Blowena: A Sideline Cure for Deafness

During the early twentieth century, a man by the name of George P. Way set up his “Artificial Ear Drum Company” in Detroit, Michigan. The company advertised patented eardrums that Way boasted could restore hearing loss even after twenty-five years. Tiny and invisible, these eardrums increased amplification while providing the wearer immense comfort, as an 1907 advert declared:


In one advertising pamphlet, Way claimed he was an engineer and explained before he invented his eardrums, he had been deaf and desperately sought out various cures. What he omits, however, is that his eardrum was actually the invention of his wife, Frances M Way, who graduated in 1902 from the Detroit Homeopathic College. Frances’ name is also on the holder of the eardrum patent, U.S. Patent No.902785 (granted November 3, 1908). According to the patent specifications, the “invention relates to an improvement in invisible ear drums, show in the accomear and to serve as a support for the ossicles,” particularly in cases of eardrum ruptures.

F.M. Way Patent, INVISIBLE EAR DRUM. Filed April 6, 1908; Patented November 3, 1908.

These eardrums cost $5 a pair and could be ordered through the mail.

Way Order Form.
From: Detroit Historical Society Digital Collection

For another $5 an individual could also purchase Way’s “very unique instrument,” the “Blowena.” Portrayed as a “catarrh cure,” Way intended it to be sold as a sideline for eardrums in order to relieve a person’s deafness.

Courtesy of Phisick Medical Antiques
Courtesy of Phisick Medical Antiques

The Blowena is a small plastic device with a rubber hose attached, about 2 ½ inches in length.  A patient was to blow air from their mouth through the hose, attaching the other end up a nostril. A medicated sponge was contained in the opening to deliver the required medicaments for treating catarrh, hay fever, cold in the head, flu, or any irritation of the nose and throat that were symptomatic of deafness.

Courtesy of Phisick Medical Antiques

Numerous individuals testified to the ingenuity of both the medicated eardrums and Blowena; Way also wrote to some of his clients. In a 1922 letter for instance, Way writes to a “Mr. Thing” with a special offer for purchasing the eardrums and Blowena:

I again extend to you our special offer, of a complete outfit of our artificial eardrums, with full instructions, also our Catarrh blowena for head noises and catarrh, for the price of Seven Dollars ($7.0) and shall be pleased to receive your order. This offer is good for ten days.

1922 letter from George P. Way to Mr.Thing. From:
1922 letter from George P. Way to Mr.Thing.
From:  Detroit Historical Society Collection 


The Audiphone

I wrote a new entry over at Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader:

On September 1879, Richard Silas Rhodes (1842-1902), president of a publishing company in Chicago, received a patent for his “Audiphone for the Deaf” his various improvements to the device. (U.S. Patent No. 319,828). Rhodes had conductive hearing loss[1] for twenty years following a bout of illness and was frustrated with his continuous failed encounters with ear trumpets. He observed he could hear the ticking of his watch when he held it in his mouth, and this inspired his construction of the Audiphone, which exploited the fact sound waves can be transmitted through the teeth or cranial bones.

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Webster’s Otaphone

I wrote a new entry over at Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader:

UK patent #7033, dated 17 March 1836, is the earliest British patent for a hearing aid device, granted to the aurist (19th century term for ear specialist) Alphonso William Webster, for his “curious” invention, the Otaphone (sometimes spelled “Otophone”). In his publication, A New and Familiar Treatise on the Structure of the Ear, and On Deafness (London: published by the author, sold by Simpkin & Marshall, 1836), Webster outlines he was first devised his invention by observing the common practice of cupping the hand to the back of the ear to enhance hearing. He wondered whether the practice could be obtained by “means less troublesome and unsightly” (132).

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