In the days when physicians used to make house calls, the doctor’s bag was an indispensable piece of equipment, as precious as a stethoscope or thermometer, and just as emblematic of a physician’s trade.
A doctor had to take everything with him and so his ’emergency bag’, as it was also called, needed to be huge and well-structured, with lots of internal compartments. It had to be tough, too – ready for that night-time dash in a horse-pulled carriage – and strong enough to withstand a jolt or two without smashing the bottles and vials inside.
In shape, the doctor’s bag resembled the Gladstone – the ubiquitous portmanteau, or travel bag, of the late Victorian era. Constructed from a sturdy frame, stiff leather and beautiful brass fittings, the doctor’s bag unlocked at the top to reveal two deep compartments on either side of the central, leather-lined mouth.
In this large central compartment were all manner of pockets and straps for holding syringes and medicines, as well as enough space for notebooks and papers, and items of more cumbersome equipment.
As the proud badge of the profession, the doctor’s bag was typically expensive. At the turn of the 20th century, one large American version was marketed at $25, equivalent to $650 today.
No wonder, then, that such bags were often given as a gift from father to son setting out on his chosen career.