Jennifer Van Horn: Problematic Prostheses

cover photo for thepower of objects in eight-teen century british americaToday we welcome a guest post by Jennifer Van Horn, author of The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America (published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia). Over the course of the eighteenth century, Anglo-Americans purchased an unprecedented number and array of goods. Van Horn investigates these diverse artifacts—from portraits and city views to gravestones, dressing furniture, and prosthetic devices—to explore how elite American consumers assembled objects to form a new civil society on the margins of the British Empire. In this interdisciplinary transatlantic study, artifacts emerge as key players in the formation of Anglo-American communities and eventually of American citizenship. Deftly interweaving analysis of images with furniture, architecture, clothing, and literary works, Van Horn reconstructs the networks of goods that bound together consumers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.

In today’s post, Van Horn explores the medical, social, and personal roles of prosthetic limbs throughout American history. 


Problematic Prostheses

Prosthetic limbs can increasingly be found on American streets, Olympic tracks, and even fashion runways. Approximately 1,500 American soldiers lost limbs in the Iraq War, many to the blasts of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Returning lower-limb amputees have donned sleek robotic-looking legs, including the Flex-Foot Cheetah, now famous as the prosthesis worn by double-amputee and Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius. More fashion-forward artificial legs gained publicity when athlete and model Aimee Mullins appeared on the runaway wearing Alexander McQueen along with carved wooden legs.

We might imagine that the first time prosthetic legs grabbed the American public’s attention was during the Civil War. But in fact, the American Revolution was the first armed conflict when controversy swirled around men’s amputated limbs. The number of amputees rose dramatically in the conflict, since amputation was the primary medical procedure used to save soldiers whose bones had been shattered by cannon and musket balls. Wooden legs were the predominant form of artificial limb in the eighteenth century (the Americans’ wounded British foes also donned them). However, only one lower limb prosthesis is known to survive from early America. It belonged to American statesman Gouverneur Morris and is now in the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

The Statesman’s Vulnerable Stump

Morris’s wooden leg was made of oak by an unidentified Philadelphia craftsman. It consists of a turned wooden rod connected to a u-shaped upper portion by a metal ring. The longer arm rested against the outside of Morris’s hip, while the shorter pressed against his inner thigh. It is pierced with two holes that originally secured a strap which Morris fastened around his thigh to keep the wooden leg tightly bound to his body. A piece of leather tacked to the bend of the leg kept rolls of cushioning in place to protect the statesman’s vulnerable stump.

Morris needed this prosthesis because in May 1780 a surgeon was forced to amputate his left leg below the knee after a brutal phaeton accident. Though he sometimes pretended otherwise, Morris did not lose his leg in the war. Rather it was rumored to be the result of a hasty getaway from a tryst with a married woman. Nevertheless, Morris donned his prosthesis alongside many veterans.

Sites of Suspicion

Early Americans viewed their prostheses with suspicion. Could wooden legs gain features of life?
Wearing wooden legs allowed men to resume work and in some cases to become productive citizens. But early Americans viewed their prostheses with suspicion. Much of their concern centered on the relationship between the male body and its supplement. What was the exact connection between an artificial limb and a real one? Could wooden legs gain features of life? Anxieties about prostheses fomented an outpouring of jokes and satirical prints. The hereditability of wooden legs was a common trope. As the jest goes, one man when asked how he came to have a wooden leg replied, “My father had one, and my grandfather before him; it runs in the blood.”

Scenarios in which broken artificial legs miraculously healed as if they were made of flesh and bone instead of wood also appeared frequently. In the circa-1800 print A Broken Leg, or the Carpenter the Best Surgeon, a man wearing a wooden limb has fallen down the stairs of an inn and holds aloft the culprit—his broken prosthesis. His friend solicits the help of a cabinetmaker’s apprentice to “heal” the amputee’s “broken” leg with glue.

As this print suggests, prostheses were not yet specialized medical devices and blurred the boundaries between household consumer goods manufactured in a similar fashion (tea tables, bannister posts) and medical technology. (Morris’s leg resembles a piece of fashionable upholstered furniture.) Prostheses led consumers to question the relationship between identity and objects: Was an amputee now dependent upon a purchased good for his identity? If so could he be an independent citizen?

Current Debates

We see many of these same issues coming again to the fore. Aimee Mullins has argued for the aesthetic potential of prostheses. In her TED talk “My 12 Pairs of Legs” she claims that artificial limbs can enhance wearers’ appearance, not just remedy a medical issue.

The line between wearer and prosthesis has become increasingly blurred.
Morris, with his upholstered leg, would doubtless have agreed. Much recent debate has concerned the Flex-Foot Cheetah. Protestors decried Oscar Pistorius’s use of the limb in the Olympics, claiming it gave him an unfair advantage over full-bodied athletes. Whereas the wooden leg Morris used had to be swung around before he could place weight upon it, the Flex-Foot Cheetah is lighter than a human limb and requires less time to position than a natural leg.

The line between wearer and prosthesis has become increasingly blurred as in 2015 two Iraq war veterans were among the first to have lower limb prostheses attached directly into their leg bones (osseointegrated implants). No longer an external device, this prosthesis is now fully united with the human body as the bone is encouraged to grow around the metal implant. One can only imagine how Gouverneur Morris, who labored to walk over Paris’s cobbled streets, would feel about having his artificial limb permanently and surgically folded into his body, and how early Americans—who decried the influence of things—would have responded.

Jennifer Van Horn, author of The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America, is assistant professor of art history and history at the University of Delaware.