Sex (in context)

One of the most vital jobs of the historian is to place the lives of people and events in context of their times.  As such I will occasionally post blogs from some of my publications to provide a better understanding of the world in which people like those of West Terre Haute lived.


Sexuality in the 19th Century

Throughout history human sexuality has been alternately ignored, obfuscated, hidden, glorified, swept under the rug or lied about. That notwithstanding, sexuality is indeed a fact of history and one that cannot be ignored. As such, knowledge about the history of sexuality, if deployed properly, can play a subtle but important role in understanding characters and adding to well-rounded historical understanding.

Why Sex?

Sex is a basic drive for the vast majority of humans. However, its enjoyment and “use” were often made more “palatable” by emphasizing its procreative “results” within marriage. In this view, held by many in the 18th & 19th centuries, intercourse was seen primarily as a vehicle to create life, not simply to be enjoyed for its inherent pleasures. Thus, sex outside marriage (the only proper state in which a child could be brought into the world) was wrong. Traditionally this had the double benefit of emphasizing the purpose of sex and “channeling” it into its proper place within marriage and, by encouraging marriage, stabilizing society. However, by the early 19th century the idea had grown that “marital love,” not just procreation, justified sexual relations. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake was thus becoming acceptable to many.

Sexuality in Early America

America’s settlers brought their attitudes regarding sex with them as part of their cultural baggage. These often conflicted with the moral worldview of those already here—Native Americans. Differing ideas about sexuality was one of the many misreadings of each other’s cultures exhibited by both groups. To most Europeans, Native Americans were “pagans,” wild creatures who bordered on the savage. This view extended to Indian sexual mores. Native American practices such as polygamy and sharing of wives with guests served as examples to Whites of why Indians needed to be brought (kicking and screaming if necessary) to religion and “civilization.”

Europeans often viewed Indian women as “wanton.” They were seen as “lascivious” creatures who wore, to European eyes, conspicuously revealing clothing and who were much too eager to offer up their favors (later, this same image would be applied to Black women). A primary reason for this jaundiced view was that Native Americans seldom equated “nudity or sexuality with sin,” as most settlers did. To them they were just part of life, not hidden shameful things as they were to many Europeans.

The revealing clothing of Indian women often secretly delighted the eyes of Euro-American men, who decried such exhibitionism, but were nevertheless wont to gaze upon the female flesh exposed by wind or weather (Native women often went topless in the summer). This doubtless contributed to the image of “friskiness” attributed to Indian woman, as did their bawdy humor, sexual openness and flirtatiousness. This view was further burnished by another phenomena exhibited in some cultures, the plucking of their pubic hair. This practice often shocked the sensibilities of Whites. So much so that Thomas Jefferson reported that many White traders demanded their Indian wives or consorts return to a more “natural” state.

Another misunderstood (even today) feature of some Native American cultures was the berdache. The term (Arabic for a male sex slave) was applied to gender crossing sometimes exhibited in native cultures. Usually men who dressed as women, the berdache often flummoxed Whites whose cultural conceptions only recognized clear division between two genders. Berdache often dressed as women and assumed feminine roles. In some societies they were thought to have special connection with spiritual realms and were honored members of the tribe. Whites often saw them merely as transvestites and ridiculed them.

White’s dismay at Native American sexuality may be seen by some as further evidence of the “puritanical” nature of colonial America. The image of the dour-visaged, pleasure- loathing “Puritan” is a potent American icon. Though there is some truth to that gray picture it is over-used. Not all Americans were thin-lipped repressives who stood constant watch on the sexual behavior of their neighbors. Some reveled in their own sexuality and thought the lives of their fellow citizens were private matters. However, there was a sense among many that sexuality was an area properly regulated by the state and society. This close attention paid to the lives of others was not necessarily meant to eliminate sexual behavior, but instead to “channel it” as a “duty and joy within marriage.” Again, this can be seen as a stabilizing function. One that nurtured society by placing sexual energy within its proper context of marriage.

However, there were many laws to regulate “deviance,” which may basically be seen as any sexuality outside marriage. Punishments ranged from fines and lashings to the death penalty. Some colonies even had laws (such as that Massachusetts enacted in 1631) calling for the death penalty in cases of adultery, though the penalty was seldom carried out. The “crime” of adultery is indicative of several aspects of the prevailing societal attitudes toward gender. It was usually defined as sex between a man and a married woman. Sex between married men and single women or among unmarried couples was only considered fornication and subject to less harsh penalties. By the 18th century the penalty for adultery was reduced to fines, lashings or public humiliation (the scarlet letter, for example).

The death penalty was also prescribed for rape, bestiality and sodomy, though again it seldom enforced after the 17th century. As D’Emilio points out, sodomy was not defined purely as a “homosexual” act, but included other “unnatural,” or non-procreative acts between men, women or animals (bestiality). “Sex” crimes punishable by lesser penalties included pre-marital or extramarital sex, illegitimate birth and lewd behavior. Various things fell under the rubric of lewd behavior or lasciviousness. Many historians have encountered court records of locals charged with such behavior. One such case in New Hampshire in 1864 recorded the affidavits of neighbors concerning a Mr. Hardy. Quite a trial to his neighbors, Mr. Hardy was an exhibitionist who was wont to “let down his pantaloons” to expose his “tricker.”

Over time there was a shift in “state” control to that of public or societal “moral” control as opposed to strictly legally mandated charges. However, laws regarding sexual behavior (or misbehavior) continued to be part of state codes. Indiana’s revised statutes of 1831 contained laws against lewd behavior, rape and adultery. Once again, there was often unequal punishment for adultery according to gender. In the Hoosier state, women convicted of adultery were subject to up to three months imprisonment, whereas men convicted of the same charge were only fined.

Concomitant with (or due to) the above changes was the shift in attitude toward marriage. A more “romantic” view emerged in the late eighteenth century. This was in reaction to previously held ideas of marriages arranged for “business” or other considerations, rather than for romantic or companionate considerations. It is sometimes seen as a shift from parental control of the betrothal process to one in which couples and their wishes became paramount. A rise in premarital pregnancies (it is estimated that 1/3 of all New England brides were pregnant in the late 18th century) may have played a role in this process. It appears some couples may have tried to force parents to agree to their choice of mate by presenting them with the fait accompli of a grandchild on the way.

The feminine “ideal” also changed over time. During much of the 17th and early 18th centuries, the ideal woman exhibited meekness and spirituality. Toward the end of that period, there was a shift to physical beauty and sexual appeal as desirable attributes in a woman. This probably reflected the growing companionate-romantic idea of marriage. This more full-blooded view was not to last long however. By the beginning of the 19th century the idea of the “passionless” woman grew. This view held that women were innately less “sexual” creatures than men and were infinitely more modest and moral beings. At its extreme, one 1882 “authority” claimed that females “ have practically nothing of what is understood as sexual passion.” Some believe this was in reaction to societal concerns that women were no longer as “protected” by legal or community controls as previously. From this idea grew the Cult of Womanhood, in which chaste, spiritual women acted as society’s beacons of goodness, which was to dominate the feminine ideal throughout the 19th century.

Sexuality both within and outside marriage varied according to the couple. To some, sex was an obligation to be endured, while to others it was a joy to be shared. A study (albeit one of limited scope) of married women born between 1850 and 1880 showed that 2/3 readily admitted feeling sexual desire (something women were not “supposed” to feel, according to popular belief) and the majority experienced orgasm. Additionally, 84% reported using some form of birth control.

Clearly, couples were having and enjoying sex. And, by the mid 19th century were doing so for reasons other than procreation. Obviously, if procreation was not the only purpose for sex, reproductive control was practiced either openly or clandestinely by many more people than might be supposed.

Reproductive Control

There was a trend toward having fewer children over the span of the 19th century. The average married couple had over seven children in 1800. That number would shrink to 5.42 in 1850 and 4.24 by 1880. The reasons for this drop-off were myriad. Large families were often economically untenable for urban dwellers. For many, maintaining their “middle class” status meant restraining family size. The downward trend was also evident on the farm. Decreased availability of land and increased mechanization meant fewer hands were needed about the farm. Fewer children meant fewer mouths to feed and feet to shod. Though farm families were still larger (though some historians believe rural fertility fell at a greater pace than urban rates) than urban ones, they too were growing smaller as the century grew shorter. Other limiting factors included a higher age at first marriage (20.6 for women in 1800, 24 by 1839) and lower age of women at last birth (38.6 years in 1760, 35.7 by 1840). The declining age of last birth is likely an indication that women were consciously limiting reproduction, especially because they knew of the dangers.

Childbirth, or parturition, was an event especially fraught with peril in antebellum America. Any abnormality might end in disaster. A fetus in the breech or other abnormal position could lead to the death of both mother and child. At times, “difficult or protracted labor” resulted in what today seem barbaric or ghoulish methods of treatment. Physicians sometimes had to perform embryotomies to save the mother. An embryotomy was the act of separation of any part of the fetus while in utero. This might involve decapitation or extraction of a limb to permit extraction of the fetus. The physical and emotional tolls of such procedures were enormous for the mother (and doctor), but few other options were open to the physician. Caesareans were “rarely performed during the first half of the nineteenth century” so one avenue to alleviate suffering and ensure a safe birth was generally closed. In cases when the rare procedure was performed, fatalities often ensued due to infections.

Thus women were well aware of the hazards of childbirth and the wear on their bodies and psyches of repeated pregnancies. And husbands were cognizant of other, usually economic, reasons for limiting family size. Couples accepted that there were two main ways of achieving family limitation: contraception or abortion.


Contraception has long been practiced. In ancient Egypt women resorted to suppositories of crocodile dung, while Greek women coated their cervixes with olive oil (a surprising effective method according to one study). Other methods were tried with varying success over the ages. Little formal literature or open discussion of contraception took place until the mid 19th century. Previously knowledge was often passed privately from woman to woman, generation to generation. It was spoken of in muted tones, in hushed voices from blush-reddened faces. Still the knowledge was there if you sought it hard enough.

The three major (and most known) methods of limiting birth in colonial America were coitus interuptus, breastfeeding and abortion.

Coitus interuptus, or withdrawal before ejaculation, was one of the most popular methods used throughout early America. This often-ineffective method left contraception in the hands of the man (and one in a heightened state), seldom an effective strategy. However, it was widely practiced. One 19th century husband averred he “minded his pullbacks.” An Indiana Quaker husband told Robert Dale Owen, who discussed withdrawal and other contraceptive methods in his groundbreaking Moral Physiognomy, that he and his spouse used withdrawal as their birth control technique.

Breastfeeding, to delay the onset of menstruation, was one of the oldest forms of birth control and widely practiced throughout America. Again its effectiveness varied greatly, but it was a method over which women exerted some control. Some tried the “rhythm” or safe period method with indifferent success. In an age when even physicians were sometimes unsure about which were the “safe” times within a woman’s cycle, it was not a method to be relied upon. Also used during the antebellum period were various douches, consisting of water, honey, and various astringents, among other solutions.

Of course, there were always “folk” remedies and methods. On the Indiana frontier, such fanciful notions as having sex on an incline plane to avoid dislodging the egg, dancing “right smartly” immediately after sex, and briskly riding horseback over rough terrain were postulated and practiced, likely to the chagrin of those trying them.

Victorian Era Contraception

Like many areas of American life, there were “technological” innovations in contraception as the 19th century progressed. A major improvement came with Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization of rubber process. Goodyear’s discovery made condoms more reliable and less expensive. Previously they had been made of intestine or fabric soaked in brine and had been uncomfortable and costly. Vulcanization also “… gave rise to domestic manufacture of … intrauterine devices, douching syringes, [and] womb veils (the nineteenth-century term for diaphragm and cervical caps) …. .” Advertised as “rubber goods” they were available from drug stores, mail order houses, and dry goods stores. There were significant improvements in the various “sperm blocking devices,” like IUDs and diaphragms, which made them more reliable.

Douching was perhaps the most common form of contraception for middle class women of the late 19th century. Solutions used as a “spermicide” included water, both hot and cold, honey, tannin, powdered opium, iodine, and strychnine. Vaseline, which was touted as a contraceptive in the 1870s by Colgate, was also used to cleanse the “germ” (the codeword for sperm used in some advertisements).

To answer the growing ”need” for family limitation an expanding contraceptive industry was in place in the United States by 1870. The increasing openness about contraceptives and their wider availability upset many and campaigns against the “contraceptive entrepreneurs” grew more vocal. The ultimate champion of this view (along with Samuel Colgate who hypocritically headed a group opposed to contraceptives while making money selling Vaseline) was Anthony Comstock. Comstock, an early and zealous “morals crusader” supported by the YMCA and the Society for the Suppression of Vice (in which he was an officer), campaigned against vices of all stripes. He saw contraception as an aider and abettor of vice. Comstock helped push postal legislation through Congress that made the sending of “obscene” materials through the mail illegal. He succeeded in having contraceptives designated obscene matter.

This act and others made contraceptives less available and drove them “underground.” However, they could still be procured, if you knew what to look for and where to look. Contraceptives were still made after the 1873 act, but companies no longer openly marketed them as birth control devices, instead saying they had health benefits, such as using an IUD to “undo” a prolapsed uterus. Advertisements for “rubber” goods and other birth control methods still appeared in papers of the era, but were couched in medical terms and code words. Knowing customers could still go to the right druggist or store to find what they sought.

When contraception failed (as it likely did more often that not) or was unavailable women or couples sometimes turned to their next option, abortion.


Abortion in the early nineteenth century simply did not elicit the controversy or comment as today (though it was rarely discussed as openly). Though not actively encouraged, it was not necessarily condemned out of hand if carried out early in the pregnancy. Many believed it permissible if done before “quickening,” or fetal movement, which usually occurred in the second trimester. The first anti-abortion law was enacted in Connecticut in 1821, but it was basically an anti-poisoning law that stipulated it a crime if the woman was “quick with child.” In essence, the law was aimed at doctors or potion-sellers whose medicines might cause an unwanted abortion. Quickening was the decisive issue every time abortion was raised in court prior to 1840. If the abortion took place before quickening it was not adjudged a crime. Indiana made abortions illegal in 1835, and did not make the distinction regarding quickening. Any abortion was made illegal unless done to save the woman’s life. Again, this appears to have been a case of protecting the woman. The Hoosier law was a rarity. Most “laws enacted between 1820 and 1840 retained the quickening doctrine and attempted to protect women from unwanted abortion, rather than prosecute them.”
Abortion was not considered a significant “means of family limitation” during the first third of the century. It was mainly viewed as a way of avoiding the scandal attached to an illicit affair or birth out of wedlock. However, by the late 1830s a change in the type of person seeking abortions and the reasons behind it, became evident. The rising abortion rate of the period probably reflected a desire on the part of married women to limit family size. It is estimated that the abortion rate jumped from one abortion in every 25-35 live births during 1800-1830 to one in every 5-6 live births by 1850. These figures may be a bit high (evidence is still sketchy), but are indicative of a trend.
Abortion, like birth control information, became more available between 1830 and 1850. That period saw a mail order and retail abortifacient drug trade flourish. A woman could send away for certain pills or discreetly purchase them at a store. Surgical methods were “available, but dangerous” and seldom used. This openness and commercial availability was mainly a feature of northern urban areas. Like much other technological and cultural change, it was later in its arrival in the Midwest, and the average Midwestern woman likely had a more difficult time in obtaining an abortion than her eastern, urban counterpart if she desired one.
It was not, however, impossible. Information and abortifacients were within reach of a woman if she grasped hard enough. Herbal abortifacients were the most widely utilized in rural, nineteenth-century America. Again, networking and word-of-mouth broadcast specious methods. Women who relied on such old wives tales sometimes resorted to rubbing gunpowder on their breasts or drinking a “tea” brewed with rusty nail water. Other suggestions included “bleeding from the foot, hot baths, and cathartics.” Midwives were thought reliable informants and were wont to prescribe seneca, snakeroot, pennyroyal or cohosh, the favored method of Native American women. Thomsonian medicine advocates claimed the preferred “remedy” was a mixture of tansy syrup and rum.
More reliable sources of information were the ever-popular home medical books. If a woman knew where to look the information was easily gleaned. One book, Samuel Jennings’ The Married Ladies Companion, was meant to be used by rural women. It offered frank advice for women who “took a common cold,” the period colloquialism for missing a period. It urged using cathartics like aloe and calomel, and bleeding to restore menstruation.
Abortion information was usually available in two sections of home medical books: how to “release obstructed menses” and “dangers” to avoid during pregnancy. The latter section was a sort of how-to in reverse that could be effectively put to use by the reader. The most widely consulted work, Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, advised emetics and a mixture of prepared steel, powdered myrrh, and aloe to “restore menstrual flow.” Under causes of abortion to be avoided, it listed violent exercise, jumping too high, blows to the belly, and lifting great weights. Clearly, any woman wishing badly enough to abort could find a solution to her dilemma, without relying on outside aid. If she wished to rely on herbal remedies, they could be easily obtained. Aloes, one of the most widely urged and effective abortifacient, were regularly advertised in newspapers as being available in local stores.
Of course, the number of women who availed themselves of the abortion option cannot be properly approximated. It is enough to say that abortion was a feasible, available, and used option; it was a contributor to the falling birth rate by mid-century.
Anti-abortion sentiment grew after the Civil War as the issue increasingly took on moral, ethical and health overtones. The American Medical Association led the fight for restrictive abortion regulations after the war, helping push legislation though statehouses to outlaw abortion no matter the stage of pregnancy. The laws, which were seldom enforced, seemed to have been driven more by medical reasons (restricting what could be done and who could do it), than by religious or moral ones, though those played a role. The net effect was to drive abortion, like contraception, underground. This did not mean that abortion ceased to become a means of family limitation. Like contraception, it was a viable option if you knew where to seek it. Ads for herbal abortifacients like pennyroyal appeared in newspapers like the Noblesville Republican-Ledger in the 1880s. Code words like “indispensable to LADIES” announced that it could be purchased via mail. Other herbal means were long known and easily obtained from drug stores or from the fields in which they grew. Though the laws did indeed protect many women from dangerous, sometimes fatal, poisons, they also pushed some, especially underclass, women to the proverbial dark alleys for abortions performed by the quack and the unqualified.
Sometimes the lack of effective birth control led to tragedy. In exceedingly rare cases new mothers or fathers resorted to infanticide, such as in the 1802 case of an unwed mother in North Carolina who murdered her newborn child. Ohio (later Indiana) Quaker Daniel Beales recorded the case in his travel diary. “there was a summons for a comitee of women to search for a child that was supposed to be live born and put in a hole and covered which was an awful sight and the mother of it taken and committed to gaol [jail] and kept under guard … I went to some of my cousons and to see the crimenel which was a sorrowful sight and not to be forgot and stayed the night at the three springs and the young woman and her sister went off and the guard lying asleep… “
Sexual Commerce

“Sex sells” was as true in the nineteenth century as it is today. The commerce in things sexual was active, profitable, and roiled just beneath the seemingly placid surface of American life.

America experienced a pornography boom beginning in the 1850s. Though erotica had always been an underground feature of American life, technological advancements increased the supply of “pornography.”

Improvements in printing technology allowed for the increased production of inexpensive books dealing with sexual subjects. Cheap novels with titles like Confessions of a Lady’s Waiting Maid and Amours of an American Adventurer in the New World and Old appeared. They joined the old standby Maria Monk, which had been around for a generation and served the dual purpose of being both virulently anti-Catholic and titillating readers with descriptions of nuns and priests having sex. These and similar books became the furtive companions of many of many lonely Civil War soldiers. Their production continued after the war and likely found their way into many hands and to hiding places in many barns, corncribs, and rooms across the land.

These novels often shared the soldier’s knapsack or farm boy’s lair with more “graphic” representations of sexuality. The first photographs may have been of Parisian rooftops, but it did not take long for the lens to seek the nude figure. Photos of unclad women (mainly) and representations of sexual acts were soon available. America’s great internecine conflict also spurred the growth and distribution of “obscene prints and photographs” as inexpensive photos found an eager market. 12 x 15 prints of scenes like
Naked Wood Nymphs” sold for $1.20 per dozen and soon passed into eager hands.

This outpouring of adult material did not go unnoticed. Clergy, reform groups, and individual crusaders saw it as cancerous growth on American society. Like modern crusaders they linked it to their perceived decline in the nation’s moral standards and sought ways to eliminate or ameliorate its pernicious effects. The YMCA, church groups, and private societies dedicated to combating “vice” joined in the ongoing battle (censorship is, after all, an unacknowledged American tradition). The most well-known and powerful leader was the aforementioned Anthony Comstock. The same “Comstock Law” that made contraceptives “obscene” and prevented them from being sent through the mail also made “obscenity” a crime and kept such materials from being mailed (lower postal rates had been another factor in the “porno boom”). As with contraceptives, the law did not eliminate obscene materials, only drove it beneath the shelves and into the backrooms. It was still available if you wanted it.

The world’s oldest profession was also a remarkably vibrant one in the United States (and it seems, in agrarian Hamilton County, Indiana and the rest of the Midwest).

Prostitution was an early import to the New World. Always present, it grew from meager beginnings over the 17th and 18th centuries. By the early 19th century it flourished in urban areas and was spreading to the countryside. Though individual prostitutes and streetwalkers were numerous, the “scene of action’ had begun to coalesce around brothels (a guidebook rating various brothels in cities around the nation appeared in 1859 ), dance halls and houses of assignation. The proverbial “madam” became a part of American folklore. And, she and her charges were to be found in big cities, small towns, and even isolated farms in the Indiana and Midwestern countrysides.

So, prostitution was a fact of life of American culture. Usually it lay hidden or un-discussed, but occasionally its painted face was thrust into the light. One such flurry of acknowledgement occurred in sleepy, backwoods Hamilton County, Indiana when a local newspaper began a four part series exposing prostitution in its midst.

The October 19, 1883 edition of the Noblesville Republican Ledger began the expose under the headline “Noblesville Bagnios (bagnio, originally a Turkish bath, was period
slang for brothels).” It reported that “several” ill-fame and assignation houses existed in Noblesville. Saying they were “well known” to the law, the paper reported they operated “full blast at all hours.” One, run by a “colored harlot” and known as the White Hall, was located right on main street! The paper was particularly offended by the madam’s “swaggering manner” when she sashayed Noblesville’s street with her parading girls offering tantalizing glimpses of what was on offer to the men of the town.

It also disclosed that another house sited near the “colored Baptist church” was being run by a madam who had formerly plied her trade in the tiny farming community of Cicero. Yet another house, a “low dive” called the Stone Front and also located by a church, was presided over by a “sheet iron blonde,” who made sure she and her employees were seen exhibiting their wares at the post office after each incoming mail. Obviously, Noblesville madams were savvy marketers.

Prostitution was not just a city phenomenon. Some, when driven out of town, moved into the fields. The editor told the story of a Mrs. Jack Conner who had maintained a “house” in the southern part of Noblesville until it was raided by police and subsequently “completely riddled and burned down” by outraged neighbors. Prior to the torching of the house, Mrs. Conner “had moved what few traps she had to the Moses Massey farm a few miles south of Noblesville [barely a mile north of present-day Conner Prairie Museum].”
The article went on to say there were other such houses in town and that “fully a score of young girls … walk our streets every night.” Noblesville, it said, was the “resting place for all the scourings of our neighboring towns, where they prosecute such persons.” Those “scourings” included “an old hag and her daughter… a young harlot…” who had come to Noblesville after being driven out of Anderson. The woman lived “upon the earnings of her daughter, an eighteen old girl with “rather a prepossesing [sic] look… at the price of her daughter’s soul.”

As might be expected the article’s shockwave roiled through the county, stirring indignation and controversy. In the second part of the series he editor noted he “must have struck fire by the smoke it [the article] had raised.” At least two of the madams threatened lawsuits or worse upon the editor, who described one as “ one of those oily tongued tempters who has for years been cloaking her ulcerous skin with all the hypocrisy of a persecuted saint.” All the while this “blear, sore-eyed creature” was luring young girls to their destruction. Still another, whom the paper called the “noted nigger prostitute of Noblesville,” was a long time harlot said to be protected by her intimate association with “many of our prominent male citizens [so] that our officers dare not arrest her.”

The paper also charged that Noblesville was home to an astounding 26 “houses of assignation and prostitution” (of varying grades). Of that number “only three colored dives [were] counted.” More worrisome than even this flood of sin was that so little was being done about it. Reliable informants told the paper that even though charges against various madams and houses had been made, they continued to operate without interference from the law.

The article speaks to several points about prostitution and societal attitudes. Inherent in one charge is the (racist) notion that Blacks were heavily involved in prostitution. That they predominated in that sordid underworld far out of proportion with their percentage of the population was an accepted fact to many. Such views also corroborated, in the minds of those same people, the notion that African American women (like Native American women) were lustier, more sensual beings and thus drawn to the trade. In addition to the African American women named as madams, the articles mention the daughter of a local black barber “parading the streets.” It also reinforced in their minds that Blacks in general were drawn to criminality. Ominously, it also raised the “horrible specter” of interracial sex or relationships, both of which were anathema to many.

The lack of law enforcement was also troublesome. It spoke of payoffs to officials for looking the other way, of men in high places protecting an evil in their midst. It also confirmed that it was just not the “lower” orders who consorted with prostitutes as some wished to believe. The fallen woman’s clientele included some of the community’s most upstanding citizens, men of influence and power. For these men to act as protectors of whores and brothels was an indictment of the community, and it must be stopped. In this context, the editor slyly pointed out that under Indiana law owners or agents of those properties housing the offensive profession were subject to fines or imprisonment and reprinted the pertinent section from the statutes.

Another key element mentioned in the article was the luring of young girls to their destruction. Victorian society was full of tales of otherwise innocent young women (especially working girls) drawn into the netherworld of prostitution, or of well-bred girls pulled into the abyss of sin and degradation by lovers or the temptations of the dance hall, theater or drink. Entire volumes were devoted to stories of once promising lives torn asunder by vice. Hoosier author and reformed gambler and drunkard Mason Long penned an entire volume filled with cautionary tales of such occurrences that eventually led the fallen one to dishonor, the insane asylum or the suicide’s couch. It is one of the many dichotomous aspects of Victorian thought that women, who were viewed as lustless, could be so easily drawn into the world of sensuality and depravity. That such things might happen in Noblesville (and by extension, other Midwestern towns) was a horror not to be contemplated.

A third article told more tales of horror (the local schoolyard was being used as a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients!) but also that the clean-up was beginning. It noted that the crusade by the newspaper and its support by readers (the paper printed letters and petitions of support) were having an effect. The streets of Noblesville had become quieter and less lawless, as prostitutes and their customers were being arrested. The final article in the series triumphantly reported that madams and their prostitutes were leaving town, one to the seemingly happier hunting grounds of Lafayette, another to ply her trade in the coalfields of Pennsylvania.

Did the Republican Ledger sensationalize the prostitution problem in Hamilton County? It almost certainly did. Its rival newspaper the Independent accused it of such. It took the Ledger to task saying it had exaggerated the problem and averred it had never even heard of some of those named in the articles, saying “it will require more than unsupported statements of the rickety addle-brained little nincompoop of the Republican Ledger” to convince it that the problem was so huge. Part of that reaction was the ongoing, highly partisan “newspaper war” waged by the publications. Eventually, however, the Independent agreed there was a problem, but just not to the extent the Ledger claimed.

But it is clear that prostitution was an active force in Hamilton County, and not just in the city. The county was home to brothels, houses of assignation (sort of “no tell motels” of the period) and “laundries.” Some brothels disguised themselves as laundries and the prostitutes listed themselves as laundresses. This helped to cover their activities and explain the stream of men coming to their doors at all hours. This also gave cover to the “johns” who could say they were merely taking in their soiled clothes to be washed. It is not difficult to imagine that a young farm hand or worker could use “going to get my laundry done” among his friends as a slang term for his real actions.

A visit to a brothel then was clearly a rite of passage for some young males, though it could be a frightening one. A letter writer described a 1902 visit to a brothel in Union City, Indiana in which his tentative companion grabbed his hat and ran breathless out of the door and straight to the railway depot after “One girl raised her dress up above her head.”

The prostitute’s clientele was not limited to farmhands or workingmen, however. Men from all levels of society, married and single, of all ages, threw themselves into the waiting arms of the fallen women. It was a business carried out in all areas. As the articles bring forth, prostitution was likely found in many towns in the county. It also dotted the countryside. The countryman seeking paid comfort did not have to travel far from his furrow to find it, as the allegation that prostitutes had set up shop within a mile or two of William Conner’s old homestead attests.

The public outcry and renewed law enforcement against prostitution did not eliminate it from the county, merely drove it more underground for a while. It continued. The following year a constable in Cicero was assaulted and left for dead by a patron when he went to clear out a bagnio in that northern Hamilton County town. Within two years a local businessman wrote a letter to the editor again decrying the fact that Noblesville was “infested with… prostitutes who ply their vocation mainly after night.”

The battles against prostitution and other forms of sexual commerce were part of wider vice suppression efforts active in the late 19th century. In essence it was a return to state control of private matters similar to colonial America. Or, as D’Emilio points out, with sexuality becoming more open, more public, it can be seen as an attempt by the state and society wishing to push sexuality further into the “private sphere” and subsequently any “public expression of sexuality was considered… obscene.” Allied with this belief was the idea that “lust was in itself dangerous” to the individual and society. It is such thinking that made the Victorian era synonymous with overwrought prudery and priggishness.

Sexual Health

Another cause for concern about vice and “lust” was that they spread disease, especially what we today call STDs, sexually transmitted diseases. Syphilis, or the pox, was pandemic. Sufferers had little real hope for successful treatment. Mercury, both applied topically and taken orally, was the usual prescription. Given its toxic qualities it would seem the treatments were often worse than the disease, at least in the short term. Of course, as with most other afflictions in the 19th century, patent medicines and quack nostrums claiming miraculous cures abounded. Often the afflicted was loath to visit his family physician. In response to this there appear to have been doctors who specialized in treating such diseases. One such physician visited Noblesville once a month during the 1880s, advertising his visits with ads saying he specialized in “PRIVATE DISEASES” and all ailments of the urinary organ.

Of course, there were other “afflictions,” especially those troubling to male sexual health. “Virility” problems like impotency or premature ejaculation were cause for concern and “treatments” were available. Often called nervous disability, lost manhood or decay, there were the invariable patent nostrums or herbs purporting to be the Viagra of the period to treat the problem. Ginseng, of course, was an herbal cure long known for its aphrodisiacal properties. Period newspapers nearly always contained advertisements for similar “medicines.” A Prof. Harris of St. Louis advertised his “pastilles” as a “Radical
Cure for SPERMATORRHEA AND IMPOTENCY.” A free trial package of the cure, which restored the “natural function of the human organism,” was offered. The pastilles could then be purchased for $3.00 for one month’s treatment, or $7.00 for a three-month supply. Dr. Ward of Louisiana, who used one of the more frankly phallic symbols seen in early ads, sent his medicine in a plain, sealed envelope or it could be purchased at the druggist. There appear to have been no shortage of need for their services.

The bans on “obscenity,” a nearly complete lack of sex education, and reluctance to discuss sexual matters even among families or friends left many couples at sea as how to deal with “marital” or sexual problems. In such an atmosphere what was “normal or abnormal” or even basic information about their bodies and their functions were difficult to come by. Many turned to marriage manuals to answer their questions. For fifty cents in money or postage, couples could obtain Dr. Whittier’s Marriage Guide. The book contained “all the curious, doubtful or inquisitive want to know” and was illustrated with “50 wonderful pen pictures true to life.” Long before Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex or the advent of marital counseling, guides like this were often the only way couples could obtain information to guide them through turbulent shoals in marriage and relationships.

One aspect of woman’s health that has recently been given much attention was the treatment of “hysteria” in women during the nineteenth century. Feminine hysteria, its symptoms included “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, … and vaginal lubrication,” was believed by some doctors to be the result of sexual frustration. Ultimately, some believe, this frustration was the result of the androcentric (male-centered) view of sex which broke down sex into three basic steps: foreplay/preparation, penetration, and male orgasm. As sex was “popularly or medically defined” as penetration and orgasm, the woman was to attain orgasm during coitus. If she did not, and studies have shown that 50-70% of women do not orgasm merely as result of penetration, that was basically her tough luck. A woman’s inability to orgasm in those situations led to idea of frigidity and ‘tension.” The buildup of sexual tension led to hysteria, which one 17th-century “expert” thought ranked second only to fevers among diseases.

One accepted cure for hysteria was the stimulation of the vagina and labia through manipulation, which was to result in “release.” In other words women were “manipulated” into an orgasm. Their “paroxysms” were signs of release. Treatments were often ongoing and women might duly report to their doctors for weekly orgasms. Many women undoubtedly looked forward to the visits, though most doctors averred they found the treatment tedious and without any erotic over (or under) tones. In a society in which women were supposed to be passionless, non-sexual beings, the treatments provided release in more ways than one. For some women, it medically sanctioned desires they were not supposed to have.

Once again, technology made the task easier. Dildos were sometimes used (rubber ones were replacing wooden models by the 1870s), but the real advance was the coming (perhaps advent is a better word choice) of the electric vibrator. It often came as a relief to doctors who often looked for “every opportunity to substitute other devices for their fingers, such as the attentions of a husband, the hands of a midwife, or the business end of some tireless and impersonal mechanism.” It replaced steam-powered (normally used only by specialists) and wind-up vibrators, called a percuteur, as well as a battery-powered one. The vibrator then, was the answer to many prayers, offered up in both male and female voices!

The electro-mechanical vibrator made its first appearance in the early 1880s and was a boon to the treatment of hysteria. It was not only used by physicians but was marketed to women as an appliance and self help aid. Women could now “treat themselves” at home. Historian Rachel Maines claims it was the fifth household appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle and toaster. If so, it shows how desirable and needed an invention it was.

Unhealthy Practices

Though “advancements” were made in sexual health, there were some practices that were considered decidedly unhealthy, both to the individual and society.

Masturbation was perhaps considered foremost among them. Reams of literature were devoted to this “secret vice,” which was thought to cause insanity and disease. Physicians and health reformers saw it as debilitating practice that weakened manhood. They prescribed abstinence, “cold baths, fresh air, and bland foods” to curb its occurrence. Schoolmasters and parents warned boys (similar views were held regarding female masturbation, though as basically “lustless” creatures, women were thought less susceptible to its siren call) of its dangers to body, mind and spirit.

An ad for an 1840s tract called Facts and Information From Distinguished Physicians and Other Sources carefully couched its subject in euphemism but spoke of the “vice which is undermining the health and happiness of many, and degrading them, in some respects, below the brute creation.” It was, it said, “dangerous in proportion to the secrecy and silence which it has been involved.” The ad also carried a statement from a doctor at a Massachusetts’ hospital (possibly for the insane), who had “done much to expose this solitary vice,” claiming that 42 of the 199 patients there were “victims of masturbation.” The pamphlet was a big seller, with twenty thousand copies printed in ten months. The sentiments expressed carried weight throughout the nineteenth century and masturbation was considered a dangerous risk. Male teachers and fathers, especially, would have warned boys of its dangers, likely with much less success than they hoped. One of the fears sometimes associated with masturbation among schoolboys, especially those in all-male environment, was that it might lead to “the still more loathsome… unnatural commerce with each other,” homosexuality.

Homosexuality was also seen as a disease or vice. It is hard to precisely pin down or categorize the extent of early attitudes. As D’Emilio maintains, during the colonial era and the early nineteenth century the “modern terms homosexuality and heterosexuality do not apply to an era that had not yet articulated these distinctions.” The reasons for this non-articulation are varied. Some likely did not believe it existed to any extent, as John C. Calhoun evidently did when he spoke of the learning a friend was a “sodomite” and called it the “first instance of that crime ever heard in this part of the world.” Calhoun’s statement reeks of what one historian has called the “compulsive denial” of homosexuality in early America. During those periods same-sex relationships or individual sex acts occurred or intimate (though non-sexual) relationships existed. But it was not until denial gave way to admission by the latter part of the nineteenth century that sexual relationships became overly stigmatized and gays began to be seen as terribly “different” from “normal” society.”

By the 1880s homosexuality was thought to be a “disease,” as well as a criminal activity. For the vast, vast majority of homosexuals to be gay during this period was a secret to be kept hidden in the darkest corner, or risk becoming one of society’s most scorned outcasts (one need only look at the life of Oscar Wilde for the most public example). One could quite literally take one’s life in one’s own hand to reveal it. Homosexuality was indeed one of the more loathed “vices” of the nineteenth century, one that was whispered about in tones of righteous indignation in hate-filled tones.

But the nineteenth century was not just a time of extreme repression. In essence, repression begat feeble attempts at liberation. The last decades saw the rise of a much misunderstood and vilified movement, one of whose tenets was to ameliorate repression.

The Free Love Movement, which had elements similar to the modern libertarianism, was a rather anarchistic effort to separate government from private issues like marriage and sexual behavior. In essence, it was the “antithesis of vice suppression” that so dominated the
last quarter of the century. The movement came to be identified with leading proponent Victoria Woodhull, a figure much vilified and one who revealed she was conceived behind a sturdy bench at a camp meeting when her illiterate, frenzied, newly “saved” mother was “taken” by her horse-thief father. It opposed prostitution, as a subjugator of women, and male dominance of women in general. It also wished to abolish marriage, again partly because it was another avenue for dominating women.

Many Free Love adherents vigorously adopted the view that sex should be enjoyed for pleasure’s sake (as part of a loving relationship), and not just for reproduction. It was this idea that led to much misunderstanding of the movement as many saw it as merely promoting licentiousness and promiscuity. Because of this, “Free Lovers” were scorned as wild, continuously-copulating sybarites who would only lead society into degradation if permitted to do so. This view ignored the fact that many Free Love advocates and movement leaders more often were “serial monogamists” who enjoyed stable long-term relationships. Their desire was to ensure the “right of men and women to choose sexual partners freely on the basis of mutual love… unconstrained by church, state, or public opinion,” not to turn American into a vast panorama of orgiastic excess. Still, to the average Hoosier of the 1880s, “Free Lovers” were a dangerous breed and their beliefs could do no good for society.
Sex and sexuality, as can be seen, was not an invention of the 20th century. It informed, embarrassed, enriched and effected the lives of 19th-century Midwesterners as it did their ancestors and will their great, great, great grandchildren.


Image19th-century vibrator (Percateir)




Tim Crumrin

Midwest Open-Air Museums Magazine (Spring, 2005)
Not to be reproduced without written consent of author

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