Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series on the history of Hanger Inc. To see the first, click here.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, wartime created a need for more and better prostheses.
After the Civil War ended in Confederate defeat, Virginian James E. Hanger became a major artificial limb supplier for a reunited nation.
Apparently the war’s first amputee, Hanger, at 18 years old, invented his own artificial leg and then went into business designing and producing prostheses for fellow limbless Confederates. He marketed his wooden leg as the “Hanger Leg.”
His first major client was Confederate surgeon William Carrington, secretary of the Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers. Hanger earned two Confederate patents for his limb in 1863.
Hanger pledged to supply the association with 10 to 15 wooden legs monthly. Above-the-knee models sold for $200. Below-the-knee versions were $50 cheaper, according to Hanger: 150 Years of Empowering Human Potential, a book written by Bob Parks and printed in 2012 as part of the company’s sesquicentennial observance.
A burgeoning business
Hanger had plenty of business. Thousands of Virginians had lost arms and legs to cannon and rifle fire.
In 1867, the Virginia legislature appropriated $20,000 to buy artificial limbs for the state’s amputee veterans. Hanger owned one of the few southern companies producing prostheses and his relatively low-priced limbs earned him not only business but also prizes at the 1881 Cotton Exposition in Atlanta and at the Jamestown, Va., Tercentennial Exhibition in 1907, Parks wrote. He added, “Over the next several decades, periodic legislation continued to grant public funds to help soldiers buy prostheses.”
In 1871, Hanger earned a U.S patent for an artificial leg whose “arrangements of the knee, ankle, and toe-joints … are designed to provide more efficient and durable legs than those now in use.” That same year, he moved his company from Richmond, Va. to Staunton, Va. near his home. In 1873, he married Nora McCarthy, and the couple had 12 children, eight of whom survived, according to Parks.
Like his family, Hanger’s business grew steadily. In 1888, he shifted the company headquarters to Washington, D.C. By 1890, Hanger had opened field offices in St. Louis, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
“It was a decentralized model, and not one that everyone in the burgeoning industry of prosthetics believed in,” Parks wrote.
Hanger’s business model was making him a wealthy man. But he was moved by the suffering of an elderly, impoverished double amputee he often saw begging near the Capitol building, according to Enabling the Human Spirit: The J.E. Hanger Story, a company history written by Chris Ingraham and published in 2003. Both of the man’s legs had been amputated above the knees. He would hold out his hat to collect small change from passersby, Ingraham wrote.
The man was African American. He might have been a Union army veteran and a Civil War amputee, too. The author did not say.
But Ingraham added, “Despite the stigma he knew might come from showing fondness to a minority at that time in the South’s history, it made little difference to James that the beggar was a man of color. What James saw was a man in need of two legs. He took the man in to his shop and fit[ted] him, free of charge, with two of the company’s newest and most functional prosthetic limbs.”
Hanger and the man became more than friends. Hanger hired him at the company.
“It was the epitome of James Hanger’s dream and symbolized the individual care he had sought to provide for amputees all over the world,” Martha M. Boltz wrote in a 2011 Washington Times article that quoted Ingraham’s story of Hanger and the double amputee.
Rivalry and strategy
Meanwhile, as the century turned, Hanger’s limbs continued to sell well. But A.A. Marks, operating out of a single New York office, still claimed to have the largest prosthetics business in the United States.
Clearly Marks saw Hanger as a major rival. A company brochure took a swipe at Hanger’s operation.
“Our skill and judgment cannot be relegated to one in charge of a branch establishment,” Parks quoted from the leaflet. “If we were to establish branches, we would have to place them under the management of others and would, more or less, jeopardize the welfare of our patrons.”
Marks preferred mail order to branch offices. The company distributed cards to amputees who were supposed to take their own measurements by following directions printed on the cards. After filling out the cards, the amputees were to post them to New York with payment of up to $100. Their limbs would be made according to their measurements, boxed up and mailed to them.
“In contrast, Hanger continued a strategy of putting salesmen/practitioners in charge of measurement and personal service in satellite offices,” Parks wrote.
By 1905, Hanger had incorporated his company and handed over the day-to-day responsibilities of running the firm to his sons and business managers. He was still officially the president, but was devoting more of his time to his duties as an elder in the Presbyterian Church, to playing golf and to planning long-term company strategy.
That strategy included improving the first aluminum prosthetic leg, which was introduced in 1912 by English aviator Marcel Desoutter who had lost his leg in an airplane accident. Like Hanger, Desoutter first invented a prosthesis for himself, though the Englishman had help from his brother.
Hanger studied the aluminum leg and began producing similar prostheses from Dural, a lightweight alloy of aluminum, copper and magnesium. Hanger advertised Dural as a metal that combined “Elements of the Strength of Steel & the Lightness of Aluminum.”
A need for prostheses became acute when World War I broke out in Europe in August 1914, between the Allied Powers and the Central Powers. First called the Great War, the global conflict would become the most lethal war in history to date. Tens of thousands of men on both sides lost arms and legs.
The United States remained neutral until it joined the Allies in 1917. Two years before, Hanger traveled to Europe for a firsthand look at the new prosthetic devices. As a result, his sons opened offices in London and Paris.
Hanger lived to see the war end in 1918, but he died in Washington, D.C. on June 9, 1919, at 76 years old. His home still stood near Logan Circle in 2011, according to Boltz’s article.
While Hanger is known as a pioneering artificial limb inventor and prosthetic industry entrepreneur, he “also invented several other prosthetic devices, as well as developing the Venetian blind, an attachable shampoo bowl for barber chairs, a water turbine, a type of horseless carriage (used as a toy for his children), and [he] also held a patent for the planograph lathe, used in the production of his famous limbs,” Boltz wrote.
Hanger’s tombstone in Washington’s Greenwood cemetery tells no tales of the Civil War’s first amputee, of how he devised his own artificial leg and of how he overcame his disability to found one of the world’s leading prosthetic companies.
“The beautiful grave marker of Quincy granite lists only the names of Hanger and his wife, and their dates; there is no mention of the tremendous gift James Hanger gave to the world of the injured,” Boltz wrote.
Ingraham C. Enabling the Human Spirit: The J.E. Hanger Story. Tarentum, Pa.: Word Association Publishers, 2003.
Parks B. Hanger: 150 Years of Empowering Human Potential. New York: Melcher Media, 2012.