of this exhibit provide a glimpse of the cruelties, triumphs, and intimate acts of care that shaped the everyday lives of people with disabilities in the past. The first, on Narrating and Interpreting Disability, reveals a great deal of disagreement in how people made sense of mentally and physically debilitating conditions. Some representations, like the pamphlet memoir of the “hunchback” Leonard Trask, attracted charitable contributions by rendering physical disability as a personal tragedy, while the Ojibwe folktale “Bokwewa, or; the Humpback,” printed by Henry R. Schoolcraft in 1839, cast the exact same condition as a marker of wisdom and an occasion for care. This section also includes a student recording of a "pathetic" ballad about a deaf girl who dreams she is granted her hearing, providing a sample of the plaintive, sentimental soundscape that fostered charitable feeling.
A second section explores methods of Making a Living through print and performance uniquely available to people with unusual physical attributes, some of which would today be understood as disabling conditions. The cartes de visite (picture cards) of popular acts like that of the enslaved conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy or of “Tom Thumb” and the “Little Queen of Beauty” reveal the complex combination of objectification and empowerment afforded by wildly popular freak shows. Once emancipated, Millie and Christine earned a living on tour in Europe and the US, joining a short list of internationally famous “freaks” everyone from Queen Victoria to President Abraham Lincoln wanted to meet.
Even as disabled artists, authors, and performers made ends meet by engaging the public, others were spirited into Institutions and Communities across the United States. Educated at schools like the New York Institute for the Blind (founded in 1831), subscribers to a raised-print monthly magazine published in Philadelphia were conscripted into a Christian public engaged in missionary projects across the globe. But not every nineteenth-century institution fulfilled its stated aim of educating its supposed beneficiaries. As rare postcards sent to a superintendent at the Kansas State Insane Asylum (founded in 1863) reveal, patients were often denied visitors for years on end, much to the distress of their loved ones. A lack of oversight coupled with the denial of civil rights along lines of race, class, and gender contributed to the circumstances that made asylums places of neglect and abuse from which few could escape. Despite their negative effects, these first paternalist steps to gather, educate, and treat people with disabilities unintentionally laid the groundwork for the disability rights movements of the twentieth century by establishing shared languages, experiences, and identities.
Given the few legal protections and accommodations in place for people with disabilities in the nineteenth century, Inventing an Accessible World was a task left to individuals and private or semi-private institutions. This final section spotlights efforts by people like Mary J. Rogers, whose 1863 letter to a friend with failing eyesight utilizes improvised “large type” handwriting, and a self-published pamphlet by a deaf couple listing the single- and double-handed American Sign Language. In the wake of the mass debilitation of the Civil War and the largely unregulated, hazardous conditions of American industrialism, disability had become ubiquitous: companies like the Sargent Manufacturing Company rose to the occasion by designing fashionable wheelchairs and handy rotating bookshelves for the genteel invalid. But private actions were not enough. Disabled Civil War veteran George R. Shebbeard, who got around in a “little wagon 20 inches wide, 52 inches long” and sold copies of his memoir and postcards, joined many other veterans in demanding an increased pension to maintain even a minimal standard of living.
Rather than convey a clear narrative of change over time, the materials featured in this exhibit suggest a complex and unstandardized ecosystem for people with disabilities before 1900, shaped more by private actions and charities than by public services (with the notable exception of pensions provided by the 1818 Revolutionary War Pension Act). Social Security and the Americans with Disabilities Act were distant dreams, and the sheer number of personal memoirs (“mendicant texts”) sold by their authors and now held at the Clements testifies to a widespread need for public relief. Nevertheless, the individuals whose lives and art appear in this exhibit clearly knew how to wield expectations and narratives surrounding their disabilities to make a living, and they used and even developed a vocabulary of deservedness and need that is still with us today.
These artifacts also reveal that the past offers no refuge from the negative stigma attached to physical and mental variation – the word “deformity,” with its chiefly aesthetic connotations, is all too common in these texts – although a lack of standardization and medical diagnoses permitted some to escape confining labels and even to present themselves not as aberrations but miracles of nature. The nineteenth century therefore saw the rise and fall of the fraught category of the “freak,” short for “freak of nature,” as well as the celebration of “the eccentric.”
Missing from this exhibit are the experiences of the many people with disabilities left out of the archive: the workers at the poor house or let out as laborers, those who were cared for privately at home, and the houseless “vagrants” targeted by the social hygiene movement or “Ugly Laws” in the final decade of the nineteenth century. Moreover, outside of a handful of examples of African Americans displayed as “freaks” or talented savants, there is regrettably little in this exhibit that reflects the intersection of race and disability. Institutions of every type were segregated, leading not only to disparities in quality of care but to the segregation of the communities formed at places like schools for the deaf. While white students were taught standardized sign language, deaf African-American children learned separate dialects, creating a communication gap that divided the deaf population.
This exhibit, with all its inclusions and omissions, reveals that many of the circumstances that shaped how people navigated disability in the past have yet to change, and that the work of establishing an inclusive world, accessible to all, is not yet complete.
Kim E. Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States (2012)
Helen Deutsch, “Deformity” in Keywords in Disability Studies (2015)
Ellen Samuels, Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race (2014)
Susan Schweik, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (2009)