S•x Education


Mother’s Help and Child’s Best Friend , by Carrica Le Favre (1890), suggested that one way of stamping out “lower instincts” in children was to forbid betweenmeal snacks; eating brings blood to the stomach, “thereby developing abnormally the lower instincts.” Kite flying and a little club swinging before an open window would develop the higher instincts, which reside in the head and heart. On the other hand, marble playing would animalize children (“all back and no chest”). Kissing was sure to degrade both health and morals.

For parents of too inquisitive youngsters a handy bit of scripture was “Know ye not that ye are the temples of the living God?” (and therefore ye must keep these temples pure, clean, and wholesome and not corrupt them with impure musings on the subject of sex). Nevertheless, toward the end of the century, there was a rising murmur of voices saying that if parents failed to impart a few concrete facts about sex, children would listen to pernicious and incorrect information. In the nineties a few timidly worded books and pamphlets appeared, most of them written by doctors or clergymen, that parents might obtain in a plain wrapper. They spoke lyrically of plants, oysters, and songbirds but seldom of higher forms of life, such as people. “Flowers,” wrote Dr. Lyman Beecher Sperry (1893), “are but the reproductive organs of plants.” And if these lovely things, which are picked by innocent little children and arranged in vases by irreproachably virtuous mothers, are reproductive organs, why “surely there is nothing inherently or necessarily indelicate or unclean” about sex. Mild as this news seems, it was not intended for children (“who have no practical use for information on these subjects”) but for young people old enough for courting. He warned girls against hand holding and kissing, because an honorable and cautious young man, though he might enjoy this sort of thing, will eventually “seek other young ladies for a better companionship. Be the sort of girl of whom it may be said, ’ I know her; the worst thought she entertains / Is whiter than her pretty hand .’”

Instruction books came in a plain wrapper

The most successful what-to-tell-them books were What a Young Boy Ought to Know and What a Young Girl Ought to Know , by Sylvanus Stall, a minister. They first appeared in the mid nineties and were still being reprinted as late as 1936.

“If you have tried to deceive your child,” says Stall, “it is probable that your child is now following your example and is trying to deceive you.” If the child is forthright and puts the question “Where do babies come from?” Stall provides the parent with the following run-around:

My dear child, the question you have asked is one that every man and woman, every intelligent boy or girl and even many very young children have asked themselves or others—whence and how they came to be in the world. If you were to ask where the locomotive and the steamship or the telegraph and the telephone came from, it would be wisest, in order that we might have the most satisfactory answer that we should go back to the beginning of these things, and consider what was done by George Stephenson and Robert Fulton, by Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Morse, by Graham Bell and Thomas Edison toward developing and perfecting these useful inventions.

Thus, Dr. Stall continues, to understand where babies come from we must go back to Genesis and consider the mysterious manner in which God created Cain and Abel and their descendants. From Genesis, Stall suddenly changes the subject to cornstalks and their clever and attractive way of reproducing: the tassels are the fathers, and the newly forming ears are the mothers, and no hanky-panky. Stall then describes how Mama and Papa Shad get little shad and then passes to birds, a subject on which he is more vague. “In the case of the birds, you may have noticed that there were two parent birds, the father bird and the mother bird.” And after a while there are eggs, “which the mother produces in various ways.” The high point of the story is reached when Stall reveals that in the case of mammals the egg is retained in the body “after being suitably fertilized.”


After unloosing this blockbuster Stall turns to “Know ye not that ye are the temples of the living God?” and ends with a sermon.