Friday, February 24, 2017

Visual Culture and Disability: The Continuing Influence of Common Touch

Queen & Co. Standard Eye Colors (Philadelphia: Queen & Co., 1891). Chromolithograph.
 The recent Visual Culture Program (VCP at LCP) exhibition Common TouchThe Art of the Senses in the History of the Blind explored the history of the education of the blind during the 19th century. A multi-sensory installation comprised primarily of contemporary artworks and Library Company raised- print texts, Common Touch also included a portrait photograph of Frederick N. Jacobson and his wife.

Levi T. Rice, F. N. and S. A. Jacobson, May 3d, 1890 (Auburn, Indiana: Rice, 1890).
 Albumen print on cabinet card mount.
Jacobson, a blind preacher, and his wife Susanna served as a visual and thematic focal point in the exhibition. He was a blind man who defied Victorian stereotypes of the visually impaired.  He was educated, had a career, and was  married. A recent acquisition, the 1890 cabinet card photograph showing Jacobson reading a Bible with his fingers became a part of our holdings a few months before the exhibition opened.   

As often happens in our exhibitions, Library Company materials on display embody long-realized collecting strengths or ones we have begun to foster. Our Michael Zinman Collection of Printing for the Blind has been at the core of our holdings related to disability studies for some years now, as well as represents a corollary to the mission of the Visual Culture Program — to challenge our conceptions of sight.

This interrelationship between visual culture and disability has affected recent acquisitions pursued by VCP, which seeks to bolster our graphic holdings that document the visual history of disability in America. Consequently, we have added materials to the collection that portray disability through a wide range of contexts, including this 1891 color advertisement for artificial eyes designed by Philadelphia opticians Queen & Co. Striking and surreal, the rows of brown and blue specimens showcased the artistry of the makers of the false eyes in addition to that of the lithographer of the print. The fine details used to render the irises and blood vessels indicate the care required to craft the prosthetics and their graphic depictions.

The Invalid Appliance Co. (Chicago, ca. 1898). 
Color relief print.

The circa 1898 illustrated letterhead of The Invalid Appliance Co., “manufacturers of modern mechanical appliances for the alleviation of the suffering” in Chicago also found a home at the Library Company. Adorned with vignettes of a number of the company’s designs, including “Reclining Chairs,” “Columbia Rolling Chairs,” and “Self-Propelling Chairs,” the piece of commercial ephemera sheds light on the evolution and ingenuity of mechanics in the lives of people with disabilities at all ages and stages of life.

[Man lying on a mechanical invalid bed]
(United States, ca. 1870). 
Albumen on stereograph mount.

Similarly, a recently obtained circa 1870 stereograph (able to be viewed three-dimensionally) of a man lying in a mechanical “invalid” bed chronicles the daily existence of the physically disabled during the Victorian era. Books and a basket of fruit rest by his bed, and within his reach. The provenance of the image is unknown. Was it meant to show the utility of the bed? Was it to raise funds for a Civil-War veteran injured during the war? Or was it a portrait photographed at the instigation of the sitter?

Unwavering to its mission, VCP will continue to strive to facilitate the research of these graphic materials that are rich in multiple ways to study the history of people with disabilities and visual culture.  

Erika Piola
Associate Curator of Prints and Photographs

Co-Director VCP at LCP    

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