Deafness in Disguise Washington University School of Medicine Becker Medical Library

Single Page View

Concealed Hearing Devices of the 19th Century

“The deaf are, as a general rule, very sensitive over their infirmity, and hence dislike any instrument which is conspicuous, or makes this condition more apparent; for this reason many other devices have been invented, which seek to conceal this fact, as much as possible . . .”

James A. Campbell, M.D., 1882

Other unusual hearing aid devices designed to help the deaf appeared during the 19th century. The table vase, beard receptacle, water canteen receptor, and acoustic cane were among such devices. Other devices do not readily fit a particular category, but they all have one thing in common – they were designed to disguise the intended function.

Water Canteen Receptor


Hawksley illustration of the Staniland model hearing device
Water Canteen Receptor
According to Dr. Goldstein in his 1933 book, Problems of the Deaf, this unusual device was called a water canteen receptor. Dr. Goldstein writes that this device was custom-made around 1875 by Thomas Hawksley for a deafened African rubber planter who desired a portable, yet camouflaged, hearing device that could be used while on horseback supervising the workers on his plantation. The device, disguised as a water canteen, was intended to be worn on the body with a shoulder strap for support. The sound was collected at the open grillwork and conveyed through a single rubber tube held by the user to his ear.

In the Hawksley Catalogue, a variation of this device was known as the Staniland model and was used primarily as a tabletop device. There is no mention in the catalog of the origin of the Staniland model, and we have discovered no documents to confirm Dr. Goldstein’s legend.

Can you imagine using this while on horseback, holding the tube to your ear and the reins of the horse at the same time?

View a frequency gain chart for the Canteen Receptor
Beard receptacle on model head
Beard Receptacle
The Beard Receptacle is typical of devices designed for men. It was worn with its base resting on the upper part of the chest and its sound collector facing out, hidden under the beard.

Also, at least partially concealed, were rubber tubes leading to each ear. The user had to exercise caution so that the device would not be accidentally pulled while in use, hurting the ears. The manufacturer recommended that a scarf be worn to secure the device.
Beard receptacle
The Hawksley Catalogue states, “These sketches show a new and very powerful form of the bin-aural instrument to be worn beneath the chin and concealed by the beard; or for ladies by a scarf or tie. Springs inside the tube keep them fitted into the ears.”
Beard receptacle
Hair receptor on model head Hair Receptor Hair receptor
Women wore a similar device called a hair receptor. This fabric-covered example was designed to be arranged and concealed within the bouffant hairstyle of the prevailing decade. Originally, this receptor was covered with black silk.
Vase Receptacle
Vase Receptacle
This exquisite flower vase receptacle, made by F. C. Rein about 1810, was one of the earliest types of multiple-sound receptors manufactured. Notice the ornate gold grillwork covering each of the six openings, or “receptors,” which act as sound collectors. The white and gold paint is still evident after nearly 200 years. The center of the device is hollow to allow for flowers or fruit to be arranged within.
F.C. Rein vase receptacle in use
F. C. Rein Vase Receptacle
The photograph above shows the Rein vase receptacle in use.
Table instrument Hawksley Table Instrument
This black metal table instrument is about twelve inches tall. Built about 1875, by Thomas Hawksley, England, it is intended for use on a table. Flowers or fruit were added to conceal the device’s true nature. A silk covered rubber tube leading to the user’s ear was perhaps concealed with a tablecloth, table runner or napkin. This type of device was also known as a table urn, hearing vase, epergne, table receptor, table instrument or multiple-receptor vase.
Hawksley TableTop Vase in Use Table hearing device in use
This photograph, taken in the library of Central Institute for the Deaf, shows the Hawksley Table Top Vase in use. The user, seated second from left, holds the conversation tube to his ear. The vase, with six funnel openings to collect sound from around the room, sits atop the table.
Acoustic Cane Acoustic Cane
This walking cane was the perfect accessory for a dignified gentleman. The handle contains a hollow sound collector that directs the sound to the ear through a reversible earpiece that could be worn in either ear. The user would rest the cane upon his shoulder with the sound receptor in the handle facing the speaker and the earpiece positioned in the ear. Women used umbrellas or parasols with similarly concealed hearing devices.
Hawksley catalog illustration of Acoustic Cane
A detail of a cane head showing the earpiece positioned for use as a hearing device. When used as a cane, the earpiece swiveled under the handle.
Acoustic Cane eartip
Hawksley catalog illustration of the Acoustic Walking Stick
1881 Acoustic Cane patent application drawing
1882 Acoustic Cane patent application drawing
1885 Acoustic Cane patent application drawing
Patent application illustrations for Acoustic Canes, 1880s

“The ingenuity and taste of the instrument maker are required to construct mechanical aids to hearing which shall combine gracefulness of form and appearance without detracting from their efficiency, for the burden of deafness is great and the sensitiveness of the sufferers should not be wounded by the necessity of announcing their affliction to the public by having to use instruments either unsightly in form or objectionable in color or material.”

Hawksley Catalogue of Otacoustical Instruments to Aid the Deaf, 1883

<<  Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next  >>