It’s In The Bag
by Jessica Kosinski
Today, we take going to the doctor’s office for granted. It is a thing most of us must do whenever we need a checkup or any kind of medical procedure. However, that was not always the case. In fact, there are some rural areas where doctors still come to patients. Historically, a doctor or midwife (who also utilized this type of bag) had to bring supplies to patients’ homes. Supplies were carried in a sturdy bag that was usually made of leather and often, but not always, black. For that reason, it became known simply as a doctor “black bag” or “little black bag.” Although they are rarely used for their intended purposes today, many early doctor bags have survived. They are now coveted by collectors, especially those in medical fields. Let’s take a peek at the history of doctor bags and how important they were, as well as their values today.
The Origins of Doctor Bags
Doctor bags have been in use in some form almost since the origins of doctors. References to medical bags exist in literature as far back as a treatise by Hippocrates. Other cultures, including the Egyptians, also have ancient references to such bags. However, doctor bags as we know them today did not evolve until a few hundred years ago.
Doctors in nineteenth century England often carried bags when visiting patients. In fact, one of the most well-known bags is the Gladstone bag made by a London leather maker named J. G. Beard. The Gladstone design was preferred for nearly 100 years. The doctor bag was also a well-known item in North America in the 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, it was commonly needed as settlers moved across the United States as there were no such things as hospitals on the American frontier. Even when hospitals began to appear in the West, they were few and far between. Settlers relied on country doctors to help them with everything from routine concerns to major medical issues.
A doctor’s bag had to be strong enough to stand up to horseback riding, carriage rides, and all types of weather. It needed a hard outer casing and easy to grip handles. Most were made of leather and had two handles at the top with a clasp. Some were black. Others were brown. There were also some satchel-style bags that were not the traditional shape you might think of when you think of a doctor’s bag.
Each doctor’s bag was more than just an empty container. It had to have compartments to securely hold all the tools of the trade. When you buy antique doctor bags today, you will find they all have interesting little compartments of varying shapes and sizes. Some were used to hold tools, such as syringes. Others held medications. Doctors acted as traveling pharmacists – there was no ordering a prescription and going to the pharmacy the same day to have it filled. When a patient needed medicine, the doctor usually needed to have it on hand and leave it with the patient the instant it was prescribed.
Medical advancements and cultural differences between countries influenced the contents of doctor bags. Therefore, not all doctors in all eras and areas carried the same items. Although, there were some items common to most doctor bags. For example, items in an 1800s or early 1900s doctor’s bag might include tongue depressors, stethoscopes, and thermometers. However, the stethoscope was invented in 1816 in France, so earlier bags and some bags of that era in other countries did not contain them leaving the doctor to put his ear directly over the heart of the patient or created a type of “tube” to place over the heart or lungs or intestines to listen to what was going on.
Doctor Bags in the Media
Although scarcely seen in practical use today, doctor bags are prominently featured in the media. They are well-known symbols that can conjure up images of early medicine. That is because they feature prominently in many history-based television shows and movies. Some people collect them due to those associations. For example, Dr. Baker on the television series Little House on the Prairie carried such a medical bag, as did Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in the movie Field of Dreams. That presence in the media has helped to keep them popular as collector items today.
Collecting Antique Doctor Bags
There is no single way to collect antique doctor bags. However, you should keep in mind it is unlikely to ever find one in pristine condition. If you do somehow manage to do so, that bag was probably never used for its intended purpose.
Unlike many antiques, bags with some damage are most likely going to be more collectible because it shows they have a history of use. Each doctor’s bag traveled great distances with the doctor. Keeping one in perfect condition was nearly impossible. You must also keep in mind the instruments in the doctor’s bags you collect may be missing entirely, partially missing or not original to the bag. Doctor bag prices can range from less than $100 to several thousand dollars, so be sure to collect within your own personal budget.
When you discover a bag you want to add to your home or collection, it is probably best to check with a saddle shop to learn how to best clean the leather and preserve it. Too much oil can actually damage worn leather, and glycerin saddle soap can dry out older leather, whereas a gentle cleaning with an appropriate restorer is more likely to do the trick.