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Leg Factory: 1916

Leg Factory: 1916

Circa 1916. "Section of lumber curing department." The raw materials for making wooden legs at what might be the Pittsburgh workshops of J.E. Hanger Artificial Limb Co. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size.


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Recycled steering wheels

As a carpenter and woodworker, I was enthralled by this shop. Then I noticed a clever and ingenious bit of recycling: they fit old automobile steering wheels on the threaded shafts of those four big bench clamps - much smoother and easier than the common sliding pins they replaced!

Willow wood

I used to be in the back rooms of the prosthetic shops, whittling away at these wood blanks. Many of those old companies still running today (Hanger included) got their start from the inconceivable number of limbless veterans from the Civil War.

I see stacks of AK (above knee) and BK (below knee) and knee blanks. Someone's working on an AK with a single axis knee in the center of the bench; must have a hip joint with leather belt. Those ankles with the recess for the bumper are still available and widely used. I fabricated these for many a war vet. The machines have changed very little and those benches and vises look very familiar.

A few still wear wooden sockets, which are are heavier than modern fiberglass and carbon fiber reinforced plastics. But if well made, they don't weigh too much more.

I do miss "getting into the zone," working with all that wood and machinery.

I kept all my fingers!


Don't know why I thought of this, but I did. Can you imagine the day this photo was taken that the door was shut on this workplace and left untouched till today? It would be breathtaking to walk in and see the room just as it was left.

I actually read a good story not too long ago about a toy company (Smith Miller) that was shut like that.

A good idea

The shop floor seen here, and others like it in countless Shorpy photos, demonstrates why the development of the simple shop-vac was a huge step forward. I believe our ancestors lived in a world of dust and debris. One day the mental light bulb came on and some ingenious person thought "We've got to clean up this mess!"

Those bench vises are the sturdiest I've seen.

Bison Belts

The belt drive technology shown in this shop was a major factor in the near extinction of the American Bison. Commercial hunters slaughtered thousands daily taking only the hides. Those were shipped east to be made into leather drive belts for factories. Granted, some hides were exported to Europe and some were made into lap robes and Army winter overcoats. Most ended up driving the American Industrial Revolution. By the time this picture was taken, there were probably fewer than 1000 buffalo left. Fortunately, other belt materials were developed.

The Belted World

What a great picture! To see a woodshop with the complete belting setup is a treat. That was how they did it in them days. Machine shops and wood shops were all belted. No breaker boxes, no extension cords, and primarily, all natural light. This seems to be more than just a section of the wood curing department. Looks like all pieces were cut and roughed out here then sent elsewhere to sand and finish.

Casualties of War

200,000 Artificial Limbs Ordered by the Allies
From American Firm

Piitsburgh, Pa., Oct 3. - Fifteen million dollars' worth of artificial legs and arms for crippled soldiers will be made by the J.E. Hanger Artificial Limb Company to fill orders awarded by the English and French governments.

The concern, which has branch offices in St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta plans to ship 250 legs and arms each month till the immense order is complete. The first shipment from the Pittsburgh factory will be tomorrow. Discussing the order, Mr. Hanger said:

"Two hundred and fifty legs a month is all our factories can make now, running double turn. We will be in shape in a few months to turn out 1,200 to 1,500 a month. We are getting out the limbs in the rough, and they will be finished and fitted in factories in London and Paris."

The English and French nations have asked American manufacturers to bid on contracts for 200,000 artificial legs for soldiers. Such a legs sells for about $75.

Washington Post, Oct 4, 1915

A hinge at the knee

From the Hanger website:

In 1861, James Edward Hanger became the first amputee of the Civil War. He returned to his hometown in Virginia where he set his mind to walking again. When a satisfactory prosthetic solution was not available, he fashioned an artificial leg for himself -- a device constructed of whittled barrel staves with a hinge at the knee. It worked so well, the state legislature commissioned him to manufacture the “Hanger Limb” for other wounded Civil War veterans.

Mr. Hanger patented his prosthetic device and his business thrived. He continued to develop revolutionary products, helping veterans and other amputees regain mobility. By 1919, the J.E. Hanger Company had branches in Atlanta, London, Paris, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Mr. Hanger turned his personal tragedy into an invaluable service to mankind. His ingenuity and desire to help other wounded veterans set an unmatched standard for nearly 150 years, touching an untold number of lives.

A room with stories to tell

Windows that let in light and can be opened for fresh air, yet limit the pleasures of a view of the world outside. Perfectly symbolic for a room in which artifical legs are made. And who works in this room with the horrible views, dangerous machinery and beautiful ceiling? Perhaps a large, rough working man with a beautiful voice. And he sings only when he's working, his voice barely audible above the roar of the machines. Naturally he loves a sweet young woman from afar, and someday she will hear his voice and ...
My, oh my, I do love Shorpy! It's better than an old novel!

Faded Finery

I'd love to know what this room was like before the peg-leggers moved in. Just look at that ceiling. And is that a remnant of ornamental moulding on the far-left window?


Given the unguarded belts and motor drives, grinders, and other assorted hazards, this workplace looks like a good place to LOSE a limb. Then we have the issue of dust collection and respiratory hazards. At least there are plenty of windows for passive ventilation, weather permitting. And there on the far left in the back, a fire extinguisher hangs on the wall.


"'Tis a fine peg-leg they be makin' here!"

At least judging by the one on the table. It looks like there are more anatomical ones hanging in the back. I guess it depends on how much you want to spend.

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