Selection of ear trumpets and related devices from the turn of the 20th century - including a “cane trumpet”!
The first description of an ear trumpet-type device to assist the hearing was recorded in the 17th century, but handheld hearing aids were not commonly used until the mid-19th century. Many early hearing aids were massive and bulky, receiving sound in the center of a table, and discretely (or as discrete as one can get with a device like that) running a tube to the ear of the person who needed assistance hearing.
For much of the 19th century, there was a struggle to balance functionality (which required a large “bell” at the receiving end of the tube, in order to work best) and size. Ladies in particular were not easily persuaded to use anything that would give away their disability in an obvious manner, and they often opted for “hearing fans” and smaller “ear discs” (which effectively increased the size of the outer ear, much like cupping your ear with your hand). Hearing aids were often disguised by wigs or hats.
Until the advent of the telephone in 1898 and the beginning of the development of the mechanical hearing aid that was the standard for almost the entire 20th century, the most effective ear trumpet was actually one of the cheapest. Barring extravagant and bizarre contraptions that weren’t sold commercially, the expensive discs, tubes, and other aids were all bested by the basic, full-sized tin ear trumpet, in terms of portability, effectiveness in amplifying sound, and ease of use.
Want to learn more about ear trumpets and deafness in the 19th and 20th centuries? Of course you do! Go to “Deafness in Disguise” from the Bernard Becker Medical Library at Washington University School of Medicine.
Images from Charles Lentz & Sons Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of Surgical Instruments. Ca. 1885-1890.