How were artificial limbs, eyes, teeth, and hair imagined and presented in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, journalism, and visual culture? In what ways did cultural imaginaries of prostheses reflect or respond to real-life developments of these technologies and the lived realities of their users? To what extent did these sources endorse or challenge the social mandate for physical normalcy that fed the appetite for and development of prosthetic devices that could conceal physical difference from public view? And how were portrayals of prostheses inflected by social inequalities related to social class, gender, and age? These questions provide the stimulus for the study that follows. Such lines of enquiry matter if we are to better understand where the enduring hegemony of physical wholeness comes from and how society responded to this concept when it emerged most strongly. Responding to these questions also helps us to comprehend how normalcy became entwined with and reinforced by other social prejudices and how ascendant cultural forms such as literature, media sources, and visual artwork played vital roles in challenging normative thinking. By revisiting these materials, we learn how we might build on this approach today in order to develop a less stigmatizing social system.

Prosthetic Body Parts in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture takes as its source materials British and American literary writings, print media, and visual artworks from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These works create a prosthesis consciousness—that is to say, an imaginative focus on the extent to which prostheses successfully substitute for lost body parts. They also reorient our understanding of the period’s attitudes to concepts of agency, normalcy, and difference. In terms of canonical literature, I analyse many of the best-remembered fictional prosthesis users, including Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), Brevet Brigadier General John A. B. C. Smith from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839), and Captain Cuttle and Silas Wegg from Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1846–1848) and Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865), respectively.Footnote 1 Alongside these familiar fictional prosthesis users, I investigate works by other canonical authors, whose focus on prostheses has gone under the radar, including Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1866), The Law and the Lady (1875), and The Black Robe (1881); Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1886–1887) and Jude the Obscure (1895); H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885); and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1890).Footnote 2 Together with these well-known fictions, I explore works in verse and prose by less-well-remembered writers, such as Robert Williams Buchanan, Thomas Hood, and Henry Clay Lewis, as well as many unsigned sketches, short stories, and journalistic pieces that appeared in newspapers and magazines, ranging from weekly penny publications aimed at middle- and lower-class adolescent readerships, such as Chums, to more expensive monthly periodicals written for middle- and high-brow adult readers, such as Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine. In addition to these sources, I examine visual materials from graphic magazines (e.g. Fun), advertisements, and fine art (including works by J. T. Smith, G. M. Woodward, and Louis Leopold Boilly). Moreover, I investigate the prosthetic body part in early short films, such as J. Stuart Blackton’s The Thieving Hand (1908).Footnote 3 What draws these sources together is their centralization of the prosthetic part and their engagement with conceptualizations of physical wholeness.

Following in the footsteps of recent important studies of nineteenth-century physical difference and prostheses, such as Erin O’Connor’s Raw Material (2000), Jennifer Esmail’s Reading Victorian Deafness (2013), and Claire L. Jones’s Rethinking Modern Prosthesis (2017), this study analyses sources from both sides of the Atlantic.Footnote 4 In the nineteenth century, the trade of prostheses was thoroughly transatlantic. Successful artificial limb makers of the American North, such as B. Frank Palmer and A. A. Marks—who benefited from being approved suppliers for the US government’s scheme to provide its maimed Civil War veterans with artificial legs—successfully marketed their devices to British clients. Meanwhile, British limb maker Frederick Gray supplied artificial legs to Confederate officers during the 1860s.Footnote 5 During the transatlantic success of American artificial limbs even before the Civil War (1861–1865), as Gordon Phillips notes, Palmer legs were used by 1200 amputees in Britain.Footnote 6 Similarly, the implementation of crowns and bridges, which became more popular replacements for lost teeth than partial dentures from the 1870s onwards, became known as “American dentistry” in Britain, reflecting the superiority of American dental expertise in the second half of the century. Figure 1.1, which shows an 1890s advertisement for Mr. Foley’s artificial teeth and dentistry, underscores how the adjective “American” (which is centred in enlarged, emboldened, and accentuated font) was used to confer quality and authority. Conversely, British writers, such as Dickens, were admired by and potentially inspired the works of American authors of prosthesis narratives, such as Poe.Footnote 7 British prosthesis narratives, such as the ballad “Cork Leg” (c.1830) and Thomas Hood’s Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg (1840–1841), which drew into question aspects of artificial limb design, such as weight, showiness, and sophistication, were so popular and iconic that they were mentioned and sometimes even recited in the prosthesis catalogues of prominent American artificial limb makers, such as John S. Drake and A. A. Marks.Footnote 8 As these examples demonstrate, there existed a two-way dialogue across the Atlantic in terms of both the trade and the culture of prostheses in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Fig. 1.1
figure 1

A circa 1896 advertisement for Mr. Foley’s artificial teeth and “American dentistry.” “Artificial Teeth: A Complete Set, One Guinea,” c. 1896, illustrated advertisement, Wellcome Collection, London. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

My selection of sources is informed largely by two factors: first, the centrality of prostheses or prosthesis users; and secondly, the extent to which prosthesis narratives are characteristic of larger representational tropes. Besides the well-known works mentioned above, the chapters that follow engage with several largely forgotten novels, poems, short stories, jests, and comics, in which prosthetic body parts are the primary focus—such as André de Blaumont’s short story “My Fiancé’s Glass Eye” (1894), which tells a narrative of an engagement that is almost broken off after the bride-to-be is mistaken into thinking that her lover is a glass-eye user.Footnote 9 Readers will notice that the majority of these sources are by white, educated, Western, middle-class, and male authors, a fact that mirrors the authorial dominance of this social group within nineteenth-century print culture. Since, however, many of the users and prospective users of prostheses were not middle-class men, my discussion looks closely at representations that were pitched at a broad range of social groups, including women, the elderly, and the working classes.

There are significant distinctions between the prostheses that I discuss. First, of those listed, artificial limbs are potentially the only prostheses that would be used by subjects whom we might today consider disabled—though some amputees might reject this label. Most of us would not consider someone thought to be missing hair, teeth, or even an eye disabled. Still, I draw upon a disability studies approach to consider each of these devices. I certainly have no wish to homogenize physical difference or to suggest that conditions such as baldness, are somatically, psychologically, or experientially akin to limb amputation, but I want to expose that those perceived to be missing hair, teeth, or an eye in the period under examination were often subject to some of the same stigma as those with lost limbs.

Part of the prejudice faced by those who were perceived to be missing body parts stemmed from the social preference for physical wholeness: a predilection culminating from several factors, including the rise of bodily statistics, the vogue for physiognomy, and changing models of work. The other focus of discrimination centred on the use of artifice, a practice seen as dishonest, deceitful, and, at times, fraudulent. For example, writing about prosthesis manufacture for Once a Week in 1859, the author-physician Andrew Wynter lamented: “What member is there in this artful age that we can depend upon as genuine?” Wynter emphasized both the apparent scale of prosthesis use and the extent to which they could dupe dependencies on physical normalcy as a signifier of trustworthiness.Footnote 10 It cannot, however, be denied that those missing limbs faced greater stigma in certain regards. For instance, in “autobiographical” accounts such as John Brown’s “A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, an Orphan Boy” (1832), A Narrative of the Experience and Sufferings of William Dodd, a Factory Cripple (1841), and Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851), amputees experienced significant discrimination from potential employers.Footnote 11 By comparison, those individuals using what we might call primarily cosmetic prostheses, such as dentures, artificial eyes, and wigs, were arguably more susceptible to casual physical scrutiny, cruel jests, and accusations of fraudulence—as evidenced by the numerous unkind stories, cartoons, and jokes about users of these devices that appeared in contemporary newspapers and magazines.Footnote 12 The users of “cosmetic” prostheses, if discovered, were subject to scorn for duplicity since some believed that their use of such prostheses cheated popular methods of assessing character by looks. This view was made manifest in a comic article that appeared in Pick-Me-Up in 1892, which equated “[p]aint, powder, false teeth, false hare, and … a false buzzum” with “a false hart! [sic].”Footnote 13 Users of these kinds of prostheses were also often accused of vanity, a serious charge at the time.Footnote 14 In his 1851 Household Words article “Eyes Made to Order,” William Blanchard Jerrold, for instance, explained: “To some persons a wig is the type of a false and hollow age; an emblem of deceit; a device of ingenious vanity, covering the wearer with gross and unpardonable deceit.”Footnote 15

The users of artificial limbs were also subject to a degree of the same stigma, especially if they were deemed to be concealing their impairments to better their social positions, as with the homeless prosthesis users described in the 1877 All the Year Round article “Mr. Wegg and His Class”—though they were generally treated with more sympathy.Footnote 16 The users of wigs, artificial eyes, and dentures, especially if single and female and/or elderly, were more regularly and directly mocked in public venues, including newspapers and magazines. In 1907, the Penny Illustrated Paper quoted a pastor from Liverpool who declared to his congregation that “a wig was a foolish relic of the bad old days, a thatching of one’s roof by an artificial process, and one of the few foolish things women have never done.”Footnote 17 Depictions of amputees, especially children and veterans, were sometimes tinged with sympathy, as in the case of Sir Hubert von Herkomer’s famous 1875 oil painting The Last Muster, which depicts a group of Chelsea Pensioners, some of whom are wooden-leg users, at a Sunday service at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. But wig users, by contrast, were considered fair game for jests.Footnote 18 The following, for example, appeared in William Carew Hazlitt’s New London Jest Book in 1871:

Walking one day, to dine with a friend, some miles from Cambridge, Dr Parr was overtaken by a heavy fall of rain, and not being able to procure shelter, was completely drenched before he reached his destination. With linen and clothes his friend was able to furnish him, but his handkerchief was obliged to supply the absence of his wig, which was sent to the kitchen to be dried. After a time, the doctor exclaimed, with much animation, and with his accustomed lisp, “How very kind of you, my dear friend, to remember my love for rothe goothe.” But his host, on going into the kitchen to ascertain the cause of so savoury a smell, found it was the doctor’s wig smoking by the fire!Footnote 19

Here, as in many other cultural depictions of wigs from this period, the odd misfortunes arising from the seeming ill-suited nature of false hair for active modern life is a source of comic amusement. Despite complex nuances in terms of both lived reality and representation, there are overarching similarities regarding nineteenth-century attitudes to difference and concealment that make the study of these devices together important for the histories of disability, prostheses, and “passing,” the divisive practice of concealing difference in order to appear normal, which I will turn to later.

Nineteenth-century discussions of artificial body parts often considered these technologies alongside one another. Commentaries on the expanding prosthesis trade in popular periodicals such as Household Words , All the Year Round, Once a Week , Punch, and Tinsley’s Magazine discussed different types of prostheses comparatively.Footnote 20 In drawing our attention to the medical model that underpinned the nineteenth-century logic of prosthesis use, Jerrold concluded “Eyes Made to Order” as follows:

It is a wise policy to remove from sight the calamities which horrify or sadden; and, as far as possible, to cultivate all that pleases from its beauty or grace. Therefore, let us shake our friend with the cork-leg by the hand, and, acknowledge that the imitation is worn in deference to our senses, receive it as a veritable flesh-and-blood limb; let us accept the wig of our unfortunate young companion, as the hair which he has lost; let us shut our eyes to the gold work that fastens the brilliantly white teeth of a young lady, whose natural dentition has been replaced; and, above all, let us never show, by sign or word, that the appearance of our friend (who has suffered tortures, and lost the sight of one eye) is changed after the treatment invented by M. Boissonneau.Footnote 21

For Jerrold, all of the prostheses listed are linked in the way that they try to produce a “pleasing personnel.”Footnote 22 Humorous items also often presented different kinds of artificial body parts as interchangeable. A sardonic article in Punch encouraged readers to “give a friend in need, personal and pecuniary, a Christmas-Box in the shape of a set of artificial teeth, or the ‘Guinea Jaw’ of our friend the Dentist, or a glass eye, or a gutta percha nose, or a wooden leg.”Footnote 23 Later, an ironic etiquette miscellany in the Sporting Times provided readers with the following tongue-in-cheek advice: “If you know that a man has a glass eye, or a wooden leg, or a wig, … always refer to the circumstance on every possible occasion.”Footnote 24

While the general definition of prosthesis remains fairly broad—the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “[a]n artificial body part, such as a limb, a heart, or a breast implant”—I choose here to focus specifically on devices that attempt to replicate the physical form or mimic the close appearance of the body part for which they are substitutes. I do, however, like Katherine Ott, recognize that “the line between assistive and prosthetic technology is more like a hyphen.” Ott challenges the distinction often drawn between prosthetic and assistive technologies, writing, “Since all useful technology is assistive, it is peculiar that we stipulate that some devices are assistive while others need no qualification.”Footnote 25 I endorse this view, but choose to focus on devices that stand in visibly for missing body parts, rather than those that enhance or supplement diminished sensory capacities—for example, spectacles and/or hearing aids—since the literary depictions of such technologies interact more fully with the social attitudes to the conspicuously aesthetic construction of physical wholeness.


Prosthetic Body Parts is divided into seven chapters. Chapters 2 and 3 set up several major themes, which are then examined in relation to influential social factors in Chaps. 4, 5, and 6. Chapter 2 explores the construction of the concept of physical wholeness and the way in which fears of physical loss were perpetuated. The second chapter addresses nineteenth-century contexts, such as changing understandings of the human condition, new models of work, and changes in legislation. The chapter also analyses literary texts that stimulated anxiety regarding the neurological impact of body loss, including Frederick Marryat’s Jacob Faithful (1834) and Silas Weir Mitchell’s “The Case of George Dedlow” (1866). I end by investigating how the burgeoning prosthesis market reinforced preferences for physical normalcy in advertisements as a means to exploit it.

Chapter 3 demonstrates how the contexts outlined in the previous chapter impacted conceptualizations of agency and ability in prosthesis narratives. My discussion examines how a power play between person and prosthetic part was often imagined in literary and cultural depictions of such technologies. By exploring the extent to which artificial body parts were seen to enhance or assume the agency of the user, I argue that several prosthesis narratives produced transgressive prosthesis users or false body parts that threatened the dominance of the physically whole. Underlining the enduring nature of such themes, I analyse sources from across the historical scope of this project, including several sketches and short stories that appeared in publications such as Kind Words, All the Year Round , and Longman’s Magazine; Poe’s short story “The Man That Was Used Up”; Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; Hood’s narrative poem Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg; Frances Parker’s illustrated narrative poem The Flying Burgermaster (1832); and Blackton’s short film The Thieving Hand.Footnote 26

In Chap. 4, I concentrate on the intersections between prosthesis use and social mobility, challenging predominant utopian views regarding nineteenth-century prosthetics. Centring on a case study of Dickens’s popular portrayal of the villainous wooden-leg user Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend, I show how such works drew on anxieties surrounding the social position of amputees by presenting wooden-leg users as transgressive social climbers. I place Dickens’s representation of Wegg in context with his other depictions of prosthesis users and those found in his journals Household Words and All the Year Round .Footnote 27 I also consider the cultural legacy of Wegg. This fourth chapter argues that stories such as Our Mutual Friend problematized the logic of prosthesis use. Such tales suggested that, in an age of dominance of organic physical wholeness, prostheses were defunct when they failed to accurately mimic the appearance and function of the lost body part, and yet were ironically associated with fraudulence when successful.

By comparison, Chap. 5 traces representations of male and female prosthesis users in the marriage plot, the nineteenth-century narrative form most heavily populated by users of prosthetic devices. Building on the work of scholars such as Martha Stoddard Holmes and Talia Schaffer, this chapter identifies the prosthesis-marriage plot as a related yet separately identifiable formulaic narrative structure.Footnote 28 When viewed collectively, and at times also individually, prosthesis-marriage plots—including Hardy’s novels The Woodlanders and Jude the Obscure, Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841) and Dombey and Son, and various short stories and sketches printed in publications including Temple Bar, Fun, Cheshire Observer, Hearth and Home, and Chambers’s Journal—presented unstable affective and imaginative treatments of prosthesis users.Footnote 29 These representations shed light on the complex ways in which discourses of gender, class, and ableism intersected and how, in particular instances, the bodily status quo was brought into question or even outright rejected.

Chapter 6 investigates how ageing was a notable social factor scrutinized by prosthesis imaginaries. The cultural association of cosmetic prostheses (including wigs and false teeth) with ageing stems, at least in part, from satirical sources that paradoxically both bulwarked and mocked the hegemony of physical wholeness and youth. Stressing the extent to which preferences for youth were intertwined with demands for physical completeness, my analysis shows how the dominance of these two physical states was undermined by stories that either ridiculed the process of concealment for elderly users or presented unlikely ageing prostheticized heroes in unconventional ways. In this regard, I draw from genres that were in different ways invested in constructing bodily norms and deviances. I address the Gothic, by returning to Poe and his short stories “The Man That Was Used Up” and “The Spectacles” (1844), which are about sophisticated prostheses that onlookers find hard to detect. Thereafter, I turn to sensation fiction, by investigating Wilkie Collins’s portrayals of wigs and dentures used by ageing characters in Armadale , The Law and the Lady , and The Black Robe . And then I focus on imperial adventure fiction, by analysing the unlikely past-their-prime prosthesis-using action heroes of Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, D. B. McKean’s “A Wig and a Wooden Leg” (1886), and the anonymously published “A Cure for Cannibalism” (1889).Footnote 30 Despite their differences in style and genre, collectively, these depictions of ageing prosthesis users challenged the dominance of physical wholeness and youth by laughing at the absurd results that demands for both effected.

The concluding seventh chapter turns to the British television network Channel 4’s “Superhumans Return” (2015) advertising campaign for its coverage of the 2016 Paralympic Games as a case study.Footnote 31 By analysing video advertisements from this campaign, I highlight the way that contemporary sources interrogate a privileging of normalcy while remaining encoded by certain ableist inclinations. I then synthesize the various strands of the book’s argument to make the case that the literary history of prosthesis is rich, complicated, and conflicted.

Prosthetic Body Parts builds on and adds nuance to historical work that traces the social construction of physical normalcy, a concept that I show was buttressed by an understanding of the healthy body as whole.Footnote 32 Like Lennard J. Davis, I explore the denigration of physical difference that such a rise encouraged. The prosthesis industry, which saw tremendous development in the nineteenth century, cashed in on the increasing mandate for physical normalcy. While contemporary journalism and advertising often lauded the accomplishments of an emerging group of professional prosthesis makers, many cultural and literary sources provided the other side of the picture, revealing the stereotypes, stigma, scepticism, inadequacies, and injustices attached to the use and dissemination of prosthetic devices. Victorian prosthesis narratives therefore complicated the hegemony of normalcy that Davis ascribes to this period. Nineteenth-century prosthesis narratives, though presented in a predominantly ableist and sometimes disablist manner, challenged the dominance of physical completeness as they questioned the logic of prostheticization or presented non-normative subjects in threateningly powerful ways.


To evidence the extent to which the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were notable for their developments in real-life prosthetic technologies, I would like to briefly outline some key advances relevant to each of the devices investigated in the chapters that follow. Artificial limbs, in particular legs, saw significant transformation during the nineteenth century. Before 1830, the makers of artificial limbs—as in devices that attempted to replicate both the appearance and the function of a limb that had been lost—were few and far between. Rudimentary peg legs, tapered wooden posts upon which users could rest their amputated stumps, had been in use for centuries and remained the most popular replacements for lost limbs. James Potts made what is often considered the first modern artificial leg in 1816 when he supplied Henry William Paget, Lord Uxbridge, with a prosthetic replacement for the leg that he famously lost in the Battle of Waterloo.Footnote 33 Potts’s prosthetic was hailed as a great success by Uxbridge, who was newly titled as the Marquess of Anglesey. The prosthesis came to be known interchangeably as both the Anglesey and the “clapper” leg—“so called because locomotion was accompanied by a clapping sound.”Footnote 34 Paul Youngquist explains what made Potts’s device special:

Unlike the familiar peg leg, whose crude artificiality materialized the blunt claims of patriotism on the bodies of commoners, Anglesey’s leg was lifelike and elegantly sculpted. It embodied a much more intimate fit between man and nation. And it allowed greater ease of mobility, communicating enough limp to mark the hero, while concealing enough stump to confirm the gentleman.Footnote 35

Though certainly a major innovation, as Youngquist notes, the general circulation of the Anglesey leg was restricted by its high cost. The Anglesey design was replicated and made slightly more affordable on both sides of the Atlantic after Potts’s death, first by two of his apprentices, Frederick Gray and William Selpho, and later by their imitators, competitors, and entrepreneurial protégés. It was not until the American Civil War, however, that such sophisticated prosthetic devices became more widely available. Guy Hasegawa’s Mending Broken Soldiers (2012) documents the complex process that led to state provisions being provided to veterans for the purchase of artificial limbs. Before and especially after the American Civil War, many of the century’s major innovations in lower-limb prosthesis took place on that side of the Atlantic. Benjamin Frank Palmer of Philadelphia won first prize at the International Exhibition of 1851 in London for his artificial leg, which used a spring in the foot to give firmness of step. In 1858 Douglas Bly developed what he called the “anatomical leg,” which incorporated an ivory ball in a vulcanized rubber socket to provide polycentric ankle motion. Three years later, New Yorker A. A. Marks introduced the rubber foot, which simplified ankle joint manufacture and enabled a more lifelike gait. And in 1863, another New Yorker, Dubois Parmelee, pioneered using atmospheric pressure as found in a suction socket to attach above-the-knee artificial legs.Footnote 36 The growth of the limb-prosthesis industry in this period owed much to developments in surgical practice, hygiene, and pain relief. Innovations such as the introduction of the Syme’s method of amputation at the ankle joint, the introduction of anaesthetics such as ether and chloroform in the late 1840s, and the gradual adoption of Listerian principals of prophylactic antisepsis from the 1870s meant that more patients survived amputations and more survived with serviceable stumps suitable for being fitted with prosthetics as the century progressed.Footnote 37

Developments in artificial arms were not nearly as impressive as the innovations in artificial legs. Sue Zemka explains that due to difficulties replicating the complex biomechanics of the human hand, artificial arms “languished on an impasse between functionality and a natural appearance.”Footnote 38 Rudimentary hooks, available many years before the Victorian period, remained the most effective artificial hands up until and far beyond 1901—due to the limited availability of cybernetic artificial hands in our own time, one could even make the argument that devices of a very similar design remain the most effective replacements for missing hands today. Though, as Zemka states, one must be careful regarding the application of labels of “progress” and “improvement” to the nineteenth-century history of artificial arms, there certainly was growth. The improvements in artificial arms were insubstantial but the transatlantic expansion of the limb-prosthesis trade was unprecedented. For instance, in the 1820s, there were three artificial limb firms in London; by the 1880s, there were eighteen.Footnote 39

While major innovations in artificial arms failed to materialize, ocular prostheses underwent major technological developments. In the 1840s, when the anatomy of the eye became more accurately understood, thanks to the work of ophthalmologists such as Amédée Bonnet, surgeons engineered a new, safer method of performing enucleation—the removal of the entire eyeball.Footnote 40 By cutting the four rectus muscles, which control eye movement, surgeons effected easier and more practical methods for extracting the globe. Later in the century, ophthalmic surgeons developed procedures for implanting support spheres that would give a better outcome to the placement of the artificial eye. The Mule’s operation was the most popular of such procedures. The delivery of these operations was made more practical by the introduction of anaesthesia and prophylactic antisepsis. Artificial eyes themselves had been in use in modern Europe since the sixteenth century when pioneering French surgeon Ambroise Paré fabricated a covered and painted metal plate that could be worn over the eyelid of a lost eye. In the 1700s, the industry was dominated by Venice’s talented glass blowers. But in 1822 France returned as the global centre for artificial eyes following the Boissonneau family’s production of the first enamel artificial eye. Auguste Boissonneau’s eyes dominated the European market in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s.Footnote 41

Such market supremacy, however, was not long lived. German ocularishts started using cryolite glass in the 1870s. This material proved easy to work with and “finished to a more lifelike, opalescent shine,” leading to the dominance of German (especially Wiesbaden) eyes.Footnote 42 Another important technological development spearheaded by German makers was the development of the “reform” or Snellen eye. Named after Dutch ophthalmologist Hermann Snellen, who called for artificial eyes suitable for enucleated sockets to be developed, the reform eye was created by the Müller-Uri family. As Ott writes: “Patients and ocularists preferred the Snellen design because it reduced the sunken appearance of the orbit and socket area of the face.”Footnote 43

Artificial teeth also saw major developments, especially in America. The introduction of anaesthesia in the 1840s meant that “[n]umerous people who had preferred tooth ache to the torture of extraction were now hastening to have rotten teeth cleared from their mouths.”Footnote 44 Significant innovations followed, including the implementation of sulphur-hardened rubber—vulcanite—as a material for moulding bases. The use of this material significantly lowered the cost of false teeth, inaugurating what dental historian M. D. K. Bremner has called the era of “false teeth for the millions.”Footnote 45 Earlier in the century, spring-less upper and lower sets began to appear. Though not necessarily a new idea (influential eighteenth-century French dentist Pierre Fauchard made three upper sets able to stay in place without springs during his career), in 1848 the US Patent Office granted a patent on false teeth held in place by atmospheric pressure to a Connecticut confectioner.Footnote 46 The first efficient porcelain crowns and bridges appeared in the final quarter of the nineteenth century following the inventions of the first satisfactory dental cement (an oxyphosphate of zinc) in 1869 and the foot-operated dentist’s drill in 1871.Footnote 47

Wigs, relatively simple devices, saw little change in terms of technical sophistication. The popularity of artificial hair, however, was a social phenomenon. As the fashion for wearing it trickled down the social ladder, Britain imported a huge amount of artificial hair from Europe. According to Alexander Rowland, in 1851 England imported 10,862 pounds of human hair (which was used to make wigs) from France alone.Footnote 48 The penchant for hair additions, including false fronts, chignons, and tresses, extended from the 1850s through to the 1890s, peaking in the 1860s. The demand for artificial hair altered ideas about what constituted physical wholeness. For women especially, the whole and normal body temporarily became one embellished with artificial hair. At the mid-century especially, to lack artificial hair was to be physically incomplete. And yet those whose use of artifice was too obvious were ironically lambasted in cultural and literary texts.

Not only did the nineteenth century generate technological and commercial progress in prosthetic technologies, but it also witnessed a concomitant upsurge in discussions about and representations of these devices in contemporary print and visual culture. If we individually search the terms “artificial leg,” “glass eye,” “wig,” and “false teeth”—arguably the most commonly used and visually recognizable prostheses of the modern era—on the ProQuest resource British Periodicals (Collections I, II, and III), a similar graphic is produced by each search conducted: mentions of the term grew after 1830, increasing immensely in line with developments in the manufacture and circulation of that prosthesis towards the high-Victorian period, before reducing in number and eventually dropping off drastically after 1910.Footnote 49 In addition to the developments in prosthetic technologies, we can read the rise in discourse surrounding these devices through the Victorian period in relation to the upsurge in print culture, advertising, and marketing that was witnessed during this period.Footnote 50 Factors such as the reduction of newspaper stamp duty in 1836 and the abolition of advertisement duty in 1855 created a dramatic expansion in newspapers and magazines, providing greater space for fictional narratives including and advertisements for prostheses. The increase in interest surrounding prostheses in the 1830s also correlates with related historical factors, such as the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and Lambert Adolphe Quetelet’s 1835 construction of “the average man,” which had major consequences in terms of contemporary attitudes to disability.Footnote 51 Such events brought physical difference and the categorization of physical ability to the fore in an unprecedented way.

Critical Contexts

In arguing that Victorian prosthesis narratives challenged the hegemony of normalcy that was developing in the nineteenth century, I draw from important work in cultural and literary disability studies, Victorian studies, and literature and science.

The foundations for this project were laid by scholars such as Paul K. Longmore, Davis, Garland-Thomson, David T. Mitchell, Sharon L. Snyder, and Ato Quayson, who have demonstrated the importance of literature as cultural work that exposes and shapes attitudes to physical disability. One of the most influential and widely adapted frameworks to emerge from this field has been Mitchell and Snyder’s theory of “narrative prosthesis.”Footnote 52 By referring to the way that physical difference has been used throughout history as “a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight,” Mitchell and Snyder build on the work of Longmore and others, arguing that “[d]isability inaugurates narrative, but narrative inevitably punishes its own prurient interests by overseeing the extermination of the object of fascination.”Footnote 53 Quayson takes up a similar project in his book Aesthetic Nervousness (2007). He provides, however, a corrective to Mitchell and Snyder, arguing that disability often stimulates subliminal unease and moral panic, which is refracted within the structures of literature, a crisis he terms “aesthetic nervousness.”Footnote 54 I provide a counterpoint to Mitchell and Snyder’s argument about literature serving a prosthetic function in rendering physical difference invisible by showing that Victorian prosthesis narratives often brought physical difference to the fore, attacking the prosthetic part as an ineffective solution to functional and social issues related to physical difference and loss. For instance, in Grace Goldney’s 1870 serialized novella Marion’s Choice and William Henry Archibald Chasemore’s 1878 Judy cartoon “Wicklebury’s Wig,” wigs are narratively and comically centred in order to ridicule their ill-suitedness.Footnote 55 By taking a more historicist approach than Mitchell and Snyder and Quayson, I consider how the rise of prosthetic technologies both effected and affected such depictions. As I also show, the complexity of disability representation is even thornier given the questions regarding the human-technology relationship that are evoked by the prosthetic body part.

The present study is also heavily indebted to the work of Vanessa Warne. Her essays “If You Should Ever Want an Arm” (2005), “Artificial Leg” (2008), and “To Invest a Cripple with Peculiar Interest” (2009) reveal the significant position that prosthetic limbs held in the cultural imagination on both sides of the Atlantic in the nineteenth century.Footnote 56 Warne provides not only useful analyses of the discourses related to prosthesis representation—such as commercial enterprise, class privilege, and prosthetic compensation—but also guidance in terms of critical approach. As Warne observes: “The tension between literary representations and the lived experiences of amputees constitutes something of a problem for the study of prostheses in the Victorian period.”Footnote 57 Related to Warne’s concerns regarding the tension between fiction and reality, several scholars have been vocal in calling for a return to thinking about prosthetics literally rather than figuratively. Vivian Sobchack, a prominent media theorist and social critic, as well as a person with lived experience of limb-prosthesis use, writes:

[T]he primary context in which “the prosthetic” functions literally rather than figuratively has been left behind—as has the experience and agency of those who, like myself, actually use prostheses without feeling “posthuman” and who, moreover, are often startled to read about all the hidden powers that their prostheses apparently exercise both in the world and in the imaginations of cultural theorists. Indeed, most of the scholars who embrace the prosthetic metaphor far too quickly mobilize their fascination with artificial and “posthuman” extensions of “the body” in the service of a rhetoric (and in some cases, a poetics) that is always located elsewhere—displacing and generalizing the prosthetic before exploring it first on its own quite extraordinary complex, literal (and logical) ground[.]Footnote 58

Similarly, Steven L. Kurzman argues, “[t]he major flaw with retroactively basing the prosthesis metaphor in artificial limbs is that it reinscribes the latter to support the model. It misrepresents artificial limbs as semi-autonomous agents, which I do not believe reflects the reality of how amputees relate to or use artificial limbs in either individual or social senses.”Footnote 59 My analyses acknowledge Warne’s concern about fiction versus reality while following Sobchack’s and Kurzman’s respective prompts to analyse the prosthesis as prosthesis.

A significant proportion of historical work on prosthesis focuses on military contexts and the provision of prostheses to veteran amputees.Footnote 60 Another notable trend linked to this work has been a focus on male users. For example, Katherine Ott, David Serlin, and Stephen Mihm’s seminal collection of essays on the history of prostheses, Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics (2002), investigates female prosthesis users in just two of its twelve chapters, while four of its essays are explicitly about war veterans. In her introduction to the volume, Ott herself acknowledges the limitations of the volume and notes that the anthology “is intended to stimulate research and critical inquiry into questions about … the gender dynamics of prostheses.”Footnote 61 This task has been taken up recently by scholars including Luna Dolezal and Clare Stainthorp, who respectively investigate how recent media portrayals of the Paralympic athlete, actress, and model Aimee Mullins ultimately promote “possessive individualism … and the most banal patriarchal tendencies of mainstream consumerism,” and how Victorian doctor and prosthetist Henry Robert Heather Bigg’s 1885 book Artificial Limbs and the Amputations Which Afford the Most Appropriate Stumps in Civil and Military Surgery asserted a “professional and masculine agency to make the woman’s body assume the position of something beheld rather than embodied.”Footnote 62 My essay “Get the Best Article in the Market” also brings female prosthesis users into focus, revealing how particular literary texts used in advertisements and print media promoted the concealing ability of particular prosthetic devices to female users while warning them away from others.Footnote 63

A major way that my work differs from much historical work on prosthesis is in terms of approach. To date a lot of historical research on prostheses has focused on the perceived successes of these devices without examining the normalizing forces that stimulated their development. Studies by scholars such as Erin O’Connor, Edward Steven Slavishak, and Guy Hasegawa usefully unpack the symbolic and functional value of artificial legs in nineteenth-century Britain and America—for instance, O’Connor identifies that “Prosthetics figured in the Victorian imagination as the closural movement of amputation, putting an end to the body’s unsettling counter-narrative by materially effacing it as such”—but what needs to be probed further in relation to these devices and other forms of prosthesis is the problematic social mandate that, in part, brought about their proliferation.Footnote 64 I do not wish to imply that there were not benevolent agendas at heart in the development of prostheses in this period. Indeed, it is true that some prosthetists (including the British maker of devices for arm amputees George Webb Derenzy, the American artificial limb makers B. Frank Palmer and James A. Foster) had lived experience as amputees and developed prostheses, in part, to improve the lives of not only themselves but also others living with similar differences.Footnote 65 Rather, I believe that it is important to consider the ableism underpinning the demand for lifelike prosthesis that could enable users—who were more often than not financially privileged—to pass as normal. In other words, I support Sarah Jain’s observation that “the unspecified deficiency, the generalized defect or absence seems to naturalize the general form of the prosthesis and of the body alike. If the prosthesis presumes an enhancement to the ‘natural’ body in this account, then bodies and prostheses are already naturalized rather than being understood as socially constructed.”Footnote 66 It is important for historians of prostheses to interrogate the naturalizing of physical loss as deficiency. In adopting a social-constructivist view of prostheses, I do not wish to deny or overlook the physical difficulties, pain, and mental anguish occasioned by losing or not being born with a particular body part, but I do wish to show that such issues have been exacerbated by social conditions that have valourized physical wholeness and denigrated bodies deemed incomplete. It is idealistic to think that prostheses were produced solely to make the lives of physically different people better. While this is no doubt an important part of the equation, it should be acknowledged that the very existence of these devices was predicated by a privileging of normative looks, functions, and movement patterns.

Related to the history of prosthesis, Prosthetic Body Parts also contributes to an emerging historiography of passing, a practice that in the context of disability “refers to the way people conceal social markers of impairment to avoid the stigma of disability and pass as ‘normal.’”Footnote 67 Despite the clear links with prosthesis use, a kind of supplementing of the body underpinned by a medical approach invested in materially effacing the supposedly “fixable” issue of bodily loss, surprisingly little historical work on prosthesis directly addresses the practice of passing.Footnote 68 Jeffrey A. Brune and Daniel J. Wilson explain how passing is a contested practice in disability studies since it “can take a psychological toll [on those who attempt to ‘pass’] and can also reinforce—or, at least, fail to challenge—the stigma of disability.” They also, however, note: “Even when passing seems to reinforce the stigma of disability, it is more productive, and more just, to challenge the ableism that compels people to pass rather than blame the individuals who choose to do so.”Footnote 69 By exploring attitudes to passing through literature and culture, I explore conflicting social attitudes to this mode of self-presentation, moving beyond the current (yet also important) penchant for investigating the personal perspective of the passing subject.

Moreover, Prosthetic Body Parts intervenes in debates surrounding the human-technology relationship in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a topic that has seen considerable interest within the burgeoning field of literature and science—not the least because, as Laura Otis observes, “[t]hrough their comparisons of bodies and machines, [nineteenth-century] scientists and literary writers contributed to a new cultural understanding of selfhood.”Footnote 70 Unlike previous scholarship, I show that within the literary imagination the complex dynamic of the human-prosthesis relationship challenged not only subject/object binaries but also the cultural dominance of organic physical wholeness. Tamara Ketabgian, who in The Lives of Machines uses the metaphor of prosthesis to discuss the complex subject-object relations between man and industrial machine, argues, “Victorian machines were not simply soulless, lifeless, predictable, and unidimensional; not simply opposed to organic feeling and vitality; and not simply reductive material objects—if objects are ever so.”Footnote 71 Elsewhere, Katharina Boehm’s edited collection Bodies and Things in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, which draws heavily on Bill Brown’s work on thing theory, presents the argument that the subject and the object were not always oppositional in the nineteenth century; instead they connected through “networked and processual relationships.”Footnote 72 Adding to this work on the interfaces and ontological overlaps of the human and the machine, the subject and the object, this book draws needed attention to the prosthetic body part, a device that (perhaps more than any other) raises questions about where the subject ends and the object begins.


Because of the extent to which acceptable language is a contested topic in disability studies—particularly when dealing with historical sources that use terms that we now consider offensive and/or derogatory—in writing about prosthesis users I have had to make careful decisions about terminology. I primarily use the term disabled when discussing those perceived to be missing limbs. Often, I use the more specific term amputee . It is true that the term disabled was used infrequently to describe people with physical impairments prior to the First World War, but this term is more neutral than the alternatives used in Victorian times.Footnote 73 I avoid using terms such as afflicted, defective, infirm, and cripple unless writing from the perspective of individuals from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. When I do use these terms, they appear in quotation marks to show that they are not my own. However, because this study does not deal with disability alone—it would be misleading to call those deemed to be missing hair, teeth, or even an eye disabled despite the stigma, and, at times, the functional difficulties accompanying their physical conditions—I tend to use provocative terms such as incomplete and disaggregated to describe those considered to be lacking body parts. Though these words were not commonly used in the period under discussion, and they certainly do not express any personal bias as regards an idealized or normative vision about how the body should appear, they encapsulate the hegemonic and problematic (though not exclusive) attitude to perceived physical losses often exhibited in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sources.

These terms are certainly unsettling, and it is important to note that the attitude that they express regarding bodily difference is a socially constructed one, based on the notion that during the nineteenth century the normal or physically complete/whole body was the dominant paradigm. When describing bodies that would have been considered non-normative, I use terms such as loss and missing though I would like to acknowledge here that I am uncomfortable with the homogenizing view of difference as lack. The term whole, which was often used during the nineteenth century when describing the normal body (also a social construction), is used alongside its synonym complete—a term less commonly deployed in such context in the nineteenth century—for linguistic variety. Physical integrity is another variation that I employ to avoid repetition. In identifying the dominant social position of those who were deemed to exhibit wholeness, I also occasionally borrow Garland-Thomson’s provocative term normate. As Garland-Thomson herself explains:

This neologism names the veiled subject position of cultural self, the figure outlined by the array of deviant others whose marked bodies shore up the normate’s boundaries. The term normate usefully designates the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings. Normate … is the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them. If one attempts to define the normate position by peeling away all the marked traits within the social order at this historical moment, what emerges is a very narrowly defined profile that describes only a minority of actual people.Footnote 74

The concept normate therefore aptly encapsulates the hegemonic yet constructed identity held by those believed to display wholeness—in reality a minority, whose very state of completeness was ever subject to change. The fact is that even today, over one hundred years of medical progress later, relatively few of us remain normatively and organically whole over an entire life course—though we may think of and perceive our bodies as whole regardless of how they are received by others. The overwhelming majority of us lose, or are not born with, at least one body part, however minor it might seem to us. In the nineteenth century, hair, teeth, limbs, and eyes were among the body parts most at risk. The key task for Prosthetic Body Parts is to show how our literary and cultural history reveals that attempts to conceal physical differences have not always been privileged.