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 also were designed to hide a person’s hearing problems.
One plantation owner ordered a water canteen hearing device that he could wear on horseback while supervising workers.
Speak Up, You Hear?
Martha’s Vineyard had one of the earliest deaf communities in the United States. It is estimated that in the late 19th century 1 in 155 were born deaf on the island and the problem traced back to a single British ancestor.
A group of friends sitting around a hearing vase.
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 exist between Indian sign language and the current system used today by the deaf community.
Not everyone believed in sign language. Some people like Alexander Graham Bell, whose mother and wife were deaf, believed that deafness was something that should be eradicated. Fearing that social clubs and deaf people marrying one another would contribute to a deaf society, he tried to suppress the teaching of sign language.
Measles, smallpox and malaria often caused deafness, but so did certain occupations; Boiler makers and blacksmiths suffered hearing lost as did many military personnel. Artillery fire and wartime wounds sent many soldiers home deaf.
Some hearing aids were designed to be hidden in beards or hairpieces.
Deafness and the Civil War
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. (Unfortunately, war time hearing loss is just as prevalent today).
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.