Huh? What Did You Say?



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.


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40 thoughts on “Huh? What Did You Say?”

  1. Great post, Margaret! This was really fascinating. I had no idea about all the interesting methods used to hide 19th Century hearing aids, but they were very inventive.

  2. I loved this post, Margaret. So facinating. I wonder how effective those decorative listening devices were and how they worked. Did anyone sitting around that listening vase hear amplified sound, or only those with a special earpiece?

    Maybe I could get one of those vases for my parents’ living room so we don’t have to turn the TV up so loud. 🙂

  3. Karen, from what I read a tube would extend from the vase to the ear of an afflicted guest.

    I don’t know how effective these devices were. I’m sure they were nothing compared to the electronic hearing devices available today.

  4. fascinating post. As someone with a bit of job related hearing loss (who would think a kitchen could be so dangerous to hearing?) and family history of poor hearing, it makes me wonder if that one British ancestor is one of mine. 🙂

  5. I had no idea! This post really struck home. My current hero has tinnitus from an injury he suffered as a child. There were some French doctors at the time working on a cure, but tinnitus was just as prevalent – and frustrating – back then as it is now.

  6. Fascinating post, Margaret. As one who’s slightly hard of hearing and may need a hearing aid in a few years, I’m thankful for the modern technology that makes them almost invisible.
    About those gunlingers–all that shooting with no ear protection would have damaged their hearing. The ones who survived probably became deaf old men. My father was a gunnery officer in WWII–the navy gave them no ear protection. He always had a hard time hearing afterward.
    Protect those precious ears!

  7. Anita, how interesing. I had a deaf heroine in one of my early books.

    While researching the book I attended a conference for hearing challenged people. What fascinated me was that before I so much as opened my mouth people knew I could hear. It was all in the body language.

  8. My Dad’s hearing problems later in life were due to is time in bombers during WW2. He was in the RAF..
    Fasinating subject Margaret.. Thanks for sharing..

  9. Kathleen, your father wasn’t alone. What’s surprising is that the number of military personnel suffering hearing loss or ear related disabilities hasn’t changed since WW2.

    Hearing loss and Tinnitus is currently the number one service connected disability of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 760,000 vets received service-connected disability for tinnitus at the end of 2009.

  10. I am really surprised about not knowing anything about this… I only knew about those horns that some used way back when… thanks for this piece of history I did not know about!

  11. Great post, Margaret. You can add musicians and their amplifliers to this list. My brother was also a gunnery officer on a destroyer in WWII. His hearing wasn’t as bad as it could have been. But anyone who shoots a hand gun or rifle should wear ear plugs. I’m sure the cowboys of the 1800’s weren’t thinking about their ears, though. Those hearing devices you describe were pretty ingenious, for their time. My only thought, reading this, is of the comedian seeing an old man with one of those giant size hearing tubes, saying, “One toot, and out you go!”

  12. This article is especially timely for me, Margaret! I just had my hearing checked yesterday, LOL. (Some hearing loss, but not significant…now if I can just get my daughter to believe that. :P)

  13. Hi Mary, thanks for the laugh of the day. Yes, everyone shooting a gun should wear ear protection; it’s mandatory in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, not all soldiers comply for fear of compromising battlefield awareness. A soft sound could signal the presence of an enemy. By the time shooting begins it’s too late to don ear plugs.

    Thanks for writing.

  14. Ann,

    I guess it was timely. For years people have accused me of being deaf. My problem is not my ears but my head. When I’m plotting or thinking of my book I don’t hear anything.

  15. My sister is an ear, nose and throat doctor and she says mowing your lawn without ear plugs is terrible for hearing.
    She says two hours spent mowing the lawn has the equivilant damage to two hours spent at a rock concert.
    And we all know Mick Jaggar is wearing hearing aids.

  16. I have a lot of deafness in my family. And I have some hearing loss, though not bad enough to get a hearing aid, yet, but I can tell I read lips.
    I can ‘hear’ so much better with my glasses on because I’m reading lips.
    Also huge crowds like in big gymnasiums or crowded restaurants, I can’t hear a THING.

  17. Mary, reading lips can give people the wrong idea. I once dated a man who spent the entire evening staring at my mouth. I thought he wanted to kiss me but it turns out he was half-deaf and was only reading my lips!

  18. Awesome post, Margaret. I love that Native American hand signals inspired American sign. After our visit to Gettysburg and watching the movie, I’ve been wondering how many cannoneers remained unscathed…and it appears, not many. Two years ago about this time, I had a dreadful virus that hit my ears, and I lost hearing in my left ear for a week. was I ever terrified.

  19. I “lost” my hearing for a few weeks last winter following a horrible ear infection. Made me appriciate what those with permanent loss go through. I have slight loss yet.

    Went one time into a the bar in a hotel we were staying at and though it was filled with people, it was very quiet. There was a conference for the deaf in the same hotel and we were the only group making noise!

  20. Thanks for an interesting and informative post. Unfortunately, hearing damage is still a problem in the military. It is hard to be around military equiptment (guns and planes) and not suffer hearing damage. Blacksmiths and those who work around power tools have the same problem. It is too bad that many of these people start these careers when they are young and feel themselves invincable. They tend not to take preventive measures seriously.

    These devices are amazing. People are so creative in their attempts to compensate for their problems.

    DAWN COMES EARLY looks good. I look forward to reading it. I hope the release does well.

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