The Invisible Invalid

Where wheelchairs are seen affects how society sees the person in the chair. A Bath Chair was a mobility device for a high society spa. It was a sign of both respectability and of the hazards of good living—gout and obesity. An invalid chair was hidden away in the home as a sign of incurable weakness. In the 20th century the wheelchair was often seen in the hospital. The invalid had become a patient. Wheelchairs were not regularly seen on Canada’s streets until after World War 2.

To be an “invalid” you had to have money to buy a chair and perhaps hire a care-giver. Most people relied on family woman-power. This chair is exhibited in a farmhouse “kitchen bedroom.” A bedroom beside the kitchen was convenient for women who cared for sick, elderly and physically-impaired relatives. This family made cost decisions with upgraded caning and push rims but no springs and no ball bearings on the wheels.. Without these it was best used inside the home.

Front and side of antique wood and rattan wheelchair.

 Invalid chair, manufacturer Gendron Wheel Company, pre-1940s. In museum setting, City of Ottawa Museums, Cumberland Heritage Village Museum collection, artifact no. CM1989.037. Photograph by Dorothy J. Smith May 2014.

In the 1890s hospitals were shaking off their reputations as unhealthy warehouses for the invalid poor. Instead, alongside the traditional charity wards, new hospitals built private and semi-private rooms offering professionalized health care. Hospitals became acceptable places for childbirth and surgery and families confidently placed their chronically ill relations in the new sanatoriums. The newspaper reporting the 1905 opening of the Payzant Memorial Hospital in Windsor, Nova Scotia emphasized its hygienic, up-to-date features.

Payzant Memorial Hospital, Windsor, Nova Scotia, circa 1905 Newspaper clipping of the 1905 opening of the Payzant Memorial Hospital, Windsor, Nova Scotia.

Press clipping from Hants Journal (May 5, 1976), reprint of Windsor Tribune Oct 27, 1905. Clipping and photograph by permission of West Hants Historical Society.

When the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate took over Nurse Émard’s hospital they bought new chairs. One Sister described this chair as a Cadillac for its size, its comfort, and perhaps its shiny chrome. The wheelchair had become a tool of professional nursing care. A patient's story from a 1940s long-term care hospital tells of chairs kept solely for moving patients between departments. Another remembered that staff took away chairs from patients with cerebral palsy as punishment for being difficult.

Front, side and back of modern metal frame wheelchair.

Wheelchair, manufacturer EDCO of Passaic, New Jersey, United States, ca. 1950. Canada Science and Technology Museum, artifact no. 1991.0224. Used in Hôpital de L’Assomption, Grand Falls, New Brunswick.