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“Your body is a temple,” our ancestors told their pubescent youngsters. ‘Now go take a cold bath”
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
But the most crucial questions of delicacy revolved around “the natural functions” (excretion), “lying in” (childbirth), and that other activity for which not even a euphemism was possible. Old people left over from a coarser age were likely to distress their descendants by speaking of childbirth as if it were something that happened in a bed, not in heaven, or by guffawing and winking when the conversation turned to newlyweds. Bundling, that cozy custom of the colonials, was out. The very memory of it was shocking. From the lygo’s on, every family strove to possess a parlor sofa, but even though it was narrow, upright, and covered in slippery horsehair, it could prove a trouble spot if one had teen-age daughters in the house. The European institution of the chaperon was scarcely known in this country until after the middle of the century. Young ladies were supposed to guard their own virtue. In the i84o’s Dr. William Alcott, a cousin of Bronson Alcott, advised boys to watch for the slightest hint of “loose conduct” in girls and flee immediately if anything like it appeared.
Children were thought sexless, like cherubs
Mrs. Lydia Sigourney, known as the Sweet Singer of Hartford, was full of advice for parents. She assured her readers that children are by nature delicate (in the moral sense) “unless contaminated by evil example. … Let this feeling be respected where it exists and implanted where it does not.” And as an example of childish delicacy she told of a little boy who had chosen “of his own accord the most delicate manner of revealing a common pain” by announcing, “I am tired under my apron.”
Mrs. Sigourney believed that children are born modest and “shrink from exposure of their persons.” Perhaps that was the case in Hartford, but at about the same period in Cambridge, Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne were giving their small boy and girl “air baths,” which meant having them run about naked in a fire-heated room before bedtime. Since Mrs. Hawthorne was a rigid prude who edited her husband’s work for words like “belly,” we must surmise that she subscribed to a prevalent theory that children are entirely sexless, like cherubs, and if kept uncontaminated will remain so at least until puberty and, with luck, until they are married.
To pretend that sex did not exist seems to have been a common Victorian practice. Writing of his i88o’s boyhood, the noted educator Henry Noble MacCracken recalls that on Sunday mornings the three MacCracken boys—aged about ten, twelve, and fifteen—and their eighteen-year-old sister all got into bed with their parents. He and his brothers snuggled close to Mamma, “who was warm and soft and comfortable all over,” while their sister, a Bryn Mawr sophomore, was cuddled by Papa. And in this surprising tableau they all remained until time for church.
If children asked about sex, their indelicacy was attributed either to an evil influence—a servant or naughty playmate—or to “bad blood” (but, of course, that could hardly be the case with one’s own children). The bad influence must be removed at once and the question responded to in a stern tone with “You are too young to understand” or “You must never talk about such things.” In Hints for the Nursery (1863) Mrs. C. A. Hopkinson had an ingenious suggestion: A child early asks questions of his mother in relation to his own existence, which cannot be answered except by referring the subject in general terms to God. … It will be necessary for you to show him, using unintelligible terms, that you are quite right in saying he is too young to understand. … Say: “If you remember, the animal kingdom is divided into several parts. Of these parts, the mammalian do not, like the oviperous portion, perpetuate the race by the deposition of…” By this time, the little face shows great mystification.
Between-meal snacks fed the lower instincts
As the nineteenth century wore on, Americans devised ever more ways of being delicate. The Bazar Book of Decorum (1870) decreed that delicacy forbade the announcement of a birth in the newspaper, as was the custom in crass old Europe. Male friends of the new parents might call on the father but must not see the mother for four or five weeks. If possible, older children in the family should be sent for a visit with Grandma, returning to find that angels have brought them a tiny sister or brother. A baby shower would have been unthinkable—that is, before the birth—for when a woman was enceinte (it sounded more respectable in French), she did not speak of it, and neither did her friends.