Sex is Not a 20th Century Invention

11 Jan

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) recently acquired a circular letter offering for sale some decidedly, uh, racy items. You’ll never hear the phrases “Womb Veil,” “French Male Safe,” or “Tickler” the same again. Joking aside, Paul Erickson of the AAS has some questions about the letter:

All of the goods advertised here—contraceptives, erotic prints, aphrodisiacs, and sexual novelty items—could be obtained by sending cash and postage stamps to Mme. Simmons at Station D, New York City (a post office in Manhattan located in “Bible House,” the headquarters building of the American Bible Society at 9th Street and 4th Avenue). Ordered items would be sent to purchasers “through the mail … in such a disguised manner that no one can detect or suppose the contents of the letter,” using “patent French letter seals proof against water and steam….” Even though information about contraception was relatively easy to find in mid-nineteenth-century America, this concern with discretion is understandable.

But we have some questions, which we were hoping this blog’s readers could help us answer.

  • When was this letter printed?

We know that it was after the end of the Civil War, as it refers to Simmons as the author of a pamphlet titled Fifteen Minutes Conversation with Married Ladies, revised in 1865. It also contains several references of a fairly topical nature—such as one to a print titled “Sinking the 290,” which most likely is a double entendre referring to the sinking of the Confederate warship Alabama in 1864.

But was the letter printed before 1873, when Anthony Comstock, the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, persuaded Congress to pass the Comstock Act, which made it illegal to deliver through the mail any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious,” or any information or items related to birth control? That is, was Simmons operating in the more freewheeling period from 1865-73, or was she advertising and mailing her goods directly under the nose of the nation’s most tireless anti-obscenity crusader (or vigilante, depending on one’s point of view), when people were regularly paying stiff fines and serving long prison sentences for sending “obscene” material through the mail?

  • And what are “yarns”? The letter advertises “yarns for males, yarns for females,” and “rubber yarns,” but offers few hints as to what they might be.
  • Finally, do any of you know anything about Mme. Simmons (almost certainly not a real name)? Was this name a front for another operator in the nineteenth-century smut trade?
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