Of Lives and Limbs

Banner image is a detail from A Treatise on Marks’ Patent Artificial Limbs with Rubber Hands and Feet, published in New York, 1894.

In the late 1850s an enterprising Torontonian named Norris Black began a sideline business offering the city something it was sorely lacking: prosthetics.

From the Toronto City Directory, 1862-3.

Though a great variety of prosthetics had been designed through the ages, the type we’re most familiar with today were still very much in their infancy in the early 19th century.   It wasn’t until the American Civil War came along – and an enormous number of men were maimed on the battlefield – that great advances were made in the technology.  Prior to that, an individual often had to make do as best they could.  If the missing appendage was a foot or leg this would mean the use of a peg, crutch or cane – but one early Torontonian devised something much more remarkable.

In Toronto of Old, Henry Scadding shares the ingenuity of Henry Mosley  who was the General Commission Merchant and Auctioneer for the town of York in the 1830s.  As Scadding notes, Mosley was a “well-know and excellent man” who’d had the misfortune of suffering such extreme frost-bite that he’d lost the lower portion of both his legs, and so:

“he contrived to move about with great activity in a room or on the side-walk by means of two light chairs, shifting himself adroitly from the one to the other. When required to go to a distance or to church, (where he was ever punctually to be seen in his place), he was lifted by his son or sons into and out of a wagonette, together with the chairs.”

Unfortunately for Mosley, he wouldn’t live to see Norris Black’s creations but I’m certain they helped improve a number of lives in the city – though perhaps not so many that Norris was able to give up his day job as a Singer Sewing Machine agent:

This is an ad from McEvoy and Co’s Toronto Guide for the Provincial Fair of 1866 – which seems like an odd place to try to peddle such things, but what do I know.

Nonetheless, Black managed to invest a great deal of time in working to improve his artificial limbs.  He certainly felt confident enough in his leg design to claim it was better than the product being offered in the American market:

I don’t know about Mr. Palmer’s leg, but this one looks great to me. The fact that Black makes a point of mentioning that it does not squeak says a lot about other models of the time. From the Patent Journal of the Board of Arts and Manufacture for Upper Canada, Volume 1., 1861.

I can’t tell you how many prosthetics Norris Black sold in an average year – it’s certainly not the kind of business you hope was booming – but I’m fairly sure he experienced record numbers in 1866.

In June of that year, the town of Ridgeway, Ontario became the site of a raid by the Fenian Brotherhood – an Irish Republican group based in the U.S.  It would be the second of five major raids, the intent of which was to capture and use Canada as a bargaining chip with which to wrestle Irish Independence from the U.K.  On this particular occasion, the press in Port Colborne were all over it:

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

In what would become the largest engagement of the raids, the Battle of Ridgeway would be the only victory for the Fenian Brotherhood.  By battle’s end the Fenians would count roughly a half-dozen dead and 16 wounded, while the Canadians would lose nine men and have 37 wounded.  It was this latter group, naturally, that would provide Norris Black with a unique opportunity to help many with his products – something he was none to hesitant to mention in his advertising:

I can’t decide if he was trying to be funny with that second line. I’ll leave it to you to decide. From the Toronto City Directory, 1867-8.

But then in 1869, just a few years after this ad, Norris Black disappeared.  … and by that I mean I think he died.  Luckily for the city, a man named James Authors was waiting in the wings, ready to take his place – literally.

James Authors moved into Black’s former storefront on King St. E. – visible here, it’s the building with the double awnings at centre-left. All the hoopla in this photo is the Orangemen doing what they loved most – parading about town. Circa 1870s.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

At the outset, James Authors wasn’t the most likely candidate to pick up where Norris Black had left off.  At 41 years of age, he’d spent the previous decade eking out a living by selling lamps and coal oil on Yonge St. But he soon proved just as good a limb salesman as Black had been and in a few years even expanded his line to include surgical implements:

Ah, the good old days when you wanted all and sundry to know your home address. From the Toronto City Directory, 1876.

Most commonly, the “surgical apparatus” of the day was a truss for containing a “rupture” – or hernia, as we now call it.   (Not that you’re asking, but “rupture” in my opinion is a particularly icky term.)  Selling these trusses was particularly savvy on Authors’s part because, as far as I can make out, the Torontonians of yore were constantly rupturing themselves. And, what with the simple hernia surgeries we enjoy today being quite a long way off, trussing a hernia up with a fitted contraption was really the only option available.

… now if you’ll pardon me, I’m just going to knock on some wood because I know I’m probably one awkward-lift away from herniating myself…  (Knock, shudder, knock ).  Okay, let us move on…

Like Norris Black before him, James Authors enjoyed being the sole manufacturer of limbs for some time.  But of course, commerce being what it is, it wasn’t long before others arrived on the scene to make a play for a piece of the action.  The first was a Montreal-based man who placed this grand advertisement in 1873:

Frankly, I don’t care what he was selling – his name was doing him no favours. From the Toronto City Directory, 1873.

I don’t know how much Toronto business it garnered Gross, but it couldn’t have been much because this was the extent of his advertising campaign and his listing in the city directory was gone a year later.

But a second, much stronger competitor arrived in the form of one William H. Swinbourn in 1880 :

I’m quite taken with this ad – I enjoy that it illustrates the ability of the hand to sign Swinbourn’s name. Better still, it tells you what the others fail to mention: what the limbs were made from. From the Toronto CIty Directory, 1883.

Swinbourn was certainly a worthy competitor but by 1884 he too had disappeared.  If this cheered James Authors any, he wouldn’t have long to enjoy it -the same year brought Charles Cluthe to town.

Charles Cluthe was a German born inventor who’d made a name for himself in Berlin by designing a popular truss for ruptures.  On the heels of this success, he emigrated to Hamilton, Ontario in the 1870s and built up the foundation of a successful Canadian business.  Seven years later he came on to Toronto, ready to break into a larger market.

I don’t know what that thing is – and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know. Whatever it is, it’s obviously something Cluthe imagined the public could easily identify. From the Toronto City Directory, 1884.

Charles Cluthe’s line of products soon grew considerably, and before long there was almost no item he couldn’t offer:

This particular ad was, of course, directed at doctors – thus the medical jargon. Though you don’t have to be a doctor to see that that skeleton’s got issues. From the Canadian Practitioner, Vol. 16., 1891.

Charles Cluthe’s name soon became so well known that he was able to take his show on the road.  … Oh the excitement folks must’ve felt when they saw this notice in the paper:

“Charles Cluthe’s coming?  Here?”  From the Sarnia Observer, June 14, 1895.

While Cluthe was busy building his empire down the street, James Authors was steadily working on his own.

In 1884, Authors took on a partner named John Cox.  Cox was a fairly well established optician who’d had a steady business for some 15 years.  Considering that opticians of the day did a good business in artificial eyes, you can imagine that such a partnership would’ve been a good fit.  (There’s a joke there somewhere.)   Just the same, Authors and Cox ads focused exclusively on the prosthetic limb side of the business:

This was a very popular illustration at the time – you can see the same drawing used in Cluthe’s ad above. Why it was considered an enticement is beyond me. From the Daily Mail and Empire, October 26,1895.

By 1895, Charles Cluthe began to feel that Toronto – like Berlin and Hamilton before it – was getting to be too small a pond.  And so he picked up and moved to New York where he achieved even greater renown, and would soon become the largest truss manufacturer in the world.

With Cluthe’s departure Authors and Cox regained their position as Toronto’s best known dealer in artificial limbs.  Even after James Authors’ death in 1909, the Authors and Cox company continued to thrive, providing Toronto hospitals and citizens with much need rehabilitation aids throughout the First World War and well into the 1920s.

15 thoughts on “Of Lives and Limbs

  1. Brilliant! Thank you for feeding the anatomy nerd in me. Speaking of hernias and trusses — and you were — I just learned that Andy Warhol had such a severe hernia (a result of being shot in the abdomen in the 1960s) he was forced, for the rest of his life, to wear girdles to hold the hernia in place. I had no idea. So hernia-trussing, not obsolete. Finally! Someone to share this odd bit of trivia with … thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating, as usual. “…you don’t have to be a doctor to see that that skeleton’s got issues.” LOL

    I’m reminded of all we should be thankful for, in this day and age of cutting-edge technology (and anaesthetic)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so happy you enjoyed it! And I’m with you – so grateful we live in the age we do. There are some facets of living in the past that I romanticize and can be wistful about – but medicine and medical contraptions are not amongst them 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So interesting! I mean, all your posts are interesting, but medical history is one of my favourite subjects, so this really appealed! Is the blobby thing perhaps a hernia? Even if it’s not, perhaps Cluthe and Gross should have switched names, because Gross would be a better accompaniment to the mysterious unpleasant blob. Trussing sounds absolutely grim, and some (all?) of the testimonials seem somewhat suspect…when I read the one about the lady being “rolled to the table for three years” I pictured someone actually rolling her into a ball and pushing her along (which would admittedly be an impressive acrobatic feat for someone with spinal troubles). It took me a minute to realise they probably meant she was “rolled” in a wheelchair.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought this one might be right up your alley – so glad you liked it! Ugh, I fear you’re right and that probably is a hernia. Definitely Gross 🙂 And I agree, some very suspect testimonials. By the way, I loved your robot post – and George especially! I haven’t been able to ‘like’ or comment on it yet though because I’m in a small town in Mexico and the Internet is spotty here and Reader keeps freezing up on me. I look forward to being able to comment properly soon 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Most interesting and enjoyable. I will keep watch for further written work issued from your “hand”. Speaking of which, I don’t think the limb manufacturer was using “hands” as a double entendre, I think he and many others back then would use hand or hands in their adverts as a pronoun, subtly indicating workers of unspecified gender- but likely not men but possibly boys and/or women
    I think the drawing of the unidentified human body part (that most in the 19th and all previous centuries would recognize) is a “club foot” (I distinctly see a perfectly good heel).Thank heaven we don’t see this anymore; it remains a common birth defect, but it’s routinely corrected via repeated orthopaedic surgeries.

    I share your evident interest in old Toronto stuff. My line of work regularly has me set up in the most unusual parts of old Toronto buildings and churches at the most unusual of times. In the late 90’s I had to add organ parts and pipes to the instrument in St. James’ Cathedral, Church and King Streets (Toronto’s oldest unchanged address). What a thrill to have had the whole building all to my own for a few months after they closed it for the day….fo including the crypt, where I had to work many graveyard shifts, alone in the dark recesses of the old foundation, always wary that only a few yards away Bishop Strachan ( who stood up to the misbehaving, invading Americans in the war of 1812) is interred along with Dean Grassett and his wife. I was told it’s estimated there remains about 5,000 dead of the very earliest inhabitants of York, buried all around the Church grounds and under the church itself, all unidentified and left to Rest In Peace in spite of the entire Church graveyard contents transfer to St. James Cemetary near and around the necropolis about the year 1870. I have so many stories under my belt about old stuff, incidents and discoveries while working on pipe organs in Toronto, I sometimes think I should write about it. But I have almost no time.

    Thanks for reading and thanks again for sharing your writing and materials.


    1. Thank you for your kind note. I’m so glad you enjoyed this post.
      Your work sounds fascinating – and how wonderful that it allows you a “behind-the-scenes” view of some of our most remarkable sites.
      You should most definitely write and record your stories – they would no doubt offer a unique perspective, and be of interest to many Torontonians. Here’s hoping you will find the time to write them soon.
      Thanks again for sharing. All the best, Katherine


      1. Thanks very much for acknowledging my comment. I’ve now read three of your earlier blogs and I’m really looking forward to reading all of them. My intuition suggests you’re on the cusp of acquiring a much larger reading audience or venue.

        Please do not feel obliged to respond to my comments….I can be a bit much and I don’t want to impinge unnecessarily on your time.


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