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Getting A Leg Up in the 1930s

Last week we were in Wisconsin helping the in-laws get set up for their next estate sale.   Among all the breweriana, old cars, and used tools where a large number of old photos and photo albums.

When you go through photo albums, you never know what might catch your eye  — and in this case, several photos of this young lady struck a chord with us:

Dorothy Hess

Being one-legged wasn’t the only thing:  to be a young — late teens or early twenties — and a woman, and missing a leg, would seem to be a unique combination.   Was it an accident?  Or was she born this way?

As we pored through the albums, we saw several of her, alone and with family, and the question of how she lost her leg lingered.   But, I thought:  surely, a young woman losing a leg would be newsworthy, so I turned to the online newspaper archives I have subscriptions to.

To our surprise, not only did I find the reason for her missing leg, but it turns out young Dorothy was a nationwide sensation, bestowed with 15 minutes of fame a decade earlier.Dorothy Hess Walks For First Time In MonthsThat is 11-year-old Dorothy Hess in 1938:  this picture ran in newspapers all across the United States.   Dorothy’s leg was amputated the previous spring due to a bone infection.  She took quickly to her crutches, but her loss attracted the sympathy of one of her neighbors.

George Kiebler, president of Milwaukee district council of the U. A. W., lived just up the street from the Hess household.  A plan soon came together.

Newspapers report that “someone” close to Dorothy knew of “a man who procured an artificial leg as a premium for 46,000 cigar coupons.”  For many years — and until very recently —  collecting bands, cards, or labels from tobacco products could yet you prizes by picking an item from the tobacco company catalog and mailing the ‘currency’ in.   But, an artificial leg?   It’s a stretch, but, well, it was the 1930s, and with WWI battlefield injuries still relatively fresh in people’s memories, I suppose a wooden leg might be something you could redeem cigar bands for.

Whether or not the 46,000 cigar coupon wooden leg redemption was true, Kiebler and the Hess family put the plan into action.   Using his position in the UAW to Dorothy’s advantage, Kiebler asked union-members across the entire United States to cut the union labels from their packs of cigarettes and mail them to Dorothy, so that she would have enough by Christmas to procure an 11-year-old sized prosthetic leg of her very own.

And, those coupons started rolling in:  auto workers cut the union labels from their cigarette packs, and the postman brought them by the sackload every day, dropping them off at Dorothy’s house:

Dorothy Hess With Tobacco Coupons

The caption says that, as of October 1938, Dorothy had 43,900 coupons — just 2,100 short of the goal, according to the apocryphal story of the tobacco-currency artificial leg that started the quest.

However: whether 43,000, or 46,000, or 100,000 — the little pieces of paper in Dorothy’s hands would not be able to purchase an artificial leg, nor anything else.

Much to the surprise of the UAW leader, collecting the union labels from the tobacco packages wasn’t the currency needed to purchase anything from a tobacco catalog.

Upon finding out that they were collecting the wrong coupons, word went out quickly to begin collecting the correct tobacco labels to mail them as quickly as possible, in hopes of getting Dorothy a leg for Christmas.

By mid-December, the new influx of the correct tobacco coupons had amassed over 20,000 of the little slips of paper, which were redeemed for cash from the tobacco company.  Using the money, the UAW was able to buy Dorothy her first artificial leg, which was delivered December 19th, just in time for Christmas.

The second photo above, of Dorothy and her brother, was taken that morning.  Newspapers reported that Dorothy said it was “better than getting a new doll”, and that she was “going to practice walking very hard so {she} can throw away {her} crutches soon.”

The photos of older Dorothy, however, don’t seem to indicate she was able to go without crutches very long.  We hope that the 11-year-old-sized prosthetic leg gave her the opportunity to walk for at least a few years, but it would seem that as she grew out of the leg she didn’t replace it, returning to crutches by her late teen years.

It just goes to show you never know what you might find at an estate sale — everything might have a story, even on that connects union workers and cigarette companies to a young girl’s wooden leg.   The estate sale with Dorothy’s photos starts next Tuesday, November 1st.

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Derek

Derek Dahlsad, husband of Deanna, is a collector of many things, with some expertise in coins and postage stamps. He also writes for the Prairie Public program "Dakota Datebook".

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