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A Digital Reader: 19th Century Disability—Cultures & Contexts

2014 June 21

By Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi (University of Toronto)

Based on an idea jestingly put forth in The Spectator, Ugly Face Clubs were gentleman’s clubs whose members prided themselves on their facial eccentricities and pledged their theoretical allegiance to physiognomy.[1] Spanning throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these clubs provide us with a compelling case study of deformity as a paradoxical practice of social exclusion and aesthetic inclusion. Ugly Clubs also offer us a window into the relationship between culture and disability.  While the most common cultural stereotype of disability might be, for example, a blind woman with a cane, disability can encompass a variety of dimensions, which interact on medical, cultural, social, political, and even spatial levels. These interactions can also shift the meanings of disability and how it is configured in particular contexts. Disability, in other words, does not necessarily need to involve a visible physical impairment, but can also be about social stigma. While a member of an Ugly Club might have been an object of ridicule on the streets of London, his physiognomy took on a different meaning in the sanctum of the club.  Taking these contexts into account allows us to address questions about how disability was represented and experienced throughout the nineteenth century.

 From an advertisement for an Ugly Face Club anniversary celebration (1806) reprinted with the frontispiece in Edward Howell’s edition of Ye Ugly Face Clubb, Leverpoole, 1743-1753 (Liverpool, 1912).
Image courtesy of Gretchen E. Henderson.

Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts is an open-access digital reader built using the scholarly content management system Omeka, which addresses these interactions of disability through an interdisciplinary collection of primary texts and images about physical and cognitive disability in the long nineteenth century (from 1798 to start of WWI). Directed by Karen Bourrier (Boston University), the digital reader has been funded by SSHRC and launched with assistance from the Research Group for Electronic Textuality and Theory at Western University. It is also a part of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship (NINES), a peer-reviewed scholarly organization connecting archival material with digital research.

The project team includes nineteen scholars working on diverse topics related to disability; each contributor selects a primary source and assesses its historical and pedagogical value through a preface, annotations, and suggestions for further reading. The aim of the digital reader is to immerse users in the cultures and concepts that shaped embodied experience in the nineteenth century.  The reader acts as an interdisciplinary model for incorporating primary sources on disability in scholarly work, as well as a reference guide. The site is still growing, with new annotated items added monthly.

Rather than emphasizing individual impairments, the reader demonstrates how various technologies, institutions, and representations shaped ideas about disability or defined the parameters of experiences with disability. Here, the reader applies the “social model” of disability studies, which accommodates a variety of interpretations on the meaning of disability, investigating these meanings through the experiences or representations of disabled people. These interpretations demonstrate that the concept of “normal” was varied and sanctioned by cultural contexts, a shift from the “medical model” of disability studies that defined and equated disability with “deviance” or a distinction from the norm.[2] As the posts on Laura Bridgman, John Kitto, and Martin Tupper demonstrate, disability was an individualized way of knowing and interacting with the world.

A key aspect of Nineteenth-Century Disability is to analyze how disability can shed light on broader historical themes, such as gender, particularly as represented in Victorian literature. One-eyed Miss Ruff in Anthony Trollope’s The Bertrams (1859) for instance, is a rare example of a female character wearing a glass eye. Miss Ruff’s eye can be seen as a signifier of her old age and justification of her spinsterhood; it serves as one of many unattractive traits that prevents her from attracting a male suitor. However, not all female characters with disabilities were seen as unattractive. Olive, a heroine with a shoulder deformity hidden by her flowing white blond hair in Dinah Mulock Craik’s 1850 novel, does not have her marriageability limited by her disability. Craik’s novel John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) also depicts themes of gender and disability, following the protagonist’s journey from improvised orphan boy to self-made tradesman hero, as narrated through Phineas Fletcher, an invalid. As tenderness and heroic strength form the core thematic structure, it weaves the boundaries between masculinity and femininity, with the male narrator, through his disability, serving as a stand-in for a female character.

 A black and white illustration shows a young Olive kneeling on the hearth and petting a cat.  Notably, her spinal deformity is not visible.  Illustration by G. Bowers, 1875

 Disability is often examined through its objects, the technologies that serve as markers of disability. Within this “prosthetic culture,” as David Yuan defines it, disfigurement, concealment, respectability, and reconstruction contribute towards analyzing how disabled individuals adjust their technologies through their relationships with society.[3] Rather than looking at how technologies limited or even stigmatized individuals with disabilities, Nineteenth-Century Disability raises questions about the material culture of disability, and how these technologies can provide insight to broader cultural contexts of fashion, identity, and consumerism. An ear trumpet swathed in black lace and fabric, for instance, identifies the extent of elaborate accoutrements of Victorian mourning culture. The extravagance of mourning rituals served as sources of financial anxiety and commercial exploitations, suggesting that all aspects of a widow’s life were to reflect the state of her melancholy. Even as the ear trumpet sat on her lap, enveloped by the black fabric of her dress, it was a reminder of grief, of death, and of social emulation. Prosthetic legs, which became widespread after outbreaks of war, were attempts to mask the disability of its user and resemble the organic human form. Realistic designs of artificial legs were sold alongside self-image and self-esteem, with a promise of transformation. Yet, as Vanessa Warne has shown, even if these objects were marketed as luxury goods, they were not often regarded as such, for the stigma of disability counteracted any asetheticization or idealization in their use.[4]

 Photograph of a Victorian hearing trumpet swathed in black fabric and lace.
Image courtesy Wellcome Library, London.

Other themes of institutional care, autobiographical writing, class, and places, are presented in the digital reader. As an open-access online resource, Nineteenth-Century Disability takes its place amongst several other projects exploring the relationship between disability and culture, such as the Disability & Industrial Society project co-directed by Anne Borsay and David Turner and housed at Swansea University; the Disability History Museum which emphasizes the material culture of disability; as well as Out from Under: Disability, History, and Things to Remember, a collaboration with students, scholars, and alumni at Ryerson University to connect hidden histories of disability with significant milestones in Canadian history. The bibliography section of the reader aims to list a full collection of archival, online, and print resources on disability.

Contributors for Nineteenth-Century Disability encompass a breadth of scholarly interests and expertise. The project team includes: Karen Bourrier (Boston University), Christopher Keep (Western University), Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi (University of Toronto), Ally Crockford (University of Edinburgh), Jennifer Esmail (Wilfrid Laurier University), Helen Goodman (Royal Holloway), George Gordon-Smith (Emory University), Kylee-Anne Hingston (University of Victoria), Keren Hammerschlag (Georgetown University), Gretchen E. Henderson, Daniel Martin (Wilfrid Laurier University), Theresa Miller (University of Western Australia), Melina Alice Moore (City University of New York), Matthew Rubery (Queen Mary, University of London), Ryan Sweet (University of Exeter), Clare Walker Gore (University of Cambridge), Vanessa Warne (University of Manitoba), Rachel Herzl-Betz (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Jennifer Yirinec (University of Iowa).

You can follow Nineteenth-Century Disability on twitter as @19cDisability or using the hashtag #19cDisbility. Those interested in contributing to the reader are invited to email Karen Bourrier at karen.bourrier@gmail.com.


[1] For more on Ugly Clubs, see: Gretchen E. Henderson, “The Ugly Face Club: A Case Study in the Tangled Politics and Aesthetics of Deformity,” in Ugliness: The Non-Beautiful in Art and Theory. Eds. Andrei Pop and Mechtid Widrich pp.17-33

[2] For instance, see: Lennard J. Davis (ed), The New Disability Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[3] David D. Yuan, “Disfigurement and Reconstruction in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “The Human Wheel, its Spokes and Felloes,”” in David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Synder (Eds.), The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 71-88.

[4] Vanessa Warne, “‘To Invest a Cripple with Peculiar Interest’: Artificial Legs and Upper-Class Amputees at Mid-Century”. Victorian Review 35.2 (2009): 83–100

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