Disability Things

Wheelchairs have long been a part of the human experience. Though rare prior to the mid-nineteenth century, evidence of wheelchairs is as old as antiquity. In the United States, wheelchairs were known in the late 1700s, but they became more common during and after the Civil War to serve the needs of wounded soldiers. By that time, they were made in furniture factories and the variety of designs is evident in surviving catalogs published by the New Haven Folding Chair Co., the Smith Rolling Chair Co., and others. Wheelchairs were also fashioned by coach makers, furniture makers, and blacksmiths. People with disabilities and family members also crafted their own wheelchairs, based on models they may have seen at nineteenth-century expositions, descriptions published in books and articles, or by virtue of their own invention. For example, in her Domestic Receipt Book published in 1865, Catherine Beecher describes how one might create an invalid chair by adapting a rocking chair. By the 1880s, patented attachments could be purchased to convert any ordinary chair into a wheelchair. The rise of invalid hotels, spas, and sanitariums that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century expanded the market for wheelchairs. The rich history and development of the wheelchair demonstrates and challenges the many ways we understand the meaning of disability and how people with disabilities created, modified, and used technology to participate more fully in society.

A wicker and wood invalid chair

Invalid Chair

Wakefiled Rattan Company

ca. 1880

► Not on view

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A wood wheelchair with caned seat and back.


The Colson Company

Early 20th century

► Not on view

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A wooden side chair mounted on metal wheels.



ca. 1921

On view in the Family Library

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A wooden chair on a steel wheelbase.



ca. 1931

► On view in FDR's Bedroom

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A seat cushion with straps

Seat Cushion

Unknown Maker

ca. 1922

► Not on view

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Last updated: August 4, 2023

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