Sex In The Nineteenth Century
Sometimes we think we aren’t moving along fast enough in the development of a better society. There are a lot of problems out there that need to be fixed, but it seems as if social change moves at the pace of two snails boinking it out on a streambed rock. We have to look at where we came from to see just how much society has really changed. Writing about those older times can be fun too.
For most of the 19th Century sex was pretty much considered a necessary evil. There were many customs surrounding “proper and moral” sex and most weren’t all that great when compared to today. Those customs even crept surreptitiously into the food industry.
It is widely believed that J.H. Kellogg, the inventor of Kellogg’s Cornflakes, did so to provide a nourishing, vegetarian breakfast food for the residents of the sanitarium he managed. Cornflakes did indeed do that, but that’s not the reason he invented them. He created cornflakes to stave off that horrible aberration of the minds of men – sex, and specifically, masturbation.
Kellogg also thought mustard, pepper, rich gravy, beer, wine, cider and tobacco should be avoided at all costs, since these things generated heat in the male organ and therefore contributed to the disgusting and mentally corrupting habit.
I’m not quite sure how that was supposed to actually work. I mean, really, if you take away all the good stuff to eat, drink, and smoke, there’s only one thing left you can do to make yourself feel really good.
By the way, it was a proven scientific fact back then that women were incapable of having any of those immoral urges so they didn’t masturbate.
There were many marriage manuals available at the time, you know, those little thin paper books your mom or dad gave you to read so they didn’t have to explain all the embarrassing and squishy details. They’re usually like computer software manuals. Unless you’re already intimately familiar with the software and hardware, they’re pretty hard to follow and some of it doesn’t make sense.
This one was very clear and concise.
In 1894, Ruth Smythers authored “INSTRUCTION AND ADVICE FOR THE YOUNG BRIDE on the Conduct and Procedure of the Intimate and Personal Relationships of the Marriage State for the Greater Spiritual Sanctity of this Blessed Sacrament and the Glory of God”.
OK, if you haven’t already fainted from reading all that without breathing, take a deep breath or two and keep going. The rest is a pretty interesting look at marital bliss back then and would make for some interesting story plots.
Ol’ Ruthy had some ideas for women about how to act in the bedroom. Most of those ideas involved ways to discourage their husbands from “doing the blanket hornpipe” unless there was no way to avoid it. She even included a quick summary of those ideas.
“GIVE LITTLE, GIVE SELDOM, AND ABOVE ALL, GIVE GRUDGINGLY. Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust.” (the caps are hers, not mine)
Is it just me or is she saying that like an orgy of sexual lust would be a bad thing?
The tips and techniques for accomplishing those goals are interesting, and to some of us may seem strangely familiar.
“Feigned illness, sleepiness, and headaches are among the wife's best friends in this matter.”
If that doesn’t work, the lady of the house should give this a try.
“Arguments, nagging, scolding, and bickering also prove very effective, if used in the late evening about an hour before the husband would normally commence his seduction.”
Apparently, Ruthy understood that some men will not so easily be deterred in their quest to “sheath their swollen saber of lust”. (She didn’t really say that. I just made it up. It is really cool though, isn’t it?)
“Sex, when it cannot be prevented, should be practiced only in total darkness. When he comes groping into the room she should make no sound to guide him in her direction, lest he take this as a sign of encouragement. She should let him grope in the dark. There is always the hope that he will stumble and incur some slight injury which she can use as an excuse to deny him sexual access.”
Ruth also had advice about foreplay.
“If he attempts to kiss her hand, she should make a fist. If he lifts her gown and attempts to kiss her anyplace else she should quickly pull the gown back in place, spring from the bed, and announce that nature calls her to the toilet.”
I suppose the horny guy was just supposed to fall asleep while she was hiding out in the outhouse. Some probably would have, but there’s always that guy who just can’t get it out of his mind and the lady of the house will eventually have to submit. She’d didn’t have to take it lying down though…well, actually she did since anything except the missionary position was considered scandalous if not immoral, but afterwards she should make it hell on earth.
“As soon as the husband has completed the act, the wise wife will start nagging him about various minor tasks she wishes him to perform on the morrow. Many men obtain a major portion of their sexual satisfaction from the peaceful exhaustion immediately after the act is over. Thus the wife must insure that there is no peace in this period for him to enjoy. Otherwise, he might be encouraged to soon try for more.”
So, now you know what sex was like for most people back then. Is it any wonder that in the mid-1800’s, London had a population of about 600,000 and was served by about 7,000 prostitutes. Since about half of the population were male, and probably around 30% or so were under age, London had one prostitute for about every 30 adult males. My guess is they were very busy girls.
Just as it has probably been since the dawn of humanity and will likely continue to be as long as there are humans, there were exceptions to the supposed moral rules.
Lesbianism wasn’t against the law and most lesbians weren’t very vocal about their sex lives because women weren’t supposed to be vocal about anything. In many cases, the “young women’s boarding house” was, in reality, a place where lesbians could live and love in private. There are incidents in the legal records of women discovered in the act, but they were usually judged to be mentally ill and treated as such.
Nearly every town has at least one story of “two old maid sisters” who lived together for companionship. The language of the times is important here. Most women were married before they were twenty-five, so an “old maid” wasn’t usually all that old. At least some of these women were truly the sisters they claimed to be, but it’s probable most of them were lesbians living together.
Gay men did not have it so well. Homosexuality among men had been known for centuries because gay men seemed to write about their loves frequently and in language that left little to interpretation. Homosexuality among men was illegal, and up until the middle 1800’s the punishment for “crimes against nature” was severe. As a result, gay men were forced to rely upon somewhat of a secret language to identify locations where gay men met and then to identify those gay men.
Often these locations were bars with mixed company, but where gay men were welcome. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the public bathhouse served as a place where gay men could congregate in the open, though these were often raided by police under the guise that the bath houses were hotbeds of prostitution.
It is interesting to note that some American cowboys were gay and chose that occupation because of the all-male workforce and relative seclusion from prying eyes. The various navies of the world also have served as a refuge for gay men as long voyages with the all-male crew made liaisons relatively easy, and depending upon the length of the voyage, a necessity to some.
When writing about sex in the past, heterosexual or otherwise, it’s important to use the language of the times. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were no gay men or lesbian women. They weren’t even called homosexuals until 1869 because none of those terms had yet been invented.
Do you know of any other unusual customs from the past about sex? Write them as a comment so we can all be enlightened.