Prosthetic Legs, Plain Speech, and a Borrowed Suit

Odd questions arise when you’re writing historical fiction. What kind of prosthetic limbs were available to World War I veterans in 1919? Of what were they constructed and what did they look like? That was one set of questions I had to answer when I was writing my second novel, The Door Behind Us (due out in a month or so.) The novel is set mostly in 1919 and 1920. To get a feel for the time and locations that figure in the novel, I visited libraries, read historical documents, bought one obscure and expensive privately printed account of the operations of the Friends Ambulance Unit, and spent a lot of time searching the web.

It turns out that prosthetic limbs were still crude in 1919. They were heavy compared to the limbs available today and not particularly flexible. One manufacturer of products that would have been available to an amputee in 1919 was the Ohio Willow Wood Company of Mt. Sterling, Ohio. They still manufacture prosthetic limbs today. As the name suggests, they made legs out willow wood. Willow, it turns out, is light, resistant to cracking, and even grained. (It also looks good, a factor which figures in my story.) Better options for amputees didn’t really begin to appear until World War II.

Other questions I had to answer for The Door Behind Us had to do with Quaker plain speech. In 1919, many Quakers still used plain speech, which involves the use of the singular (familiar) form of address as opposed to the plural (formal), and substitutes words like thee and thine for you and yours.  For Quakers, the use of plain speech is a testimony, a way of demonstrating one’s beliefs with one’s actions, and a part of the testimony of simplicity. One of my characters in The Door Behind Us is a Quaker. He drives an ambulance for the American Friends Ambulance Unit, a fictional organization based on the real-life Friends Ambulance Unit, which operated in France during the Great War. His father uses the plain speech.

My fascination with this dialect comes from my own experience listening to my grandmother’s plain speech as a child. I thought it exotic and beautiful. I regret that it is rarely heard anymore, even among the Quakers.

In researching the Friends Ambulance Unit, I ran across an interesting anecdote. In 1947, the Quakers, as represented by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the British Friends Service Council, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their service and efforts to promote peace. The award was accepted by Henry Cadbury, a relative of the chocolate-manufacturing Cadburys. Perhaps not surprisingly for a Quaker raised in the tradition of the testimony of simplicity, Cadbury did not own a long-tailed coat appropriate for the award ceremony. He appeared in a suit borrowed from an AFSC warehouse, which had been collected in a charity drive for the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s