Once at a writers’ workshop I was scolded for making 19th century people act like moderns. At the time I was a very sensitive writer and felt briefly that she’d exposed some great flaw in my writing about a gay missionary so I said very little in my defense. Racing home that night I re-read Walt Whitman and the case against Oscar Wilde and felt re-assured that people are people (just like Depeche Mode once sang about).
Any time I come across someone who says people were better in the 19th century I turn their attention to a couple of great books by Thomas P. Lowry, MD that at least give us insight into the manly side of human frailty. Let’s have a short look into the highly entertaining and informative The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell Sex in the Civil War:
Captain M.G. Tousely wrote a long letter directly to the president, complaining of the catalogs of obscene material being sent to the troops, and enclosed a sample catalog thus preserving the material for posterity in the National Archives . . .The flyer from Richards and Roche . . .features “New Pictures for Bachelors” including a “party of beautiful young girls” bathing in a spring, “mermaids wearing only mist and foam,” “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” showing the “naked charms” of the evil ones, and “Storming the Enemy’s Breastworks” in which a Union soldier makes “an indelicate assault” upon a Southern girl.
The Hoskins catalog offered other merchandise as well: “spicy” song books, French tobacco boxes (in the shape of human manure), marked playing cards, transparent playing cards watermarked with naked women, French ticklers, love pwders, false moustaches, didos, three types of condoms, and stereoscopic pictures . . .
For only $3 a dozen, the soldier could receive, post paid, cartes de visite of “London and Paris voluptuaries,” portraying “the mysteries and delights of naked femail beauty, male and femaile together and separate.” The pieces de resitance were microscopic photos, set in stick pins, showing, when held close to the eye, “two or more figures photographed from life, engaged in sexual enjoyment.”
So much for the purity of gentlemen in the 1860’s! But knowing this doesn’t make me a cynic. I like knowing that people were just as real back then. What I admire about the Victorians is not that they attained perfection, but that they had a hope that with God and then science that they could improve themselves and others. They had standards. I’m not certain we have them anymore.
The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell (sex)
Tarnished Eagles (courtmartial cases with tons of sex, fights, drugs and all round bad behavior–very funny–great cuss words as well!)
Both by Dr. Lowry