There’s an old saw that history is rarely written by the dissipated whore-mongers, which in part is why we might sometimes forget to give the seamier (or steamier) aspects of early American life their proper due.
Happily, a corrective to that usual neglect appeared in a recent article in the Philadelphia Daily News featuring a rare little item from the Library Company of Philadelphia–an 1849 guide to the brothels “in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.” The untrimmed little stitched pamphlet, A Guide to the Stranger, or Pocket Companion for the Fancy, Containing a list of the Gay Houses and Ladies of Pleasure in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection (Philadelphia, 1849) has been digitized by the Library Company for handy reference. The article quotes the Library Company’s curator of printed books Rachel D’Agostino explaining that the little guide was likely distributed among the swells in the upper tiers of the local theatres; the small format is of course both handy and covert: “‘Things like this, that were generally not to be public, that people would want to keep hidden away–birth control manuals, things of that sort–would very typically be small like this,’ D’Agostino said.”
(The most notable of the small American guides to contraception is Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, or The Private Companion of Young Married People, published in New York in 1832 and in Boston in 1833–though Knowlton may have had reasons besides the obvious ones of discretion in choosing the miniature format, since his first book, Elements of Modern Materialism, Adams, Mass., 1829–a handsome octavo in full calf and a substantial 488 pages–had been written while the young physician was jailed in Worcester for body-snatching and met with a hostile reception upon its release, forcing him to load his books into a wagon and launch something of a promotional tour to get himself out from under the expenses of publication. As somebody who has hauled around the equivalent of a wagon-full of octavos, I can tell you it’s easier to haul pamphlets.
But while in New York, Knowlton crossed paths with Robert Dale Owen and Fanny Wright, and lectured at the Hall of Science; according to some accounts (see for instance Theresa Notare’s dissertation “A Revolution in Christian Morals”: Lambeth 1930-Resolution #15, 2008), Owen agreed to sell Knowlton’s Elements if in exchange Knowlton would promote Owen’s Moral Physiology; in reading Owen’s Neo-Malthusian work on birth control, Knowlton saw an opportunity:
Knowlton thought that the contraceptive method Owen advocated, coitus interruptus, required too much sacrifice of pleasure on the part of the male. Accordingly, he began research for Fruits of Philosophy, which provided a survey of human sexual anatomy and physiology, a philosophical defense of contraceptive practice upon utilitarian grounds, and formulas for spermicidal douches, Knowlton’s recommended method. Shortly after he published Fruits, Knowlton settled in the Berkshire village of Ashfield, Massachusetts, where his practice prospered in spite of conflicts with local clergy over his ‘immoral works.’ Knowlton’s birth control manual sold well, and he was prosecuted three times under the state common law obscenity statute for selling it.
But this is something of a digression.)
To return for the nonce to the brothels, a few other scattered contemporary examples of this sort of guide can be readily found in institutions, though certainly the scarcity is notable–the Fast Man’s Directory and Lovers’ Guide to the Ladies of Fashion and Houses of Pleasure in New-York and Other Large Cities, by the Ladies Man, New-York, May, 1853, is held as at the American Antiquarian Society only as “positive and negative photostats of a privately owned copy,” while the Library Company also holds the later Visitor’s & Citizen’s Guide of pleasure & amusement in the city of New York (1880) (perhaps in two copies?). The 1893 Traveler’s Night Guide of Colorado seems held only as a “Xeroxed copy of original” at History Colorado.
Taking the mid-19th century as young America’s adolescent years, it seems perhaps little surprising (at least to anyone with experience with adolescents) that a weird erotic charge seemed latent in nearly every aspect of American life. (It seems little surprise that a ready market was found for a trade in carte de visite photographs of American sculptor Hiram Powers’ best-known work the Greek Slave, despite the sculptor’s protestations that she stood clothed in the garb of moral superiority.)
One notable blossom of sexual awakening in the young American garden was of course the sudden proliferation of the overtly “flash” newspapers or “sporting male weeklies” in 1840s New York, with their coverage of brothels and local scandals–”an extensive sexual underground in New York City”–aimed at the gay young blades of the metropolis and entertainingly explored in The Flash Press: Sporting Males Weeklies in 1840s New York (University of Chicago Press, 2008) by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in association with the American Antiquarian Society.
(Cohen, a history professor at UC-Santa Barbara also published the excellent account of 1830s American sensation, crime, and low-life with her Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-century New York, Knopf 1998; Gilfoyle is a history professor at Loyola University in Chicago, and certainly his 2006 Pickpocket’s Tale and 1992 City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 belong on the shelf of anybody with an interest in American low-life. I’ll add that historian Elizabeth DeWolfe’s 2007 The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories looks at the sexual life of an unmarried factory girl in New England and the sensationalist uproar after her death following an abortion. Beth is married to Scott DeWolfe, one half of the titular DeWolfe and Wood, a first-rate bookselling operation in Alfred, Maine.)
But putting aside for a moment the ephemeral titillation of young blades, information on contraception, abortion, hints to virility, warnings against the dire consequences of masturbation, and first-hand accounts of impotence (and promises of cures for same)–all of this information was available to the book-buying public prior to the Civil War. In my own haphazard way, my bookselling concern has handled titles ranging from the 1847 [et seq.] Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion by “A. M. Mauriceau” (but really by Charles R. Lohman or Joseph F. Trow and essentially an extended advertisement for condoms and for the services of Trow’s sister, the famed New York abortionist “Madame Restell,” born Ann Lohman) or the pseudonymous Eugene Becklard’s Physiological Mysteries and Revelations in Love, Courtship and Marriage; an Infallible Guide-Book for Married and Single Persons, which first appeared in 1842 (and which in 1844/1845 was published bound with Onanism and its Cure), this popular sex manual was amply stuffed with information on contraception, the dread perils of abstinence for men, sexual compatibility, etc.; the work sallied forth under the guise of a supposed translation of a work from a pseudonymous French author, a conceit that is very likely a fig leaf for an original American work.
Homer Bostwick’s 1847 Treatise on the Nature and Treatment of Seminal Diseases, Impotency, and Other Kindred Affections: With Practical Directions for the Management and Removal of the Cause Producing Them; Together with Hints to Young Men (New York: Burgess, Stringer & Co.), begins with a survey of contemporary sex manuals and really hits its stride with numerous case studies of sexual disorders stemming primarily from masturbation: “J. R., aged twenty, naturally of good constitution, in childhood had abandoned himself to masturbation, and with so much frenzy did he pursue the habit, that, although he soon became fully aware of its injurious tendency, he had continued it up to the time at which I saw him first, which was in March, 1844,” etc.
Bostwick’s case studies often include letters from the suffers that deal explicitly with their sexual habits, including a graphic eight page account from one C. R. of Philadelphia outlining his attempts at intercourse while struggling with impotence:
17th.–Breakfast–two eggs, tea and toast; at 11 o’clock, A. M., six oysters, and pint porter; 2 o’clock, dined; 6 o’clock, tea, toast, and two eggs. Spirits not good; felt well, though, after 3 o’clock, P. M.; a train of moody thoughts; went to meet * * *; tried to be lively; laid alongside 3 hours; no inclination; could not excite myself at all by any means; did not at first get nervous, but after 2 hours felt hell itself; drank afterwards freely.
(The distressed C. R. does on occasion meet with an infrequent success–his entry for February 1st notes, “Prolonged excitement. By excitement I mean, sitting on lap, a kiss, pressure of the hand, &c.; felt shirt damp, and continually succeeded by erections–some very firm–some not,” though by the end of the account he writes, “Now, dear doctor, for God’s sake do interest yourself in my case.”)
One could also easily romp through the somewhat more clinical and less anecdotal pages of the Owenite lecturer Frederick Hollick’s Marriage Guide (1850, etc.), which does however in its discussion of contraception attack “a remedy for this purpose, sold extensively by a person calling himself a French Professor, but who is really the husband of a noted Abortionist in New York, who has been in prison for manslaughter” (this of course is an attack on Joseph Trow, brother to the well-known Madame Restell, see above).
You might also lose yourself in the odd byways of the later children’s guide to sexuality published by the eclectic physician and birth control pioneer Edward Bliss Foote, Science in Story. Sammy Tubbs, the Boy Doctor, and Sponsie, the Troublesome Monkey (New York, 1874), one in a series a series of children’s stories published under his Murray Hill imprint; the entertaining didactic tales involve the education of an intelligent young African American boy taken in by a kindly physician based on a lightly-disguised version of Foote himself (the woodcuts of the doctor are clearly modeled on the author), the whole leavened with the zany adventures of two domesticated monkeys (each named Sponsie) whose antics generally tend to point up a relevant physiological lesson.
Foote’s series ran to five titles–each available separately, per the ads in the rear–and while first four titles were well received, when Foote attempted to put sex education on similar rational footing with The Gymnast Tubbs (the final volume in the series and the only one in this set to have its cover stamped “A Book for Private Reading”) many journals refused to notice the work–while those that did roundly denounced it. In this volume, the young Sammy Tubbs has become a respected lecturer on physiology, at one point addressing a crowd of young women on healthy sexual function; much is also made of the importance of intermarriage of the races to improve the stock–here going so far as to include a romance between Sammy and a well-bred young white woman. (The woodcut illustration of a singing labia and vagina was soon canceled in later issues of the title.)
All of this is just to say that sex was very much on the minds of many early Americans (and I haven’t even glanced yet at the reforming efforts of Rev. John Robert McDowall, who in the 1830s evidently saw a Magdalen lurking behind nearly every door of Manhattan, and whose efforts to rescue fallen women were met with such derision–and certainly no charitable organization’s annual report met with as many published satirical responses as that of the New York Magdalen Society, which was answered by titles ranging from ranging from The Magdalen Report: A Farce in Three Acts by Peter Pendergrass (1831) to The Phantasmagoria of New-York: A Poetical Burlesque Upon a Certain Libellous Pamphlet . . . Entitled the Magdalen Report (1831) to Orthodox Bubbles (Boston, 1831)–all of which hounding, on top of being defrocked, seemed to hurry McDowall into an early grave in 1836).
But anyone who wants to dig more deeply into this fertile subject (as it were), this bookselling concern leans on a short shelf of reference material. In addition to the Gilfoyle and Cohen and Horowitz titles noted above, everybody should secure a copy of the excellent three-volume Annotated Catalogue of the Edward C. Atwater Collection of American Popular Medicine and Health Reform, available here and an excellent introduction to 19th century American popular medicine, including American sexuality and physiology. There is also Janet Farrell Brodie’s Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell University Press, 1997), see here and here; and Angus McLaren’s Impotence: A Cultural History (University of Chicago Press, 2007), see here. The late librarian of the American Antiquarian Society, Marcus A. McCorison, compiled a handy list, “Risqué Literature Published in America before 1877,” available as a PDF here. One might also back into the subject indirectly with the handy bibliography by Ralph McCoy, Freedom of the Press (Southern Illinois University Press, 1968). Other scholarly work abounds–I haven’t even glanced at the recent work by historians like Jen Manion on 19th century cross-dressing and transexuality, see the excellent blog here–but these will do to get started.