History: Wakefield Man Injured in Accident Invented Aids for Handicapped in 1800s
A twist of fate transformed his life, prompting this nineteenth century resident to invent solutions for the handicapped.
The Independence Day festivities and the fireworks over Lake Quannapowitt called to mind the memory of an early manufacturer of fireworks for the town’s Independence Day celebrations.
Joshua Whittemore, born in Boston in 1814, was a member of a family that had achieved some prominence as manufacturers of shoe polish and shoe machinery. His parents had been married in a ceremony performed by the Unitarian minister Reverend William Emerson, whose son Ralph Waldo Emerson would achieve some fame of his own.
Joshua was an enterprising young man and started his career by serving as a sailor on ships departing Boston harbor. By the time he was twenty, he had entered his second career: now he was a carpenter and a roofer. Having worked on a team that sheathed the Massachusetts State House with its copper dome, he branched out into the specialized field of installing metal roofs on homes and buildings.
In 1849, he moved to the town of South Reading, where he built his own house on the south side of Cowdrey’s Hill, in an area now named Chestnut Street. It was one of the first houses to be erected in this area, and must have seemed an ideal place to both build his home and his factory. Here he established his many industries, one of which was the manufacture of fireworks, leading to his delighting the town with very special exhibitions of fireworks over the South Reading Common.
Whittemore would achieve real prominence, however, as an inventor. In the year 1850, just after moving to South Reading, he tragically lost his leg in a railroad accident. Thereafter, he dedicated much of his prodigious energy to inventing and perfecting ways to make his life easier, and sharing these solutions with others. Beginning in 1862, he patented and manufactured special crutches and aids for the disabled, much appreciated by many of those disabled in the Civil War.
Perhaps his best achievement was the elastic crutch; many people described it as the best crutch ever invented. It was exhibited by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in Boston in 1880, where it was recognized as “worthy of praise. The elastic springs under the arms give great relief to the wearer.” Lightweight and foldable, they represented an important improvement to the lives of many. Later that year he patented a celluloid crutch top and still later patented the “Lean on Me Crutches,” all manufactured at a building behind his home on Chestnut Street.
Whittemore was an important figure in the town’s history, credited with laying out Chestnut Street from Cedar Street to Prospect Street. He was active in the life of the town, serving on town committees, including the one that planned the celebration commemorating the change of the town’s name to Wakefield.
He was also an abolitionist and an advocate of equal rights for women. He actually won some write-in votes for state representative in a contested election between the incumbent, Lucius Beebe (393 votes), and his nearest challenger, Azel Ames (382 votes).
The home that Joshua Whittemore built still stands today, at 95 Chestnut Street, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The house stands at the corner of Chestnut Street and a side street once known as Berlin Terrace. At the beginning of World War I, the town decided to change the name of that street, known now as Whittemore Terrace.