The (Un)Changing Wheelchair

The wheelchair history goes back in Europe to the early modern period. By the nineteenth century it was Victorian furniture on wheels. Why was there so little innovation to the form itself?

This pre-1890 chair may be the oldest wheelchair in the Canadian Science and Technology Museum collection. It was found in the home of a retired employee of Payzant Hospital in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Perhaps it was built by the town carriage maker or one of the other artisans named on an 1871 map of Windsor NS. Its massive wagon wheels are very different from the commercially-manufactured wheelchairs that followed.

Front, side and back of wood and rattan wheelchair with four metal wheels, drive wheels in front.

Invalid Chair, unknown manufacture, [pre-1890]. Artifact No. 2013-0100, CSTMC, Ottawa, ON. Photograph by Dorothy J. Smith, April 2014.

By the 1890s modern technology– bicycle technology—had lightened the wheels with metal spokes and rubber-rims. Wheelchairs had become commercial objects manufactured in factories and sold through medical catalogues."Not-walking" was a medical problem. Nurse Monique Émard ordered this chair for her four-room hospital and loaded it with options: springs, push rims, bicycle ball bearings. Gendron recommended two rear stabilizer wheels for very heavy patients and to give assurance to the “extremely nervous.” With adjustable back and leg rests the chair doubled as a gurney. Yet it still looked like Victorian furniture on wheels.

Front, side and back of wood and rattan wheelchair with four metal wheels, drive wheels in front.

Invalid chair, manufacturer Gendron Wheel Company, Toronto, Ontario, pre-1950. Artifact No. 1991-0223, CSTMC, Ottawa On. Photograph by Dorothy J. Smith, April 2014.