Shameful Manoeuvres

This week, we had two “mini-projects” of independent web exploration: one on the Victorian Dictionary, and one on medical advertisements located at the British Library. As intended, this was a simple and fun way to dip our toes into Victorian culture, but in a way, it was also somewhat shocking – Victorian London’s soft underbelly was suddenly and painfully exposed, and I almost felt guilty for mercilessly ripping into it. 


We began with the Victorian Dictionary. Since medicine is the focus of one of our courses, I decided to browse the health-related topics. Much of it was quite what I’d expected (though nonetheless brutal for that): tuberculosis, gout, rickets, typhoid, and infant mortality abound. But eventually I came upon a link to a completely unexpected topic: Contraception. I was intrigued; enlightened sexual health practices aren’t something I generally associate with Victorians. The folder turned out to contain only one article, entitled “conjugal onanism.” Ah, our old friend Onan! Though his sister-in-law may not have absorbed much of her Latin lesson, it appears that Victorians took meticulous notes. 

Here is what they learned:

The soiling of the conjugal bed by the shameful manoeuvres to which we have made allusion, is mentioned for the first time in Genesis xxxviii. 6, and following verses; ‘And it came to pass when he (Onan) went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord; wherefore he slew him.’
Hence the name of conjugal onanism.
One cannot tell to what great extent this vice is practised except by observing its consequences, even among people who fear to commit the slightest sin, to such a degree is the public conscience perverted upon this point. Still many husbands know that nature often succeeds in rendering nugatory the most subtle calculations, and reconquers the rights which they have striven to frustrate. No matter; they persevere none the less, and by the force of habit they poison the most blissful moments of life, with no surety of averting the result that they fear.
So, who knows if the infants, too often feeble and weazened, are not the fruit of these in themselves incomplete procreations, and disturbed by preoccupations foreign to the genesaic act?

Augustus K Gardner, The Conjugal Relationships as regards
Personal Health & Hereditary Well-being, 1894

Charming, no? 

My favorite part is the conviction that children resulting from failed contraceptive efforts are innately inferior to intentional children. If you want to produce a robust child, you have to reallymean it. You get out what you put in, apparently, so be careful not to go off half-cocked (so to speak), or nine months later, all the neighbors will be able to tell your heart wasn’t in it. 

In all seriousness, though, it is unfortunate for potential parents and children alike that the 1 sperm + 1 egg = 1 child concept was a long time coming. Perhaps, with a better understanding of reproductive biology, critics might have drawn different conclusions about puny children. This may not be the whole story, but one idea that leaps to my mind is that many of the couples attempting homegrown contraception may have been doing so for financial reasons. Accidents happen, though, and if the parents are on a tight budget, they might not be able to afford adequate nutrition for the mother during pregnancy or for the child during infancy. “Feeble and weazened” could easily mean “malnourished,” so this might partly explain the asserted correlation between contraceptive efforts and weak children.

Apparently poor unintended fetuses weren’t the only ones getting shafted, though. Elsewhere in the Victorian Dictionary is an article on the “Feminine Diet,” which mentions a woman who “never drank anything but water, except during pregnancy, when the doctors made her take sweetened wine.” Awesome

In case the perils of pregnancy are getting you down, let’s move on from misery to absurdity. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, for your edification and salubrity, I present to you… 

Save a cowgirl, ride a thinly veiled sex toy.

Image by British Library Online Gallery

Now, the British Library would have you believe that this majestic implement is basically the Victorian equivalent of the exercise bike. While that may be true, I think the real story is even better.

The image above shows the front and back of a pamphlet; the inside provides more information on the product:

Image by the British Library Online Gallery

The Hercules Horse-Action Saddle supposedly treats a wide variety of conditions, including hysteria. Hysteria was a disorder diagnosed almost exclusively in women, thought to be caused by a wandering uterus. The symptoms of hysteria were varied and unstable, from fainting and muscle spasms to hallucinations and context-inappropriate emotions. One of the primary treatments used to alleviate these symptoms was pelvic massage, in which the physician manually induced a “hysterical paroxysm” – known today as a clitoral orgasm. This eventually became tiresome for many physicians, so they sought other techniques for inducing hysterical paroxysms. With the advent of electricity, a complex electrical apparatus was invented which used vibrations; this device came in smaller and smaller sizes over the years, and eventually a portable version came out, which women could purchase in order to treat themselves in the comfort of their own homes

That’s right: the vibrator was invented for medical purposes. Take a moment to let that sink in. 

Ready? Good. So now, along with your knowledge of hysteria and its treatment, consider the name of the merchant (Vigor & Co.) and the “well-ventilated private rooms” which were “specially set apart for ladies and gentlemen who wish to exercise on [the] Hercule Horse-Action Saddle,” and it all starts to make sense

So, I hope this little test drive has enticed you to join me on my whirlwind tour of science, medicine, and engineering in Victorian London. Just be sure to buckle your seatbelts because, like the Hercules Horse-Action Saddle, it’s going to be a wild ride.

[Originally posted 7/1/10]
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