Restore woman to health, and give her what God has ordained as her birthright– the control of her own person — and the trade of the abortionist will soon cease; but until then not only will the abortionist flourish, but the larger race of empirics in every city, who sell useless or injurious specifics for the prevention of pregnancy, will drive a profitable trade.
Russell Thacher Trall, Sexual Physiology, p. 204
This past May I picked up Sexual Physiology: A Scientific and Popular Exposition of the Fundamental Problems in Sociology by Russell Thacher Trall, published in 1874. My June blog is on Russell Thacher Trall, his involvement in and the history of the water cure movement. You can check out that posting here. This blog will focus on the book and the larger history of sex manuals and contraception. Special shout-out to Janet Farrell Brodie and her book Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, which has become a staple for my latest work and personal research projects.
Sexual Physiology: The Book
Sexual Physiology was originally published in 1866 by Miller, Wood & Co. The 1874 edition is the twentieth edition and was published in New York by Wood & Holbrook at No. 15 Laight Street. Wood and Holbrook were Allan E. Wood and Martin L. Holbrook, and both were involved in sectarian medical movements. (1) They published books on an array of different medical topics and advice manuals. In the back of this book, there are ads for several of their other publications that were available through the mail. (2)
This book is made up of sixteen chapters that touch on a variety of topics that all relate to sex and reproduction with a total of 304 pages. The chapters are as follow:
- The Male Organs of Generation
- The Female Organs of Generation
- The Origin of Life
- Sexual Generation
- The Physiology of Mensturation
- The Law of Sex
- Regulation of the Number of Offspring
- The Theory of Population
- The Law of Sexual Intercourse
- Philosophy of Marriage
Additionally, the book includes illustrations of both male and female sex organs, embryos, and other graphics that relate to particular chapters of the book. Overall the book is very detailed and gives the reader background and advice on sex and a look into what their sex organs are made of and how they operate. Lastly, Russell Thacher Trall was an actually trained doctor who attended medical school, as discussed in the first part of this blog series, that was not always the case for people who claimed the title of Doctor throughout the nineteenth century.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw a growth in the publications of reproductive control literature. They were available at bookshops, by agents, and by publishers through the mail. Agents, would either purchase a bulk load of material and sell it themselves or they were hired by the publisher to sell the books and pamphlets. Those who were hired were called “special agents.” This material was accessible to those who lived in both urban and rural areas, mainly thanks to the mail and the railroads that connected these areas and people. (2)
Many writers assumed that their readers were women due to the belief that women were inherently interested in limiting their families’ size. Due to these assumptions, many authors called themselves authoress in their publications and gave “themselves women’s names, especially the names of French women, as a boost to credibility with female customers.”(3) Because of the specified audience the special agents that were hired to sell the particular genres reflected the readership. Women tended to be hired to sell “health advice books, especially books for women on reproduction, marital relations, child rearing, and birth control.”(4) This added an additional layer of comfort for women customers.
Many reproductive control advice guides also known as marriage guides were printed in the second half of the nineteenth century. The advice in them was anything but consistent. Some guides would stress one technique while another warned anyone from using that same technique. The conflicting advice led many to make their own decisions about the best practice for them to prevent pregnancy. Although these publications took off and:
became a significant part of the publishing business in the decades between 1850 and 1875, it was neither openly accepted nor respectable. The most reputable and well-established publishers of the nineteenth century, even those specializing in medical publishing hesitated to associate themselves openly with any books about sex and reproductive control. (5)
This association with reproductive manuals and licentiousness became more intertwined in 1873 with Anthony Comstock. Comstock was a member of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), additionally, he was a politician and a mail inspector. He with the help of the NYSSV influenced Congress to pass laws that became better known as the Comstock Laws which made it illegal to send “birth control and abortion among a long list of commercial ‘obscenities'” through the mail. (6) Comstock, similar to many others feared that access to contraceptives would encourage immorality. He viewed the operation of sex to work within a certain framework and if people could prevent pregnancy while still being sexually active, Comstock feared the setup of society could be threatened. (7)
Excerpts from: “Chapter 12: The Regulation of the Number of Offspring”
It is true that if sexual intercourse is limited to about one-half of each month, pregnancy will seldom occur. But this rule is not infallible, for the reason that sexual diseases and weaknesses are so prevalent. The rule which I published in the Hydropathic Encyclopaedia, fifteen years ago, has been relied on by thousands of married persons, with very few failures. The theory advanced is, that the ovum usually passes off in a few days after the cessation of the menstrual flow, and that if intercourse is abstained from until ten or twelve days after the cessation of the menstrual flow, pregnancy will not occur. (p. 206)
It is well known that, very soon after impregnation, or even conception, any sudden and violent motions which agitate the pelvic viscera and cause the uterus to contact vigorously, will prevent pregnancy. Drastic purgatives will have the same effect. Running, jumping, lifting and dancing are often resorted to successfully, immediately after connection. Vaginal injections of cold water, or quite warm water, employed within a minute or two after coition, prevent pregnancy in a majority of cases. Many tons of drugs –bicarbonate of soda, and other alkaline preparation –are annually sold at exorbitant prices for the prevention of pregnancy. They are injected into the vagina on the supposition that they destroy the vitality of the semen, or the life of the spermatozoids or animalcules. (p. 209)
As always, so much more can be written on the history surrounding this little book and how we view sexual health and reproductive control today. This blog was somewhat difficult to write because I had unintentionally been researching the same subject for a program I did at my job. The line between work and leisure was a little too blurred for me, but some of the information I gained from this research will be helpful for my book– silver lining there! I hoped you enjoy it and thank you so much for reading it!
- Janet Farrell Brodie, Conception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 196
- Ibid., p. 199-200
- Ibid., p. 184
- Ibid., p. 200
- Ibid., p. 194
- Andrea Tone, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), p. 13
- Ibid., p. 19