How did people in 1902 America get their wheelchairs? In a very similar way that today’s wheelchair users do.
One of the most popular methods was to reach for the 1000+ page Sears Catalog and peruse the offerings. Keep in mind that in these early days Sears wanted very much to project an image of being a giant mass marketer and discounter, and in fact they were.
The sales strategy back then was really no different than that which is used today by many of the online sellers and tree based advertisers. Play on the discounts and hype the features. There’s no doubt that Sears knocked many of the brick and mortar “Specialty dealers” out of the box.
The Sears 1902 wheelchair offerings included the “Rattan Invalids’ Chair” pictured above. The term “wheelchair” was not widely used back then and wouldn’t surface in the American lexicon until c1910. The “Invalids’ Chair” or “Invalid’s Wheel Chair” were the commonly used terms.
These wheelchairs were also used for more than a mobility device for people who could not walk. In 1902 there were far fewer therapeutic or pharmaceutical modalities for aiding in recovery. It boiled down to your body with some external help.
Very often complete rest or a defined period of convalescence was prescribed in hopes of hastening recovery. Very much in contrast to today’s therapy and defined activity regimens. In 1902 you might have seen a pregnant women in a wheelchair or you might have seen people who are recovering from a physical or mental episode being pushed in or pushing a wheelchair.
Here is how Sears touted their 1902 rattan wheelchair:
Our $21.75 Rattan Invalids’ Chair. is sold by specialty dealers in these goods at almost double our price. We ask only our one small percentage of profit above the actual manufacturing cost.
No.25T808 The above chair is one intended for indoor as well as outdoor use. The body is made of rattan wicker work, so shaped as to afford the greatest amount of comfort. The leg rests which form so essential a part of invalids’ chairs, is especially designed on this chair to give the greatest amount of comfort and at the same time the adjustment is very easy and such that it will not get out of order. The leg rests are made to extend automatically several inches when they are raised on a level with the seat. This chair can be propelled by the occupant by using the hand rims which are attached to the wheels, and as the back caster wheel turns in any direction, the chair is easily guided and requires no effort to propel it from place to place. The dimensions of this chair are as follows: The back is 28 inches high, the seat is 18×171/2 inches, the distance from the seat to the footboard when down is 17 inches.
The price of this chair with steel or wood wheels is… $21.75
Hand rims on wheels, extra……………………………………… .75
Rubber tired wheels extra……………………………………. $7.60
Ball bearing rubber tired wheels, extra…………………. $11.40
Push handles, extra………………………………………………… .75
Pneumatic tires, extra………………………………………….. $3.80
Leather cushion for seat, extra………………………………. $2.20
Keep in mind that mass marketers in those days did not offer wheelchairs that could be configured to an individual’s size. Nonetheless, the standard sizes offered in this chair fall very much inline with what the industry would consider as average for an adult even today. The options or “Extras” back then were fewer but are not that different from those that you have today.
Of interest, at least to me, is the emphasis on wheelchair user comfort. It’s mentioned in the product description and demonstrated by the offering of an optional leather cushion.
In the early days of wheelchair production, comfort was hardly considered. Somewhere in the late 19th century it became an issue for users and caregivers. Manufacturers seeing an opportunity filled the void with upgraded features such as contoured sitting areas (easy enough to do with wicker and rattan), and comfort enhancing extras such as cushions and padding.
The environmental suitability of the wheelchair was also a concern for buyers even back then. The ad mentions “intended for indoor as well as outdoor use.” And right they were. A smaller swiveling caster in the back to make the chair more maneuverable indoors, similar to today’s responsive tennis wheelchairs, and large wheels up front to help with negotiating rough surfaces outdoors. Toss on the optional “Pneumatic tires” for $3.80 and you where good to go.
While the Rattan Invalids’ Chair was not the Cadillac of its day, neither was it a Yugo. The cost of $21.75 represented .8% of an unskilled workers annual salary. There were a number of other wheelchairs available that could be had for under $15.00. In today’s dollars the rattan wheelchair would set you back around $1,420.00. That’s more than enough to get you a conventional manual wheelchair these days but way short of getting you into an ultra-lightweight performance wheelchair or custom manual wheelchair.