A History of Crutch and Mobility Aid Use

A History of Crutch and Mobility Aid Use

Old man using crutches   

The Earliest Designs:

The early design of the crutch was a T-shaped walking stick which was later developed into the V-shaped crutch that we still use today.    Back in the day crutches were made from a large piece of hardwood which was cut accordingly and split nearer to the top into this V shape and a wooden underarm section would be attached to the top and middle for both underarm and handle use. They were not the most comfortable aid to use as there was no cushioning what so ever, but they did serve their purpose well.    These underarm crutches were very popular as they allowed for the use of the hands while supporting the injured person’s weight underarm which meant that the user could lift heavy loads and perform everyday tasks even with limited mobility.    Later, a plush model was designed for those with the funds to access them, which made a more comfortable sling top from a leather pouch filled with the robust fibers of horse tail hair.     The load on the two contact points between crutch and body has been in development for many years and is still being improved in modern times.  

The crutch was first patented for commercial production by Emile Schlick in 1917.  Crutch mills popped up in the hills of New England, where they were produced.  Amazingly, some of these mills are still open for custom orders today, using the same production methods that were used during the Civil War.  There are two different types of crutches which have evolved differently in their own rights since these times.   The basic ‘T’ shaped crutch which was the foundation on which our more common ‘V’ shaped crutches of today were built on.    

The Beginning of Crutch Tips:

As one could imagine, the early design of crutches and canes did not include any sort of tip to the end of the crutch and the user was basically at the mercy of the terrain when using them.  Even though Charles Goodyear had invented a process whereby a metal crutch tip could be attached to the end of a wooden crutch, holding a rubber pad at its end, it was not popular and therefore barely used in its time.   As the environment of man changed, so too did the need for this rubber crutch tip increase and eventually, years later, this tip became more popular.   Ultimately, in 1919 with World War 1 imminent, George Hippiwood patented a more advanced rubber tip which included an air pocket inside.  This design became most favorable, especially with the changing surface conditions and weather factors.   He also developed height adjustable underarm supports which are still used for short-term used crutches today. 

The Loftstrand Crutch: 

The Lofstrand Crutch, which is a forearm bearing crutch, was patented by A.R. Lofstrand, Jr. a few years later.   This allowed the support to be taken up by the forearm and therefore was a tremendous benefit to people with arthritis and weak wrists.  This was also the first patented adjustable height element.   Other benefits of these types of crutches include; better posture during use, enable more activity and offer more stability on uneven ground.    Through the years there have been some minor improvements to the initial design.   This crutch is used both long term and short term widely in the world today.

Crutch Use Evolution:

There have been many different types of crutches developed for specific types of injury or illness.   The Warm Springs Crutch, designed with a metal cuff above and below the elbow to add extra support, was used for more specific cases such as polio which affected almost all aspects of the human body.      The Kenny crutch, a wooden bow crutch with a wide leather band attached to the top of the crutch, fits loosely around the forearm and therefore assists those who still have the arm strength, but have lost the use of their legs almost entirely.    Even though these are very desirable for children due to the freedom during a fall, these are no longer commonly used though due to the association with polio that came from the advertisement with posters for these crutches. 

Today, crutches are mass produced to meet demand and therefore not able to adjust much per individual user.  Even though efforts are made to have a one size fits all approach to these walking accessories, this is not always successful and comes with some of the uncomfortable issues that crutches started out with in the early 1900’s.   Aluminum tubing is used with adjustment holes above and below the handgrip so that they are “user-friendly.” 

Group of people on crutches

Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Staff and patients at a hospital in Yorkshire, ca. 1891. Photograph by T. Holey, ca. 1891 
An old man on crutches with a wooden leg. Etching by Jean Duplessi-Bertaux. - Welcome Images: Library reference: ICV No 20823L

 


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