- Historic Sites
“Your body is a temple,” our ancestors told their pubescent youngsters. ‘Now go take a cold bath”
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Stall’s bold pamphlets proved so successful that their author gave up the ministry and went into the publishing business. In a manual prepared for his force of door-to-door salesmen Stall told how to cope with every possible type of sales resistance. Apparently the most common objection of mothers was “I don’t believe in telling children such things,” to which the proper parry was a story of a girl of the streets who cried in anguish, “Ah, why did not my mother tell me?” Other objections were: “I’ve got a doctor book” (but not like this one, Ma’am); “I must ask my husband” (you are the one to impart information); “forty cents is too expensive” (it’s worth its weight in gold); “children know too much already” (yes—too much misinformation); “I got along without such knowledge and my children can, too” (times have changed); “my child is too young” (but he will soon be older); and “the crops are a failure” (make a successful crop of your children).
Stall and his competitors in the sexmanual field dwelt at length on the horrors that must result from both masturbation and “sowing wild oats.” There was nothing new, of course, in denouncing them. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they had to be denounced in a whisper, whereas the colonials had denounced them in shouts from the pulpit or in the public press. Here, for example, is part of a front-page editorial in the Falmouth, Maine, Gazette for January 8, 1785, directed to adolescent boys: You have violent passions implanted in you by nature for the accomplishment of her purposes. But do not conclude, as many have done to their ruin, that because they are violent, they are irresistible. … Pray for divine assistance. Avoid solitude the first moment a loose thought insinuates itself and hasten to the company of those whom you respect. Never converse on subjects which lead to impure ideas. Have courage to decline reading immoral books, even when they fall into your hands. If you form a strong attachment to a virtuous woman, dare to marry early. It is better to be poor than wicked. … Thus shall you avoid the perpetual torment of unruly affections, the most loathsome of diseases, and the thousand penalties of selfish celibacy.
A generation later delicacy forbade such frank language in a family newspaper; and by 1840, when Dr. William Alcott wrote a book called A Young Man’s Guide , the young men who owned it were cautioned to keep it away from junior members of their families. Of “solitary licentiousness” Dr. Alcott said, “It is the lowest—I may say most destructive of practices,” and went on to tell of a man in Pennsylvania whose wretched habits of this kind had rendered him, at thirty-five, tottering, wrinkled, and hoary. Alcott quoted Galen, Celsus, and Hippocrates, all of whom had agreed that “solitary vice” would bring feeble constitutions to generations yet unborn. The hospitals, he went on, were full of persons whom it had driven insane. Other consequences were St. Vitus’ dance, epilepsy, palsy, blindness, apoplexy, hypochondria, consumption, and “a sensation of ants crawling from the head down along the spine. … And unless the abominable practice which produced all the mischief is abandoned, death follows.”
Dr. Alcott’s views on masturbation were all but universal at the time. A baby or small child who was observed to take an interest in its “parts” struck terror into the heart of its mother—especially if the baby was a girl, for this meant an unnatural sex appetite that would have to be ruthlessly curbed, perhaps by pills or even surgery. For Victorian young ladies a natural sex appetite was absolutely none at all. Sometimes, wrote Dr. Emma Drake in What a Young Wife Ought to Know (1901), a woman during pregnancy might be “troubled” with passion. “This … is due to some unnatural condition and should be considered a disease.” Under normal conditions a wife will automatically preserve “the womanly modesty which characterized her girlhood,” preferably in a separate bedroom, where it will be easier for her to avoid “a freedom which degenerates into license.” As for the husband, conserving his seminal fluid “lifts him to a higher plane of being,” and he ought to be grateful.