Special Notice

This collection of blog entries is a SPECIAL REPORT of the Meet MythAmerica blog.

Painting a Rosy Past can be read sequentially by going to the first entry in the series:

Introduction–Painting a Rosy Past

At the end of each entry is a clear link to the next entry in sequence.

New material is NOT added to this blog, as it is now a “standalone,” completed sequence. Thus there is no option to “follow” this blog.

If you find what you read in this report to be valuable, and would appreciate learning more about the widely-ignored parts of American history, visit my Meet MythAmerica blog to explore a wide variety of topical areas “Dispelling Mythperceptions about American History.”  You can subscribe to follow the Meet MythAmerica blog to get notification when new material is added to that blog.

Pam Dewey

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PRP12: The Bronco Bomney Blues

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 12

The Bronco Bomney Blues

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

After the contentious election of 2012 was finally over, many of my Christian friends were very, very unhappy at the outcome. A significant proportion of them at the time seemed stressed, even depressed, and fearful what the future was going to hold. I don’t blame them, of course. The difference between them and myself is that I am convinced we Americans would have needed to be every bit as concerned about what the future holds no matter which candidate won. I believe the forces that have been coming together for a long, long time to affect this country are far, far beyond partisan political issues.

And yet—there really are not widespread devastating conditions as yet in most of the country. Just worrisome “trends.” Unless we as Christians are able to come to a sense of inner peace in these relatively “good times,” we are going to be no use to ourselves and others in the bad. I’m suspicious that many of my troubled friends are not really troubled just by “current conditions.” A significant proportion of people who consider themselves Christians seem to be victims of life-long issues of discouragement, doubt, fears, anxiety, and more—totally  outside of any added obsession with partisan politics. Given the large number of Bible passages that admonish believers to not worry, to trust God, to have faith in His plans for them, I am also suspicious that this isn’t just a modern affliction. It seems to be a timeless one, touching people in every generation since Jesus walked the Earth in the first century.

So I want to continue to give a bit of advice for ways we as individuals can prepare to be ready to be shelters in the storms of life for others. And my advice in this blog entry is …

Embrace Optimism

But, you may protest (especially if you are one of those whose champion lost the latest presidential election), how can we be optimistic when we see “our country headed to hell in a handbasket”? Or “on the brink of a fiscal cliff” … or whatever other metaphor is popular among much of the populace at the moment?

Do not mistake my use of the term “optimism.” An optimist isn’t someone who thinks only good can ever  happen to himself—or his nation. Someone who truly believed that wouldn’t be optimistic—he’d be delusional.

I am using the word optimism to indicate a way of reacting to the challenges of life. It is possible to “assume the worst” when faced with negative circumstances, be convinced that you might as well give up since nothing is going to turn out right now, in the near future, or in the long run. This kind of approach always brings to my mind a picture of a famous character from the Li’l Abner comic strip, Joe Btfsplk.

joe btfsplk

It wasn’t that Joe was deliberately negative, it was that, as created by Al Capp, his “luck” was so bad that no matter where he showed up, everything went wrong for everyone around him. So people stayed away from him.  As the saying goes, he was a “jinx.” As in this cartoon from 1947:

joe cartoon

Unfortunately, I’ve known many people who ended up feeling their own life was like this. Not because some external force “willed” bad luck on their lives, but because their attitude was so pessimistic that their life was one long string of “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

This just should not be so for the Christian. Yes, in this life all … including all Christians … will experience bad times as well as good. And you can’t “will” bad times to go away just because they make you uncomfortable. But what you can do is remember all sorts of promises of God that WILL come to pass eventually.  One that is a favorite of many is

rom828This tells me that not all things will work out the way I expect them to, especially in the short run. But over my lifetime, and on into eternity, God will make sure that all things will be woven together for my ultimate good.

If you truly have the conviction that God is intimately involved in your life, then no matter what is going on—including national politics and world conditions—you don’t have to obsess on somehow trying to use human methods to intervene… including politically… to force what you think should come to pass. He can weave you into His plans so that you most effectively serve Him and those around you. You can, in short, be totally optimistic that, as the old saying goes, “This too shall pass,” and God will guide your path to a brighter future. That future may be in this life, it may be in the resurrection, but it will come.

With the inner peace that comes from that assurance, you can avoid being one of those who are panicking about whatever current circumstances seem so upsetting. And you may even find that those around you are so comforted by your presence that they will want to know what it is you have, and how they can get it.  In other words, exuding inner peace and optimism can be a very effective tool of evangelism.

It is my conviction that part of being prepared for “the unexpected” … an extended period when nothing of big prophetic significance happens, but the world just keeps on with confusing change… is to make sure that you are setting an example for your own family, especially your children and grandchildren if you have them, of godly optimism.  This will not just prepare you—it will prepare them.

I am convinced that most people who get swept up into prophetic speculation and/or obsession with somehow trying to “beat back” political trends that are troubling but likely inevitable—don’t pay the attention they should to the influence their obsession has on the development of “inner peace” in their own children. Yes, the parent may know that deep down inside he personally still has confidence that God is actually in control of the future. But unless he has carefully laid the groundwork for his children to have that same confidence, all the child is going to understand is the ranting that they hear from day to day as the parent vents about politics or prophecy. And most of the ranting isn’t going to sound reassuring!

Are you familiar with the term “imprinting”? It’s a psychological term that is particularly applied to animals such as ducks.  When a duckling first hatches, it seems to “assume” by instinct that whatever dominant creature is in its immediate area is “momma,” and will begin imprinting on that creature. Since that creature usually IS its momma, there is no problem. But sometimes a momma duck isn’t available.

imprint ducklings

These little ducklings are obviously convinced this is indeed Momma. Which does work well at their young age. It looks like this dog is tenderly caring for them while they are tiny. Eventually, though, it won’t be cool if they truly try to act like a dog.

There is one slightly humorous side effect of one human version of this issue of imprinting, known as the “Baby Duck Syndrome.” From Wiki:

In human–computer interaction, baby duck syndrome denotes the tendency for computer users to “imprint” on the first system they learn, then judge other systems by their similarity to that first system. The result is that “users generally prefer systems similar to those they learned on and dislike unfamiliar systems.” The issue may present itself relatively early in a computer user’s experience, and has been observed to impede education of students in new software systems.

This is, of course, why first-time Mac owners become Mackies for life!

So what does this have to do with optimism, and prophecy and politics, and related areas of intense obsession  that many parents embrace, as it relates to their children?

baby kkk

Just what do we think the attitude of this child in the picture above toward other races ended up being once he was an adult himself?

This extreme example shows the likely source of most prejudice in all societies—our children learn it very early, by our example. Imprinting on a racist yields a second generation of racists. And so on down through history.

But let’s think this through. WHAT IF I am right in my assertion that Jesus will not be coming any time soon, and that the efforts of Christians obsessed with politics are not going to make any significant change in the pace or direction of developments in the political dynamics of our country? What will happen to children whose parents refuse to face this, and who continue year after year to rant about these things in front of the children, and preach gloom and doom? How much optimism will such children have about their own chances of “having a future”? How equipped will they be to “make the best” of all opportunities that are presented to them by their environment, if they feel that “it’s no use?”

From what I’ve seen, many such parents have a difficult time envisioning how they are affecting their children and grandchildren. They are too close to the situation. So let’s step away from “now” and take a neutral look at another time and place. Perhaps seeing what happened then and there, and how it affected parents and their children, may open some eyes to here and now.

“You Are There: World War 2”

I have been fascinated by WW1 and WW2 “propaganda” posters from the United States and Great Britain for some time, collecting books about them, and setting up my own Pinterest Board on the topic that now has an extensive collection of pics of such posters.

Although I hadn’t studied much about the conditions in England during WW2 in either high school or college history classes, once the Internet was available, I had access to many photos and stories in addition to the propaganda posters.

I knew of course that London and other British cities were devastated by German bombing, and that daily life could be disrupted at any time by German air raids. This meant for some, going into bomb shelters in back yards.

london backyard

For the majority, it meant seeking refuge in the subway system of London, the Underground. This could be for hours or days, and of course it meant children had to learn to be very flexible.

hammocks underground

There were no “holidays” from this danger … here is a child at Christmas time, down below.

In between bombing runs, life went on for children, who literally made their own “playgrounds” among the rubble.

rubble play

Then there was the danger of gas attacks, so the whole population, babies and children as well as adults, were provided with gas masks and warned to keep them ready for use at all times.

baby gas

“A special gas helmet was supplied for children less than two years of age; the mothers above are shown how to use it.”

child gas


It was almost a year into my fascination with collecting pics of posters and photos of this time period before I first came across this poster and others like it.


I had no clue what situation this was addressing, until I looked it up on the Internet. When I did, I found it mind-boggling. Here is a very personal account by someone who had a family member involved in this situation.

The Children of World War II

My grandad was born in 1932, which made him around seven years old when World War Two began. The Government in Britain were terrified of a new kind of warfare; organised bombing. The threat of bombing from Nazi Germany was a frightening prospect, and as a safety precaution the evacuation of children, pregnant women and disabled people was introduced. People were moved away from areas of threat, such as the big cities and places close to them, into the countryside, where it was less likely a bombing would take place. My grandad lived very close to the capital and became an evacuee.

Evacuation was introduced for cities in danger of bombing on the last day of August in 1939, and in the space of two days two million people were moved during “Operation Pied Piper”. Children from London, Birmingham, Coventry, Portsmouth, and other places were moved from their homes to live with families in the countryside. They packed up a case with a small amount of clothes, shoes, sandwiches and nuts and were taken by train to new locations. Brothers and sisters were often split up, and children only stayed with their mother if they were under five years of age. Children were given a label to wear at the station, and in most cases had no idea where they were going, how long they would be away and if they would ever see their families again. What a frightening prospect.

evac train1


evac train3

evac train4

When the evacuees had arrived in their new villages, Billeting Officers would arrange new homes with host families for them. The culture clash was significant. The children in the countryside were in much better health than the children from the cities. They also had very different lifestyles. Countryside complaints about the habits of the city children were high and there was a rise in petty crime. Food was scarce, leading to the introduction of rationing (I vaguely remember seeing grandad’s ration book). Toys were also in short supply, as factories were busy making weapons to be used by the serving soldiers in the war.

The evacuated children were still able to go to school. School buildings were shared between the countryside and city children; some children were educated in village halls and public houses. In addition to their normal lessons, children had to learn what to do in an emergency; lessons teaching children how to put on their gas masks and air raid drills were taught alongside the regular curriculum. The air raid sirens rang in different patterns, depending on whether the threat of bombing was coming or going, so children had to learn to tell the difference between them. City children were also taught the skills needed to live in the countryside and were expected to help their host families with the day to day tasks.

It was a difficult adjustment. The people were so different. Host families were sometimes unhappy with the government’s decision to have them house evacuees. Some families were cruel to the children of the city, and resented the children they were forced to look after. Housing an evacuee was not a duty some families wished to fulfill. Many families were happy to help the evacuees, though.

When the threat of bombing decreased in early 1940, the evacuees were able to return home. Evacuation was encouraged twice more during World War Two: in September 1940 London was heavily bombed by the German Air Force during the Blitz; and in 1944 during the V1 and V2 bombings.

I had no clue that all this happened! It was devastating enough to think of children living through the terrifying bombing raids on London in the Underground, held tight by a parent. I have a horrible time getting my mind around the idea of living at that time and having to look at my own small daughter, hand her a tiny suitcase, put a tag on her, and “let her go”—up the steps to a train, not knowing if I’d ever see her again.


The bottom line in all this is… just WHAT should the parents have done back in those days, whether they had to shepherd their children into a nearby subway tunnel as the bombs fell all around, or shepherd them to a train station and wave goodbye? Should they have bemoaned around the house for months ahead of time, “Oh, we are living in the worst of times, and there is no hope for the future!” Looking back from now, with hindsight, we know that wasn’t true, but they sure had every reason to think so at the time. Yet, as Churchill said, they “Never gave up.”

There was an attitude, both there and in the US, that there was great value in embracing a stance of optimism. I suppose maybe most people didn’t always feel it. But I think most were wise enough to realize that it was psychologically healthy for both themselves and their children to aspire to it! The whole culture of the time was one of promoting such optimism in every way possible. You can see this in the music, such as the lyrics of one of the most popular songs of the era. The White Cliffs of Dover was written by two American musicians before the US joined the war.


There’ll be blue birds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.

There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
Tomorrow, when the world is free.

The shepherd will tend his sheep,
The valley will bloom again
And Jimmy will go to sleep,
In his own little room again.

There’ll be blue birds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.

From Wiki:

(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” is a popular World War II song made famous by Vera Lynn with her 1942 recording—one of her best known recordings. Written in 1941 by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, the song was also among the most popular Second World War tunes. It was written before America had joined World War II, to lift the spirits of the Allies at a time when Nazi Germany had conquered much of Europe’s area and was bombing Britain. The song was written at a time when British and German aircraft had been fighting over the cliffs of Dover in the Battle of Britain: the song’s lyrics looked towards a time when the war would be over and peace would rule over the iconic White Cliffs of Dover, Britain’s de facto border with the European mainland.

I’d first heard this song when I was a child myself, in the 1950s. I always thought it was poignant, with a pretty tune. But only recently did the significance of the words “Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again” hit me. It was speaking about those children sent away from the cities, to live with total strangers!

I planned to include a Youtube clip of the song with this blog entry, and could have chosen to be “authentic” and pick the one by Vera Lynn. But my daughter reminded me of this awesomely beautiful and powerful version from 1966 by the Righteous Brothers.

Yes, even the music during the darkest days of the War was aimed at exuding optimism. To say nothing of the posters of the time that were posted everywhere—at factories, post offices, store windows, schools, any place where people gathered. Artists worked overtime creating inspirational slogans and iconic pictures to fortify the population with optimism. Like this famous one:


Are we in America living in times as dire as those? Obviously not, although indeed we could be in a matter of years. But if such times do come, just what do you want your children to believe? That they have no future—or that God is in charge of their future?

If you fill their minds now with absolutely nothing but gloom and doom regarding politics or prophecy, then they will have nothing to fall back on in their minds and hearts but gloominess. Is that the legacy of “faith” you want them to have? If you don’t start “modeling” optimism for them now, it is going to be too late when they really need it.

Almost everyone with an internet connection likely saw this young lady from a little Youtube video clip that went viral just before the election on November 6, 2012.

Without even knowing what was going on in the society, she evidently absorbed enough constant ranting on radio and TV about what I have decided to jointly dub “Bronco Bomney” that it left her in gloominess! And yet she actually appeared to have a parent who wasn’t all that radically dedicated to the political battle. I can’t begin to imagine how gloomy and depressed some young children felt for months…or years…if not just the TV and radio, but the conversation in their home around the dinner table, between their parents in the car, and maybe even coming from the pulpit at church services,  has been little but angry tirades about this, that, or the other political leader or situation. OR about speculative prophecy that the ranters were sure was indicating God’s Wrath is about to descend on the nation.

Are you just absolutely convinced that it’s unfortunate that it might make your kids miserable, but the circumstances in the US are just so awful that you MUST constantly rant in righteous indignation? If so…give it a year or two or three. I believe the fruit of your choice is going to be so rotten that you are going to look back and regret your choice. You may think your ranting is practically “inspired by God.” I think you are wrong.

Your children deserve to be in an environment where they are immersed in the promises of God, in the hope that comes from those promises, and in the optimism that such hope gives the believer. The kind of optimism that allows us to say…

rosie scripture

If you do not have that kind of assurance yourself, and are not busily providing it to your family—and getting ready to share it with everyone you come in contact with—you are NOT prepared for the future. 

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PRP11: Outer Chaos, Inner Peace

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 11

Outer Chaos, Inner Peace

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

Back in 2009, I went to get my hair cut at a local WalMart hair salon in a very small town in Georgia. I was the only customer in the shop at the time. The only hair dresser on duty was a young woman who was less than six months out of beauty school—probably no older than 19.

In making chit-chat with her, she asked if I was getting the cut for a particular “event” of some sort. I told her “Yes,” I am an inspirational speaker, and travel around the country at times to present seminars. My husband and I were getting ready for a trip in which I’d be doing some presentations, and I wanted to not have to fuss much with my hair—thus the fresh haircut.

She asked what sort of seminars, and the first thing that came off the top of my head was “Christian.” I didn’t go into any details, just made it clear that I didn’t just do general motivational talks but came from a basically religious, biblically-based point of view.

I was startled at her response to that—she didn’t ask what specific subjects I talk about, didn’t ask my “denomination,” didn’t ask how I got into the field of public speaking.

Her immediate response was … “Do you think Obama is the Antichrist?”

Rather than wade into those murky waters right away, I promptly responded, “Do you?”

She explained that she didn’t know very much about religion or the Bible, and only went to church (this is the South—so it was no doubt a Baptist church) for a while with her grandmother when she was much younger. But she had some friends her own age who were more “into” religion… and particularly prophecy … than she, and they had been insisting to her that indeed, Obama was the prophesied Antichrist and his election was a huge step toward the fulfillment of terrifying Bible prophecy.

This discussion took place in Obama’s first year in office, when speculation in some conservative evangelical circles was running high that indeed, the man was the Antichrist (“Beast”) figure of the Book of Revelation and would be ushering in the Great Tribulation.


It was never quite clear to me what their basis of this was—the usual complaints about the man’s policies were that he was a “socialist” at best and a “communist” at worst. I didn’t remember seeing anything in the Book of Revelation about the political ideology of the Beast! That seemed a bit like wondering if Nebuchadnezzar was a Democrat or Republican.

That little interchange was one of the things that started me pondering how odd it was to see such an intermeshing of religion and politics in our era. Religious topics have of course come up in some past elections. Many rabidly anti-Catholic Protestants were very upset in 1960 at the idea of having a Roman Catholic as President if Kennedy won. There was some concern that he would institute policies that were somehow against the interests of Baptists, although just what was never clear.

catholicBut few protests back then rose to the level of thinking the US election was of huge prophetic significance to the whole world as a result of this religious issue. And, as a matter of fact, Kennedy’s term in office up to his assassination made it clear that his handling of the presidency was pretty much “business as usual” in a basically secular way, and not influenced at all by his connection to the Pope in Rome.

We are approaching the 2012 election as I write this blog entry, and I am even more amazed now at how swirlingly intermeshed many folks’ politics have become with their religious … and particularly, prophetic … convictions.

Some right-wing conservative evangelicals are more convinced than ever that Obama is the Antichrist, and is just holding back until a second term in office to unleash his Antichrist policies and powers. Others seem to think he’s not really the Antichrist—just a tool of the Devil with the responsibility for bringing down the United States to a position of third world power. Some seem to think he is only getting away with this because God Himself is so disgusted with the nation that He wants it destroyed, and thus there will be no holding back the inevitable.

More, however, seem to think that either the Devil or God’s plans can be blocked or delayed if we can only vote in the right man and return total Congressional power to the right political party in this upcoming election. As I have repeatedly noted in this blog, and in particular in this current blog series, the idea seems to be that God created the United States as His Most Favored Nation in 1776/1789, shepherded it throughout its history as it basked in His never-ending blessings of prosperity and nobility, and only in the most recent generations has become disgusted with it because of the prevalence of immorality and ungodliness among the population. Somehow, it seems from what I have read, all of this is connected with the alleged godliness/biblical endorsement of Capitalism (preferably Laissez-faire Capitalism?) and the Republican party.

If you have read the previous installments in this series, it should be abundantly clear by now that I do not accept this interpretation of American history. There is abundant evidence from throughout the past 250 years that, regardless of what party was in power in the presidency or the Congress, the American culture as a whole was no more totally moral or totally immoral, no more totally godly or ungodly, than it is in our own era. I don’t intend to belabor this topic with any more documentation—instead I hereby submit to you that I am fully convinced that it will not make the slightest bit of difference which party “wins” in this upcoming election in the long run. Forces far beyond the power of the electorate have been converging for generations … not just from the restless 60s or hippy-dippy 70s…to create coming troublous times, confusion and chaos in many aspects of life from economics to international relations, from severe underemployment to severe problems in delivering health care to the population, from racial tensions to “class warfare.”

If you are a Christian, I have no intention to attempt to dissuade you from voting in the upcoming election in 2012, or in the future. My intent is to persuade you that, AS a Christian, there are a number of things that you can do that will yield eternal fruit, that are a whole lot more important than your involvement in partisan politics. There are ways you can prepare to be a light in a world that, no matter the party in power, is going to be going through periodic darkness.


Perhaps you won’t even believe what I am writing until later. Perhaps you are holding your breath, just waiting for YOUR chosen hero in the election to be given his mandate by the people—and, you may even believe, by God. If he does win, it will likely be a few months or a year or two before you realize that he was, ultimately, impotent to turn the tide.

Or maybe you are one of those who are just absolutely sure that Jesus is going to insert Himself into history in the next year or two, and put an end to all the struggle. And thus it may take you a year or two to face reality. But whatever is distracting you at this point in time, whatever you have been pouring your efforts into—whether drumming up votes for Your Man, or sending sacrificial offerings to help some prophetic guru get out the word about the imminent Second Coming—sooner or later you may begin to have that feeling of unease that you’ve been putting all your hopes in an illusion.

Perhaps at that point, you may have in the back of your mind what you read on this blog about “preparing for the unthinkable.”  I invite you to come on back at that point, and give this material a second look.

But I’m convinced that some readers of this blog will be ready to move on right now, ready to take some steps of preparation and get on with being a part of “making a difference” in what really is going to be an era of continuing change and scary challenges.

If that describes you, then this is the point at which we start putting together an action plan.

Setting the stage

My daughter Ramona is 41 years old now. Back about 20 years ago, when she was a young mother of a toddler, she lived for a short while in a government subsidized apartment complex that catered particularly to young families like her own. With families moving in and out all the time, she never really made any “friends” there that she spent time with. But with many moms of babies and toddlers out with strollers every day, she often passed by “familiar faces” and said, “Hello.”

One day a young woman with a familiar face stopped her as she passed by. She knew the person’s name, but little else about her. She had never visited in her home, or spent any extended time in conversation with her, other than a little chit-chat while watching their little ones play. But with a puzzled tone in her voice, the young woman mentioned that she had a dream the night before, and that Ramona was in it. She described the dream—she found herself in an environment that was chaotic. She didn’t know exactly what had happened to bring about the turmoil, but the impression she got was that society was somehow breaking down, and she felt a sense of dread and fear. And suddenly in the middle of her dream she saw Ramona.

And as best as she could explain it, Ramona’s mere presence made her suddenly feel safe. It was, she said, almost as if Ramona was an angel or something! She felt a sense of peace. And then she woke up.

Ramona never forgot this simple, odd encounter. Just as I, from the time she committed her life to God she has always felt that she had a calling to administer the peace of God to others, in both regular “daily life” and in circumstances of crisis.  As a matter of fact, it is our conviction that the teaching of the New Testament makes it clear that this should be one of the goals of all Christian believers.  The young woman’s dream seemed to be just a gentle confirmation that Ramona was on the right track.

So what about you? Is this one of your goals? Can you see that in coming days there may be more and more opportunities to be that “refuge from the storm” that others may need? Of course it is ultimately God Himself who is to be our refuge. It is Jesus who is, after all, the “Good Shepherd” who hunts for lost, fearful, perhaps even injured sheep and cares for them tenderly. Yet it is clear from His teachings, as well as the admonitions of other biblical writers, that in many situations Christians are to be “His hands and feet” to do the actual work out in the physical world.

So—are you ready to be a “shelter in the storm” for others? In the rest of this blog entry, I will be suggesting the first step in being ready:

Step One:

You can’t give what you don’t have. So you need to
be sure you have inner peace yourself
if you are to help others
to find a sense of peace in the midst of chaos.

I recently sat down to watch a DVD of Kung Fu Panda 2 with my teenage granddaughter. I’d seen it (and enjoyed it very much) in the movie theater last year. But at the time, I was just taken with the beautiful artwork and the exciting action sequences. It wasn’t until I saw it again that the main theme really popped out at me. Bumbling Po the Panda (voiced by actor Jack Black) has really polished up his Kung Fu martial arts moves since the first movie. But Kung Fu Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) makes it clear to him that the one thing he still lacks which would make him a true Kung Fu warrior is “Inner Peace.”


By the end of the movie, Po has succeeded in finding this inner peace.


In the context of the movie, this concept of inner peace seems to mean, in particular, that Po is troubled no longer by nagging doubts and feelings of rejection caused by events and experiences of the past, confident in who he is now, and ready to face challenges without a bunch of, as the saying goes, “hang-ups.” Finding this inner peace equips him to defeat “whatever life throws at him.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with this definition of inner peace, as far as it goes. I know a whole lot of people who would psychologically benefit by having this sort of inner peace in their lives. But it got me to thinking: What sort of inner peace does a Christian need to have? And the biblical implications of the answers to this question are somewhat different from—or at least more extensive than—the kind of inner peace Po found. Here are a few scriptures that describe this “peace of God.”


You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast,
because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26:3


So the Bible clearly says that there is an inner peace that comes from God. The next question is—do you have that kind of peace in your own life? Are your mind and heart free from guilt or regret about things in your past? Are they free from anxiety about what the unknown future may bring, in your own life and in conditions in the world? When you got up this morning, was it with a calm assurance that God is fully in control of the destiny of your nation, the whole world… and you personally? I realize that in every life there are short terms of crisis in which our emotions can be on a roller coaster for a limited time, such as during and after a serious accident or illness we or a loved one experience. And we may rely on those around us to “remain strong” for us and lift us up. But when such times are past—do you return to a state of true inner peace?

I must confess that there have been many times in my life when my answer to all the above questions would have been “NO!” And as I look around at my friends and acquaintances, it certainly would appear that the answer for many of them would be no also … right now.  I’m not speaking of my “non-religious” friends, mind you. I’m speaking of people who identify themselves strongly as Christians, many of them long-time Christians of 10, 20, 30 or more years! Actually, they might give lip service to having some sort of inner peace… but if they are honest, it is something so way down deep inside that it doesn’t seem to affect how they react to the real world.

Many exhibit evidence of lack inner peace just in general, regarding such personal issues as family relations and jobs. I’ve seen a real lack of evidence of inner peace in particular among those who have immersed themselves in various speculative prophetic scenarios. Their paranoia often is related to what might happen to them and their families if they don’t somehow “figure out” the perfect way to “qualify” for God’s protection in the Tribulation that they expect to begin soon.

I’ve also particularly seen evidence of a lot of lack of inner peace related to the national political scene in recent years. Some folks seem to have almost an uncontrollable paranoia about who might win the next presidency, as if God Himself might be “foiled” in His plans if the “wrong” man gets elected.

But the reality is that the first century Christians in Philippi to whom Paul wrote were living under the heel of the Roman Empire. They had no say over who might be the next Caesar. They had no input into the laws of the land where they lived. Why, their only recourse was to just trust that God was in control of their lives, and would see them through to the end! Imagine that.

Can you see how ridiculous the “modern” approach of many Christians is in light of that reality?  There is nothing wrong with sensibly exercising any rights you may have in your country, including the right to vote and express your opinions on governmental matters. Paul used his citizenship as a Roman to deal with his own circumstances at times. But to be obsessed with the concept that only you and your comrades in “The Tea Party” or whatever group you may identify with are standing between God’s plans for the US and their fulfillment…is nonsense.

I know folks who seem to be in a perpetual state of anger over politics, who seem to spend much of their free time ferreting out nasty stories about “the opposition” and posting them on Facebook and CCMailing them to all of their Internet contacts. They seem to lose all sense of proportion when doing this, being willing to pass on material that can be easily shown to be erroneous, just because it agrees with their partisan position. And in the process they may well be unnecessarily alienating good friends, who find it difficult to be around them when they are so narrowly focused on the situations that anger them. I have personally found it necessary to temporarily eliminate a significant proportion of my “Facebook Friends” from my Facebook “news feed” for this very reason. The torrent of nasty, angry, belligerent, harsh, in-your-face, downright snotty political posts washing over me every morning left me with a bitter taste in my mouth and a negative attitude for facing the day. (I’m hoping that, no matter which man wins the presidency, these friends will finally get on with their regular lives and drop the narrow focus on partisan politics after the election! I’d like to be able to add them back to my news feed. I miss them.)

From what the Bible says, all these folks should be able to have inner peace no matter who is in the White House. If they don’t, they may need to think through their priorities.

Meanwhile, back to the central issue: No matter what aspects of your life give evidence that you are lacking inner peace, if you are indeed lacking it you need to deal with that reality if you plan to be prepared to be a source of “peace in the storm” to others in the coming years.


As seen in the scriptures above, the Bible does promise that such inner peace is accessible to you. You just have to know how to appropriate it. We’ll explore some ways to do that in the final entry in this blog series:

The Bronco Bomney Blues

Meanwhile … start telling yourself—

innerpeace kitty

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PRP10: Back to the Future

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 10

Back to the Future

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

I have been getting newsletters from religious groups about “End Time Prophecy” since 1965, when I was just 18 years old, a freshman in college. In the old days they came in the US mail. Nowadays they come to my email inbox. Because of my extensive research regarding religious groups connected to my Field Guide to the Wild World of Religion website, I also regularly read even more commentary on how the “latest news” is allegedly related to Bible prophecy, on a wide variety of ministry websites.

It shouldn’t be amazing to me, but often is, how little the messages in such newsletters have varied over the past almost half-century. Most such ministries pride themselves on “watching world news” and supposedly correlating it with specific prophetic Bible passages. And in every decade, whatever was going on was declared to be proof positive that we are “in the Last Days” and that the Great Tribulation was almost upon us. A frequent suggestion for almost fifty years has been that it would start “in the next 3 to 5 years.” (Or sometimes “5 to 7.”) Some have been bold enough to set a date, even perhaps one within just the next year from the date of the newsletter. A few such foolishly bold men still continue to bombastically set such dates—currently 2013 has the gullible followers of several prophet wannabees all in a panic.

But as more of those bold predictions have miserably failed over the years, most prophecy prognosticators and prophecy-focused groups have become much more inclined to hedge their bets. They seem to realize that proposing a date of ten years or more away will not lead to the kind of panicky paranoia that will gather supporters—and donors. But much closer than three years doesn’t give them the “wiggle room” they need … to not look like false prophets.

Just the other day I got another such newsletter in my inbox. One of the main articles talked about “world chaos” and asked if it indicated we are “approaching the End.” The implication was that we were indeed making such an approach. The writer noted that “never in our history have we felt so uneasy” and so “fearful and concerned about world conditions.”

I do not doubt the sincerity of the author. But I have to totally disagree with the sentiment. “Never in our history”?? I’m sorry, but this is absolutely silly. Yes, no doubt many Americans are worried about the economy of the US, and the possibility of a war in Iran. But to think this “unease” is somehow greater than that felt by almost the whole US in late 1962 is ridiculous.

missile map

This 1962 newspaper map from the Cuban Missile Crisis shows the distances from Cuba of various cities on the North American Continent.

hawk missiles

Onlookers gather on George Smathers Beach in Key West, Florida to see the Army’s Hawk anti-aircraft missiles positioned there during Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. (Read more at world.time.com )

Miami was less than 250 miles from Cuba. Key West MUCH closer than that!

I can still remember being a 15 year old that year, sitting transfixed in front of our little black and white TV and listening to President Kennedy intone these words in a message to the whole American nation in his “Cuban Missile Crisis” address:

tv viewersShoppers in a department store in California watch President Kennedy on TV as he announces the Cuban blockade during the missile crisis on Oct. 22, 1962.

Kennedy intoned …

It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man. He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction—by returning to his government’s own words that it had no need to station missiles outside its own territory, and withdrawing these weapons from Cuba—by refraining from any action which will widen or deepen the present crisis–and then by participating in a search for peaceful and permanent solutions. (President John Kennedy, Television Address to the Nation regarding the “Cuban Missile Crisis,” Monday, October 22, 1962)

“Never have we felt so uneasy”? How do you get more uneasy than when the president of the US … a secular leader … insists that not just the US but the whole world is at the edge of the “Abyss of Destruction”? That is utterly apocalyptic language. And it was backed by a grim reality—and missiles on the sunny beach in Florida!—not just vague possibilities. Between the US and the Russians, the military leaders of the world indeed had Mutually Assured Destruction at their fingertips and seemed poised to unleash it on the world.

Going back even farther than that … “Never have we felt so uneasy”? Never more fearful and concerned about world conditions? I cannot fathom that my family members were not much more fearful about world conditions during the Great Depression.


dustbowl3dustbowl woman

Nor can I believe that my family members were less anxious during World War 2 than anyone is now about the various possible scenarios of future military conflict.

war headlines


It was even worse in places like England during WW2:

uk gas mask poster

gas mask child

Yet for the past almost 50 years, religious commentators have endlessly taken whatever the current crisis was … the Viet Nam war, American race riots in the ‘60s, the rise of Chinese power in the world … and insisted that it was cause for “more anxiety than ever in our history.” And reason to believe that the Return of Christ was imminent.

Yes, there are indeed many things that can go wrong in the coming years … and likely will. Maybe we will face conditions in the US as difficult as those of the Dust Bowl years and the depths of the Depression. Maybe we will be embroiled in military actions as horrifying as those faced by our military in Europe and the South Pacific in WW2. But when I look in the faces of the people shopping in the local Walmart right now, I do not see terror or uncontrolled anxiety.  I don’t see them particularly fearful as they cart out to their car the box with the big screen hi-def TV, and fill their carts with goodies for the next tail-gate party.

Are they just ignorant and don’t know they should be daily living their lives filled with anxiety and fear about the possibilities of future calamities? Perhaps. But I am fully aware of all of those possibilities, and I’m not filled with anxiety and fear. I am continuing to live as productive a life as I can, and appreciating the blessings of each day. Would I be better off if I were spending more of my time reading anxious, panicky, speculative prophecy newsletters?

I am convinced the answer to that is NO.

But won’t I miss getting biblical advice on how I can “escape” the bad times coming? Don’t I need the wisdom of prophetic speculators on how to “prepare for the doom-filled future”?

I am convinced that the answer to those questions is NO also.

Typical “preparation” advice from such folks includes one, some, or all of these concepts:

  1. Be continually “watching world events”—preferably through the filter of the writings and recordings of the prognosticator
  2. Continually take in speculation from conservative commentators on what’s going on “behind the scenes” in government and the world of finance
  3. Study the prophetic passages of the Bible with the guidance of the prognosticator’s recordings and writings so you can pinpoint the Time as closely as possible
  4. If you don’t believe in the Pre-Tribulation Rapture, purchase survival supplies … sometimes, from the over-priced offerings of the prognosticators themselves
  5. For the more militant … purchase guns and ammo to hold off the hordes until Jesus gets here
  6. For the less militant, just “pray, study, and fast” to “get close to God.”

Now mind you, I don’t have anything against some of those suggestions as being generally applicable to one’s life. For instance, I’m not ignorant about national and world news. But after almost 50 years of having people tell me that every hiccup in news headlines is “fulfilling Bible prophecy,” I’ve become very skeptical that the purpose of staying up with the news has a whole lot more value than just being “culturally aware” so that I can intelligently discuss things with others.

As for those ranting commentators who insist that I need to know the latest hidden activities of the Global Elite or whoever … it isn’t clear to me why I need to spend much time with this. If there really is a shadowy Global Elite running things, I can’t vote them out of office—since they weren’t voted into office. I don’t have super-powers, so I can’t infiltrate their secret meetings in Belgium or wherever and thwart their plans. I don’t have enough money to hire hit-men to assassinate all of them to keep them from carrying out their plans. So it seems to me like my best bet is to just … get on with my life.

As for deeply studying prophecy so I can figure out the ETA of Jesus (estimated time of arrival), what for? Folks have been doing this since shortly after Jesus left, and none of them have succeeded in the math yet after almost 2000 years. They’ve just succeeded in wasting years or decades or more of their lives that could have been spent more productively in actively serving Jesus.

As for survival supplies—I’m all for everyone having some. Not to ride out the Tribulation, but to ride out the after-effects of natural disasters such as floods, blizzards, hurricanes, and tornados. We live in an area prone to tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, which can leave us without power several times a year for shorter or longer periods. We have a generator for small purposes such as a little cooking by microwave—and charging up cellphones and computers. We have enough food to last a couple of weeks, and supplies to purify water. I have a friend in Kentucky whose family rode out the extended aftermath of the horrible mid-west ice-storm a while back much more effectively than did their neighbors because they had made survival preparations. In fact, their home became a refuge for many of those neighbors for many days, as their house had heat and food when others didn’t.

But laying in enough supplies to survive what most think “The Great Tribulation” will be like? If you really had seven years’ supply of food, and conditions became as awful as many expect them to, you wouldn’t have it for long…the starving hordes would take it from you. Which of course leads to the idea of being prepared to fight off the starving hordes with an unlimited supply of ammo. I don’t see that as the biblical option, but that’s just me.  I prefer sensibly preparing for limited problems such as tornadoes, and then trusting God that He will take care of the rest.

As for praying, studying, and fasting—sure. Christians ought to be doing those things all the time, rain or shine, good times and bad. But I’m not quite clear how doubling up on that is the answer to “preparing” for the unknown future.

And besides … my view of what that “unknown future” may be is far from what almost all the prophetic prognosticators are speculating. Which is what makes this blog different from most others focused on the topic of prophecy.

In this series I have asked “Are you prepared for… the Unthinkable?”

What do most American prophecy prognosticators think is virtually assured, is “thinkable,” for the near future? The same thing their compatriots have thought for decades now… that the US used to be smiled upon by God, blessed with prosperity—look at the abundance of the 1950s!—throughout its history. But now there are factors that are just utterly intolerable to God…immorality, abortion, and more. So they have concluded He just absolutely will bring about the utter destruction of the country in the very near future. And since they cannot envision a world without the US being Number One—as it was during most of their own life— the world itself cannot go on much longer. We must be on the brink of the Great Tribulation, and Jesus will return when that is finished.

And, they would suggest, their listeners/readers should DO SOMETHING about this. They should make drastic changes in their lives that they wouldn’t make if the End wasn’t so near.

What would I do in my personal life if I truly believed that was exactly what was going to happen? I would do EXACTLY what I am doing now. Because—absolutely none of us know when our own End is coming. It could be next year. It could be tomorrow. It could be later today. If you are under the illusion that you have the option to “change your ways” … whatever you think that means… once you’ve pinned down an ETA for Jesus, you are fooling yourself. And if you think you’d have the added “oomph” to make those changes if only you could feel the urgency of having a Sure Date for the event, you are also fooling yourself.

The sad fruit of this attitude has wrought havoc in lives ever since the time of Jesus. Every time a false prophet has set a date for The Return and gathered excited disciples to help spread the word, many of those folks have indeed been energized and inspired to “get right with God” in some way they felt they had neglected. That sounds like a wonderful benefit of believing in a Date with all your heart.

But the record of what happened when their Date of choice has passed has shown that almost all the benefits of this delusion every time have been eventually destroyed by the disillusionment of most of those believers. And, sadly, they are seldom just disillusioned with the false prophet. They have often bought a whole “package” of beliefs from the prophet, which may include much biblical truth. But when one part of the package proves to have been a house of cards that comes crashing down, they often toss aside the rest of the package, truth and all, into the trash. And they become not just disillusioned with a man, but with God himself.

What did Jesus answer, just before His ascension, when His disciples asked Him if He was going to set up His Kingdom right away? What did He tell them He expected them to do?

Acts 1:6 So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?”

7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

In other words, He did NOT tell them to waste time trying to figure out “what happens next,” but to get busy doing the work of the ministry. The same thing He told them recorded in Matthew 28: Go and make disciples of all nations.

When Jesus comes back, what will He say He was expecting His servants to be doing? He tells us this in Matthew 25:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on His right,


‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

35 For I was hungry
and you gave Me something to eat;

I was thirsty
and you gave Me something to drink;

I was a stranger and you took Me in;

36 I was naked and you clothed Me;

I was sick and you took care of Me;

I was in prison and you visited Me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or without clothes and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and visit You?’

40 “And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’ 41 Then He will also say to those on the left,


‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!

IF Jesus really is coming back almost immediately, and you want to be ready to have Him say “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” what should you have been doing? Preaching the gospel, making disciples—and ministering to the needs of the poor and afflicted. This isn’t rocket science! He doesn’t ask the sheep “Did you understand the Daniel 9 prophecy passage?” Or complain that the goats didn’t have the proper Key To Understanding the Book of Revelation.

So whether Jesus comes back in five years, ten years, 100 years, or more—you can always be ready if you are doing those things!

Yes, what if NOTHING of any big prophetic significance comes to pass in the rest of your lifetime?

What if the Tribulation doesn’t come, Jesus doesn’t come, the “identity of the Antichrist” isn’t revealed, the identity of the “King of the South” isn’t revealed… what if this old world just keeps on turning?

What if the US economy tanks badly and we suffer a time similar to the Great Depression…but history keeps happening. What if there are numerous wars—and ends to wars—but The Apocalyptic Final Battles don’t materialize? What if the power structure of the world undergoes more juggling… just like it did when Rome took over from Greece, when Great Britain lost its status as Biggest and Baddest Empire, when Hitler failed in his plans? What if indeed the US becomes more of a “second class nation,” falling from its super-power status, but doesn’t collapse completely?

That’s my ultimate question for any Christians who may be reading this series of blog entries. Are YOU prepared, and have you prepared your family, to be the Christian light and salt in such a New World Order? Are YOU prepared, and have you prepared your family, to be able to minister to the needs of others who are bewildered when their own expectations … perhaps of the Rapture, or of the Kingdom … don’t pan out as they expected? Will you be walking in the Spirit in a way that will give you wisdom and insight in how to answer their questions?

Rather than hunkering down in a bunker to ride out bad times, I’m convinced that Christians are called to be out on  the front lines, being the spiritual MASH units, the “hands and feet” of Jesus, touching the hurting with His love.

If you’d like some suggestions on just how you might begin making preparations for this possibility, then check out the final two entries in this series, beginning with:

Outer Chaos, Inner Peace

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PRP9: Colonial Hanky-Panky

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 9

Colonial Hanky-Panky

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

 Sex and the Single Puritan

From: LA Times, 8/22/2012
Thomas A Foster

Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP’s candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri, caused a huge stir the other day with his comments about how women who are true rape victims rarely get pregnant.

“If it’s a legitimate rape,” he said, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

In a piece that was typical of the widespread outrage the remarks stirred, the Atlantic magazine called them the “contemporary equivalent of the early American belief that only witches float.”

The writer was onto something important. Akin’s ideas truly do date back to the colonial era.

In those days, prior to modern medical understanding of conception, women were considered to be “more amorous” than men, and it was believed that both partners needed to have orgasms in order for conception to occur.

Nicholas Culpeper’s 17th century midwife manuals espoused that it was a woman’s “womb, skipping as it were for joy” that produced “in that pang of Pleasure” the “seed” needed for conception to occur. If both husband and wife were not properly in love and enjoying sex, conception would fail, he asserted, because “the woman, being averse, does not produce sufficient quantities of the spirits with which her genitals should normally swell.”

Although many women in early America undoubtedly knew that orgasm was not required for pregnancy to occur, many women also embraced the two-seed theory of reproduction.

Jane Sharp’s 17th century manual, for example, explicitly discussed the clitoris, and described it as the location for women’s physical sexual pleasures and the key to women’s ability to conceive. “By the stirring of the Clitoris,” she wrote, “the imagination causeth the Vessels to cast out that Seed that lyeth deep in the body.”

Such notions of fertilization could have profound implications for women who sought justice after rape resulted in pregnancy. As historian of rape in early America Sharon Block has shown, colonial courts were notoriously suspicious of women who brought rape accusations. Women were seldom taken at their word and the status of the accused and the accuser became central to the outcome of the case. Moreover, a recurring theme in newspapers of the era was that that men needed to protect themselves against women — “the cunning sex” — who were out to falsely accuse them of rape.

Women who bore the added burden of pregnancy as a result of rape might come under special criticism in an already skeptical legal and social setting. Given the understanding of conception outlined above, if a woman became pregnant as the result of rape, consent would be assumed. Newspapers in early America routinely mocked women who dared to speak about rape and sexual assault by implying that they had wanted the sexual contact.

Indeed, the idea of women as bewitching seductresses was common in early America. In 1759, a woman named Anna Donham was brought before the Plymouth General Session for having had “a wicked and diabolical intent to corrupt and debauch” the local men, inciting them “to commit fornication and adultery.” She was fined and sentenced to public lashing, but the men who enjoyed her company were not accused of any crime.  [Article from LA Times]

I don’t know about later generations, but in my Boomer generation The Scarlet Letter was required reading in high school English in the 1960s. So we all knew that indeed some Puritans had sex…and sometimes outside marriage.  But I guess I always assumed that, other than for the purpose of a married couple producing children to work the farm, it was an extremely rare occurrence. Those prissy, dour faces in the pictures of Puritans—and all that stuff about executing witches!—sure seemed to indicate a very uptight existence. Who would have guessed they had sex manuals?!


In this series on Are You Prepared…? we have been exploring American history to see if we can find a Pure Period we could “go back to” if we had a time machine, so we could escape from this 21st century society that so many Christians seem to think has totally deteriorated from a pure American past. Surely, so many say these days, Jesus must return in our generation because we have fallen so far—why, the whole society is no better than Sodom and Gomorrah. Not like the earlier generations of Americans, who, except for a few reprobates, were clean-thinking, morally upright, and noble.

But as we’ve sorted back through the previous generations of our forebears, it has been impossible to spot even one such generation, let alone several. Yes, there have always been noble, godly people scattered through society. But that is true today also! The truth is, human nature in general has changed not one whit over the centuries in this country. For instance, more effective methods of communication—mass-production printing, radio, TV, the Internet—have indeed increased the availability of pornography, but the desire for pornography has always existed, from ancient times. And men have always taken advantage of whatever was available to them in any generation. In America as elsewhere in the world.

The first commercially successful photo process, the daguerreotype, was patented in 1839.  The first picture successfully produced by the method was a still life of plaster casts, a wicker-covered bottle, a framed drawing, and a curtain. Yes, the process was promptly used for formal portraits … one of Abe Lincoln from 1846 is still extant, and a pic of an even earlier one, 1844 or 1845, of Andrew Jackson, is on the net. But it was equally almost instantly pressed into service to make pornographic photos. I don’t know when the first one was shot, but there is a copy of one on the Net from 1848—less than a decade after the patent—of a totally naked woman lying on a bed sexually fondling another totally naked woman. And daguerroporn goes downhill from there.

By the time of the Civil War the paper printing photo process had been invented, and such pornography could be mass-produced. And, as mentioned in earlier blog entries, mass-delivered to lonely Yanks and Rebels in military camps all over the country.

But—Puritan New England? Colonial Virginia?  Surely the generation of the Founding Fathers, and their forebears going back to Plymouth Rock, were a different breed. Surely we just haven’t gone back far enough, with the last blog entry that talked about the 1840s Flash Press. In fact, a fellow on a forum where I participate suggested just that. He admitted that this blog series had accurately portrayed the fact that there has been immorality—often rampant—in most generations throughout our history. But he was absolutely certain that the earliest generations, prior to 1800, really were utterly different. And it was from that high and lofty standard we had fallen.

Oh. O.K. Let’s see if we can establish that with facts.

Colonial New York was preeminently a seaport, and prostitution flourished in the streets and taverns close to the docks… New York, remarked John Watt in the 1760s, was ‘the worst School for Youth of any of his Majesty’s Dominions, Ignorance, Vanity, Dress, and Dissipation, being the reigning Characteristics of their insipid Lives.’ For much of the eighteenth century, ‘courtesans’ promenaded along the Battery after nightfall. On the eve of the Revolution, over 500 ‘ladies of pleasure [kept] lodgings contiguous within the consecrated liberties of St. Paul’s [Chapel].’ A few blocks north, at the entrance to King’s College (later Columbia University), Robert M’Robert claimed that dozens of prostitutes provided ‘a temptation to the youth that have occasion to pass so often that way.’” (Timothy J. Gilfoyle, PhD “The Urban Geography of Commercial Sex: Prostitution in New York City, 1790-1860”)

Virginia Sex Ways

A multiple standard of sexual behavior (not merely a double standard) appeared not only in the laws of Virginia but also in its customs. Women, especially gentlewomen, were held to the strictest standards of sexual virtue. Men, especially gentlemen, were encouraged by the customs of the country to maintain a predatory attitude toward women. A famous example was the secret diary of William Byrd II, an exceptionally full and graphic record of one planter’s very active sex life. [Byrd was a well-known Virginian plantation owner, investor, politician, writer, and surveyor, founder of Richmond, Virginia.]

byrd at 50

Byrd at 50

In its attitude toward sex, this work was very different from any diary that was kept in Puritan New England. William Byrd was a sexual predator. Promiscuous activity was a continuing part of his mature life, and in some periods an obsession. With very mixed success, he attempted to seduce relatives, neighbors, casual acquaintances, strangers, prostitutes, the wives of his best friends, and servants both black and white, on whom he often forced himself, much against their wishes.


In the period 1709 to 1712, for example, when Byrd was more or less happily married, he was frequently engaged in sexual adventures:

2 [November 1709] I played at [r-m] with Mrs. Chiswell and kissed her on the bed till she was angry and my wife also was uneasy about it, and cried as soon as the company was gone. I neglected to say my prayers, which I ought not to have done, because I ought to beg pardon for the lust I had for another man’s wife.

It is important to note that the remorse he felt on this occasion had to mainly to do with his sense of violating another gentleman’s property. More often, he felt no remorse at all. Sometimes Byrd and his Virginia gentleman-friends went on collective woman hunts:

11 Mar. 1711. After church Mr. Goodwin invited us to dinner and I ate fish. Here we saw a fine widow Mrs. O-s-b-r-n who had been handsome in her time. From hence we went to Mr. B’s where we drank cider and saw Molly King, a pretty black girl.

20 [October 1711] Jenny, an Indian girl, had got drunk and made us good sport.

During this period in his life, Byrd’s sexual adventures were comparatively restrained. After his wife died, he sometimes engaged in this activity on a daily basis. An example comes from a visit to London in the month of September 1719:

8 September … saw two women, a mother and daughter who stayed about two hours and then came Mrs. Johnson with whom I supped and ate some fricasee of rabbit and about ten went to bed with her and lay all night and rogered her twice …

11 September … I wrote some English till nine and then came Mrs. S-t-r-d. I drank a glass of wine to our good rest and then went to bed and rogered her three times. However, I could not sleep and neglected my prayers….

14 … About eight I went to Mrs. Smith’s where I met Molly and had some oysters for supper and about eleven we went to bed and I rogered her twice …

17 … about seven I went to Mrs. FitzHerbert’s where I ate some boiled pork and drank some ale. About nine I walked away and picked up a girl whom I carried to the bagnio and rogered her twice very well. It rained abundance in the night. …

2 October … went to meet Molly H-r-t-n at Mrs. Smith’s in Jermyn Street where I went to bed with her and lay till 9 o’clock but could do nothing. Then we had chicken for supper and I gave her two Guineas and about twelve walked home and neglected my prayers …

16 October picked up a woman and went to the tavern where we had a broiled fowl and afterwards I committed uncleanness for which God forgive me. About eleven I went home and neglected my prayers.

20 October … to the play where I saw nobody I liked so went to Will’s and stayed about an hour and then went to Mrs. Smith’s where I met a very tall woman and rogered her three times …

In November, William Byrd and his English gentleman-friends were prowling in packs.

11 November, went with Lord Orrery to Mrs B-r-t-n where we found two chambermaids that my Lord had ordered to be got for us and I rogered one of them and about 9 o’clock returned again to Will’s where Betty S-t-r-d called on me in a coach and I went with her to a bagnio and rogered her twice, for which God forgive me …

Between “rogering” and forgetting his prayers, Byrd led a busy life. But, you may insist, he was no doubt just “the town rowdy” and not indicative of the colonial Virginia society of the time.

Sexual predators such as William Byrd have existed in every society. But some cultures more than others have tended to encourage their activities, and even to condone them. This was the case in tidewater Virginia, with its strong ideas of male supremacy and masculine assertiveness. William Byrd’s behavior differed only in degree from Thomas Jefferson’s relentless pursuit of Mrs. Walker, or George Washington’s clumsy flirtation with Mrs. Fairfax. These men represented the best of their culture; the sexual activities of other planters made even William Byrd appear a model of restraint. An old tidewater folk saying in Prince George’s County, Maryland, defined a virgin as a girl who could run faster than her uncle.

The sexual predators of Virginia found many opportunities among indentured servant girls during the seventeenth century. The journal of John Harrower described free and easy fornication with female servants in Virginia. Exceptionally high rates of prenuptial pregnancy and illegitimacy among English female immigrants to Virginia was in part due to this cause. There is evidence in the records that some masters deliberately impregnated their servants as a way of extending their indentures. …

The abolitionist indictment of slavery for its association with predatory sex had a solid foundation in historical fact. One thinks of Mary Boykin Chesnut’s response to the antislavery movement in the nineteenth century:

Like the patriarchs of old our men live in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children-and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds…. You see, Mrs. Stowe did not hit on the sorest spot. She makes Legree [in Uncle Tom’s Cabin] a bachelor

Mrs. Chesnut knew whereof she spoke, and was haunted by her knowledge of sexual predators within her own family. But she (and the abolitionists, and many historians too) were very much mistaken in thinking that the “peculiar institution” of race slavery itself was the first cause of this behavior. The same pattern had appeared in Virginia before slavery was widespread. It had also existed in rural England.

The cultural idea of the predatory male was carried very far in early Virginia—even to the point of condoning rape. The diaries and commonplace books of Anglo-American gentlemen often recorded a complaisant and even jocular attitude toward rape that differed very much from prevailing mores in Puritan New England. The founders of New England made rape a hanging crime. In the courts of the Chesapeake colonies, it was sometimes punished less severely than petty theft-a different attitude from the Puritan colonies.

Ah—so it is in the Puritan colonies that we should look for purity.

Jonathan Edwards, Massachusetts 1739


The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment…

Yes, that is Puritan preacher, Jonathan Edwards, with his classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”


O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: ‘tis a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell; you hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

It was Edward’s custom to read his sermons, instead of speaking extemporaneously. So the text of this famous sermon was afterwards published. It spread far and wide throughout Colonial America, and thus is still available to us today.

Notice that in Edward’s famous sermon he referred to his listeners as “sinners.” Don’t assume he was speaking in an evangelistic campaign to the public, to an audience of heathens drug from nearby saloons.

…The wrath of almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over great part of this congregation: let everyone fly out of Sodom. Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed [Genesis 19:17].

This sermon was given not to the public, but to his own congregation in Norhthampton, and a month later to a church congregation in Enfield, Connecticut, invited there by the church’s pastor. It was there that an eyewitness reported an “audience so moved by the sermon that people moaned, shrieked, and cried out for salvation while the preacher was speaking.”

So whatever view we may have 250+ years later of the godliness and purity of the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards seemed to think that there was a LOT of hanky-panky going on right within his own congregation!

The bottom line of all this—even in the purest of Puritan Colonial New England, all was not a moral utopia.

No, I really would have no interest in trading my 21st century life to time-travel back to Colonial America in hopes of living a Leave it To Beaver/Father Knows Best/Little House on the Prairie life. As an “older woman” I’m not particularly impressed with this actual advice below from Ben Franklin to a friend who asked about “taking a mistress” to meet the problem of sexual desires. Admittedly, Ben first suggested that his friend get married to deal with the problem.  But he didn’t hesitate to then give him advice on what to do if he wasn’t ready for a “permanent commitment” quite yet:

Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress (1745)


…But if you will not take this Counsel, and persist in thinking a Commerce with the Sex inevitable, then I repeat my former Advice, that in all your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones. You call this a Paradox, and demand my Reasons. They are these:

1. Because as they have more Knowledge of the World and their Minds are better stor’d with Observations, their Conversation is more improving and more lastingly agreable.

2. Because when Women cease to be handsome, they study to be good. To maintain their Influence over Men, they supply the Diminution of Beauty by an Augmentation of Utility. They learn to do a 1000 Services small and great, and are the most tender and useful of all Friends when you are sick. Thus they continue amiable. And hence there is hardly such a thing to be found as an old Woman who is not a good Woman.

3. Because there is no hazard of Children, which irregularly produc’d may be attended with much Inconvenience.

4. Because thro’ more Experience, they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an Intrigue to prevent Suspicion. The Commerce with them is therefore safer with regard to your Reputation. And with regard to theirs, if the Affair should happen to be known, considerate People might be rather inclin’d to excuse an old Woman who would kindly take care of a young Man, form his Manners by her good Counsels, and prevent his ruining his Health and Fortune among mercenary Prostitutes.

5. Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part: The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the last as plump as ever: So that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement.

6. Because the Sin is less. The debauching a Virgin may be her Ruin, and make her for Life unhappy.

7. Because the Compunction is less. The having made a young Girl miserable may give you frequent bitter Reflections; none of which can attend the making an old Woman happy.

8thly and Lastly They are so grateful!!

Now mind you, Franklin himself was married. And although, particularly after the death of his wife, he was “rumored” to be promiscuous, and he traveled in circles frequented by openly promiscuous men, it isn’t a certainty that he gave this advice based on personal experience. But let’s face it … the very fact that a piece such as this could be publically published in the mid-1700s, without a huge uproar that it was scandalous, and a heated condemnation of Franklin as an immoral reprobate, seems to me to be evidence that what it describes is a “common attitude” among men of the time. Including among some of the “Founding Fathers.”

Then there was the incidence of premarital sex, which many folks seem to think is somehow “unique” to the past half century or less.

From a Genealogy forum:

I am afraid I can’t cite the source (something like Natural History, Smithsonian, or such) about five-to-eight years ago had an article that might be relevant to the discussion about age of marriage and first pregnancy. It included a summary of the diary of a midwife from the time of the American Revolution. If I remember correctly, about 40% of women’s first-born children were born significantly before nine months of marital bliss. The gist of the article, I believe, was that Americans 200 years ago—although they may have talked against it—commonly practiced pre-marital sex. However, once the girl/woman became pregnant, it was assumed that they would wed. It is interesting to me, as an anthropologist, as an illustrative example of the distinction between what is called “ideal” and “real” culture, as well as for the amazingly revisionist history that likely takes place in all societies. If 40% of first-births were to women who were pregnant for some time at their marriage, then it is clear that far more than half of colonial era Americans engaged in premarital intercourse. Not that I am saying that I am shocked by this, or would castigate them, but that from two centuries beyond, we have Fabricated a false notion about sexuality, marriage and childbirth.

The book mentioned by this writer is Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

midwifes tale book

The diary of a midwife and herbalist reveals the prevalence of violence, crime and premarital sex in rural 18th-century New England.  …  Made into an American Experience video special by PBS.

midwife movie

“In 1785, America was a rough and chaotic young nation, and Maine its remote northern frontier. That year, at the age of 50, Martha Ballard began the diary that she would keep for the next 27 years, until her death. At a time when fewer than half the women in America were literate, Ballard faithfully recorded the weather, her daily household tasks, her midwifery duties (she delivered close to a thousand babies), her medical practice, and countless incidents that reveal the turmoil of a new nation — dizzying social change, intense religious conflict, economic boom and bust — as well as the grim realities of disease, domestic violence, and debtor’s prison.”

So based on records of the 1000 or so babies Ballard delivered, at least in her area, something like half of the people engaged in premarital sex. Hardly our view of Early American society!

Further comments on that forum about illegitimate births in the Puritan period:

There’s also a paperback, called Lost Babes of Essex County, MA about town records involving early and illegitimate births. [1692-1745]

Comment:  The interest of the town fathers in babies arriving out of turn was not prurient, but practical:  they knew that illegitimate children and their mothers were far more likely than others to need financial help from the town. The town fathers weren’t prepared to put up with deadbeat dads; fathers of illegitimate children were required to support their children until they were seven or eight—old enough to be apprenticed to a trade. Consequently, a pregnant spinster (or even a married woman whose husband hadn’t been in town recently) was required to make a statement about the paternity of the child. If she refused, she [the midwife] was required to return again and again, and the midwife was required to demand the information when the woman was in labor, on the theory she [the mother] wouldn’t be able to lie then. Many such statements recorded by these town fathers are explicit about the name, date, place, and circumstances surrounding the conception of the baby—a real eye-opener for descendants to read.

Second comment:  If your girl became pregnant before marriage, the town fathers “encouraged” the two of you to marry right away. The New England fine was forty shillings each, unless the midwife testified that the baby was small and undeveloped—OBVIOUSLY a seven-months child. But the Lost Babes book commented that in an era where divorce was for all practical purposes nonexistent and children supremely important, couples may also have decided it was worth eighty shillings to assure their mutual fertility before marrying. (I blush to confess that I have one late eighteenth-century ancestor who married four times—and only his last wife, being past it, was NOT pregnant at the time of the marriage.)

Again, I suppose this ONE town in Massachusetts could have been a complete aberration for that time period, but I highly doubt it.

So what does all this anecdotal evidence indicate? No, it doesn’t “prove” that society in the colonial era was “as corrupt” as society today. What it does show is that human nature hasn’t basically changed. The cumulative effect of two and a half centuries of changes in technology, living conditions (moving from primarily rural and agricultural to primarily urban and industrial), access to improved communications, and more, has made some segments of our society more openly “sinful.” Yes, “dirty talk” on TV is now more blatant than ever. Yes, those looking for porn on the Internet can instantly find photos and movies of gross sexual immorality, in a way that wouldn’t have been available to folks in the past. But even those Puritan boys were already primed to sneak a peek at Midwive’s Manuals and have a “prurient interest” in them!

I am highly suspicious if a time traveler from the future would have shown up with a computer full of hardcore porn pics in 1739 Northampton, and would have taken some young fellows … and their dads … out back of Jonathan Edwards’ Congregational church to have a peek … almost none of them would have gasped and turned away in disgust. They would have crowded in closer and asked for a chance to click the mouse to show the close-ups. Willing to risk the chastisement of Edwards and his threats of God’s wrath…just to see salacious pics o’ nekkid ladies.

I guess I could keep going, back to the landing of Columbus in the Americas, but I don’t believe that is necessary. The reality is that America has always had good and bad, sexual morality and sexual immorality, righteousness and evil, greed and generosity, kindness and cruelty. There is no evidence that our 21st century society is somehow uniquely despicable in God’s eyes, as “bad as Sodom and Gomorrah,” and He must therefore be planning to intervene in the immediate future by sending Jesus back to set up the Kingdom.

The next installment of this blog series will explore the implications of this reality, especially for those Americans who consider themselves Evangelical Christians:

Back to the Future

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PRP8: Flashy Victorians

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 8

Flashy Victorians

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

If you’ve read a number of Victorian era novels—or seen the movies or TV shows based on them—such as Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Secret Garden, or maybe Little Lord Fauntleroy, you are familiar with the Victorian household and its various non-family members:


A maidservant or in current usage housemaid or maid is a female employed in domestic service. Although now restricted to only the most wealthy of households, in the Victorian era domestic service was the second largest category of employment in England and Wales, after agricultural work….Maids traditionally have a fixed position in the hierarchy of the large households, and although there is overlap between definitions (dependent on the size of the household) the positions themselves would typically be rigidly adhered to….Chamber maid — the chamber maids cleaned and maintained the bedrooms, ensured fires were lit in fireplaces, and supplied hot water. [Wiki: Maid]

These distinctions would have been true in the Victorian Era both in England and among the middle and upper classes in the United States. One of the jobs of the chamber maid would have been to apply the warming pan between the sheets of the beds on a cold winter’s night:

Before central heating was invented, houses were often cold and damp in the winter. The warming pan was used in beds not only to warm them, but also to try to get rid of some of the damp. The pan was filled with hot charcoal or ashes and then pushed into the bed. The long handle on the pan was used to move it around in order to get rid of as much cold and damp as possible. [Object Lessons: Bed Warmer]

Here’s an authentic warming pan from the Victorian Era.

warming pan

Chamber maids, warming pans … it all seems innocent enough, eh? Especially among the prudish Victorians with the men in top hats and dress coats all the time and women in floor length dresses.

On April 9, 1842, The Whip, a weekly New York newspaper that pledged to “keep a watchful eye on all brothels and their frail inmates,” carried an article about chambermaids. Chambermaids were women of flesh and blood, according to the article, “with the same instinctive desires as their masters, and much of their time is necessarily passed alone, in remote apartments, which usually contain beds.” Accompanying the article was a drawing: a chambermaid gripped the long wooden handle of a warming pan that projected rudely from between a tailcoated gentleman’s legs. [New York Times book review: The Flash Press]

chambermaid whip 1842

“Take care of [watch out for] the Warming pan, Sir.”

And therein lies a tale of the Flashy side of Victorian life.

When we use the term “flashy” today, it doesn’t have a particularly overly-negative connotation. It most often refers to clothing styles, and mostly just implies that an outfit is not conservative and drab. It is bright and colorful, exciting, maybe a bit outlandish. Here are some modern gents in flashy outfits.


And here is an older woman who obviously enjoys wearing fun, flashy clothes.


Although there is a vague connection between our use of the term and the way it was used in the early 1800s, there was a different slant and emphasis on it back then.

An 1859 New York “slang dictionary” defined a flash-man as “a fellow that has no visible means of living, yet goes dressed in fine clothes, exhibiting a profusion of jewelry about his person,” suggesting an income derived from pimping or thieving. [The Flash Press]

Sounds indeed like a pimp of today…or a few televangelists I’ve seen.


A British slang dictionary of 1874 elaborated on this:

Flash: showy, smart, knowing; a word with various meanings. A person is said to be dressed FLASH when his garb is showy, and after a fashion, but without taste. A person is said to be FLASH when he apes the appearance or manners of his betters, or when he is trying to be superior to his friends and relations. FLASH also means “fast,” roguish, and sometimes infers counterfeit or deceptive—and this, perhaps, is its general signification.

A word often connected to flashy men of the early Victorian period was “sporting male.” This did not indicate a man who liked to go hunting or fishing or to play various sports. It meant a man, usually unmarried, who was “preoccupied with the pursuit of pleasure and especially games of chance.” The “sporting life” was one long round of evenings and nights spent in saloons, gambling halls, bordellos… and sometimes even at sporting events such as bare-fisted boxing—if the sport could involve betting. Obviously, unless the fellow was so good at gambling that he could support himself on his winnings, this would require an independent source of income rather than blue-collar or white-collar work. Young men from wealthy families who had a generous “allowance” could indulge in the “sporting life” if not hindered by their fathers. Those not supported by a rich father, if attractive enough, might find a convenient role as a “fancy man” for a high-end prostitute, and could live on her income. (A fancy man might function as a pimp, or sometimes as just a “kept man” if the woman had a steady income, perhaps as a regular in an elegant bordello.)

We wouldn’t know much about the sexual escapades of Civil War soldiers if it weren’t for the ferreting out of “ephemera” by collectors and historians, in such sources as diaries, letters, court records, and newspaper reports of the time. The same is true of the life of the “sporting man” of the Victorian era. This was an aspect of Victorian society that has been much overlooked in history books until recent times because of the lack of source material. But in 1985, an anonymous collector offered to the American Antiquarian Society a collection, in very good shape, of over 100 issues of four ephemeral “newspapers” from the 1840s. The Rake, the Flash, the Whip, and the Libertine had been published in New York City from 1841 to 1843.

These publications offered an amazing glimpse into a facet of Victorian society that the history books had ignored.

Before this, there had been hints among other ephemera that the straight-laced public face of the Era might hide a significant amount of hanky panky. Even the usually decidedly Unflashy, “respectable” New York printing house of Currier and Ives played around the edges of naughtiness with some of its engravings designed to be framed and displayed in Victorian homes. Such as this one, titled “Kiss me quick” …

kissmequick 1840

The caption reads: “Children, this is the third time within an hour that I have placed your hats properly on your heads. — There!!”

Notice where the gent’s right hand is … this isn’t a married couple and their offspring. It is an older sister or nanny with the children.

But the sexual innuendo is just that, quite subtle and limited to a fleeting kiss.

The Rake, Whip, Flash, and Libertine were anything but subtle. And had almost no limits.

flash press cover

The Flash, the Whip, the Rake, and the Libertine: such titles might evoke images of pamphlets handed out on the Las Vegas strip or of contemporary “lad” magazines, but they were actually four short-lived weekly newspapers produced in New York City in the early 1840s. For the last two decades, historians Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz have mined these papers for evidence of public discourse on sexuality and crime in nineteenth-century New York City. Now they have collaborated on The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York, a book that offers both analysis of and extensive excerpts from these largely forgotten publications. [Book review]

Sex has always sold well. Most of us just assumed it took the likes of Larry Flynt, Al Goldstein, and the rest of that merry band of porn purveyors to finally get it openly on the newsstands. But now comes news that more than a century before them, an earlier breed of devilish publishers delighted readers with similar publications right here in New York.

… the publishers chose titles that got right to the point: The Whip, The Rake, The Libertine, The Flash, and others with even shorter publishing lives. One of these, The New York Sporting Whip, offered a kind of mission statement: “Man is endowed by nature with passions that must be gratified,” the newspaper asserted, “and no blame can be attached to him, who for that purpose occasionally seeks the woman of pleasure.” [Village Voice book review]

…The papers were an immediate hit. Newsboys hawked them for six cents apiece at ferry landings and oyster bars. Paid circulation averaged 10,000 to 12,000 per issue. Among the surefire circulation-building devices were in-depth reviews of the city’s hundreds of brothels. “Princess Julia’s Palace of Love,” a story in the June 6, 1841, edition of a weekly called Dixon’s Polyanthos, depicted a popular brothel run by a fashionable madam named Julia Brown: “On ascending the second story, up the splendid steps, you fall in, with apartment No. 1. This room is occupied by Lady Ellen, and a glorious lady she is, with the dark flashing orbs, and full of feeling—so full of intellect that one might stand and gaze, and gaze . . .”

Such prostitution should be legal, the weeklies openly advocated. Brothels, wrote The Rake, “are as essential to the well-being of society as churches.” Equally shocking, some publications were “matter-of-factly pro-abortion,” the authors state.

But they were often less high-minded. Publishers accepted payoffs to plug brothels, while blackmailing sex-parlor owners and customers alike. Addressing a prominent New Yorker as “J.R.L.,” The Whip threatened to publish “a list of the houses he lets to frail women for the purpose of carrying on the sinful trade of prostitution” if he failed to pay $50. He paid. [New York Times book review]

Don’t assume this was only a “big city” phenomenon, peculiar to the Big Apple.

This flash community soon took on regional and even national dimensions, thanks to a system of agents who contracted to sell the papers in far-flung places. Letters and articles submitted by correspondents to the Flash, the Whip, and the Rake reveal that tendrils extended out from the city, to other larger cities and small villages all over the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states and even to the South, where one communication line stretched deep into Georgia. [The Flash Press]

And in addition to the New York papers with their regional correspondents, there were numerous “flash-like” papers from the 1830s to the 1850s published in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston also.

What was a typical Flash paper like?

For starters, there were the engraved illustrations. (Photography wasn’t available yet for publications.) They seldom had more than fleeting partial nudity, but were heavy on innuendo. Check out this sample of “voyeurism.”

flash newsrake1842

Looks modest enough to modern eyes. (Well, except for the low-cut top on the dress!) What’s the big deal that the guy got to see a pile of petticoats and bloomers?  What’s missing in our minds is the Rest of the Story. You see, Victorian ladies’ styles were so complicated to take off to use the restroom facilities that their undergarments had a gaping hole that could be used for convenience. Thus the startled fellow is getting a real eyeful.

Which also explains the big deal in this similar picture, of a gent positioning himself under a grating where a young lady has stopped to adjust her shoelace.


When I saw the pic, it immediately reminded me of a more modern pic involving a grating.


As for the written content of the flash press papers, the front page often had a story about a specific local person or a generic “type” … such as a servant girl or hat-maker. An engraved illustration either depicted the character, or was just a “stock picture” that would show someone in a “humorously compromising position.”

The Flash titled the feature the “Gallery of Rascalities and Notorieties” and focused on locally well-known men connected to newspapers, theaters, brothels, or crime, whose exploits and weaknesses—for sex, for drink—were scathingly ridiculed.

…Other profiles under the rubric “Lives of the Nymphs” or “Nymphs by Daylight” featured individual “frail” young women giving sympathetic and compelling stories of their descent into prostitution. (“Frail “was not a flash word but a common code word used by the dominant culture to describe a woman of compromised sexual virtue, whose fall thus indicated moral weakness on her part.) Some papers might run on page one a scandalous “crim. con.” article (“criminal conversation” in English law, meaning a charge of adulterous sex), regaling readers with some sexual entanglement, purportedly of real people; other front pages featured short fictional pieces involving seduction or adultery. [ibid]

The second page had editorials, where editors “castigated their opponents, puffed their favorites, or commented on events of the week.” This was accompanied by short bits of news about the “comings and goings of prostitutes, fancy men, pimps, and dandies.”

There were weekly “tours” of local brothels, describing in detail the most charming of the inmates, along with details of fancy dress balls featuring the same charming ladies. To match the “sporting” word sometimes included in the mastheads of the papers, they actually did at times report on boxing matches, dog and horse racing, cockfights, and even gentlemen’s “pedestrian competitions.” The latter was all the rage at the time…literal “walking races.” (I guess it was difficult for dandies to run in top hats …)



In the twentieth and twenty-first century, we’ve been familiar with publications that tattle on the doings of famous people. They are in your face at the checkout counter of every grocery store these days.


But imagine a situation in which not just Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise and Monica Lewinsky are targets of the gossip mongers. What if the shop keeper in your neighborhood, the lawyer living a few blocks away…or even you were subject to finding your own dirty little secrets published for all to see? That was the reality of the flash press.


After the reports on the pedestrian competitions and the cockfights, in the standard flash press edition, came the page with the “Wants Ads” section. No, not “want ads.” These weren’t ads for items that someone wanted to purchase. They were paid “Wants to know” ads. Someone “wants to know” the sleazy details of gossip about some person. Actually, although presented as “wants to know” they usually included enough information, including initials of names, to indicate that the person already knew the details and was merely presenting them in a titillating way. For instance, one entry noted someone “Wants to know…

“…what old lecher from Bond Street went with a little girl [no doubt a phrase implying a teenager] to a house of assignation [place where “sexual appointments” were kept…] in Elm Street on Tuesday evening. Look out old sinner…

Another paid ad indicated someone “wanted to know…”

…what C.J. was at [what was he doing] in the dark box at Vauxhall [local theater] with the girl in the blue bonnet. Her draperies [clothing] seemed to hang rather odd. Be more careful next time, Charley.”

And the “wants” ads weren’t just for New York. Once there were “correspondents” in place all over broad sections of the country, the undercover shenanigans of the residents of the smallest of towns might end up exposed in the latest edition of the Flash or Whip.

The Whip’s correspondent from Poughkeepsie [NY] once reported that he staked out the front porch of the main hotel in that Hudson River town to observe the rush of readers buying copies of the flash paper fresh off the steamboat from New York City. The purchasers immediately turned to the “wants” column, he claimed, to check out “their own exposure; some squatting on stoops, others on the packing boxes in front of their stores; here a few lawyers, there a dry goods merchant with his clerks looking over his shoulder; further on several gathered about a grocery store—some with consternation visible on their countenances, others with compressed lips and lowering brow; others again with smiles on their faces but terror in their hearts.” Their sins? Lying, slander, and fornication, “which is carried on to a great extent in this community,” according to the correspondent. [ibid]

For all the gossip and salacious details of seduction, on the surface the writing style of the papers was always prissy enough that it would sound to modern ears as if written by a schoolmarm. Here is a taste of the writing style, a sample from an 1841 edition of the paper, in which the editor of the Rake is defending the “honor” of his paper as being of great value to the community. Why, the material in the Rake is no different from the stories in lofty literature about the pagan gods of yore, which make up much of the literature that is taught in schools. (A point, actually, that I would not quibble with myself …)

We are charged with misleading the minds of the youth. The fault is not with us; it is in the nature of man itself. The seeds of his intemperance are broadly scattered over its surface; pregnant with soft desires, they covet a genial growth and force themselves upward. Go to the mythology of the ancients, the religion that held possession of the world for so many ages. What is it but a tissue of intrigues and jealousies. The great occupation of their divinities seems to have been the gratification of their immortal lust. They saw the daughters of earth, that they were fair, and the great Thunderer himself did not hesitate to stoop from his high Olympus, and throwing aside the dreadful bolt, cheat our terrestrial beauties into an embrace. Even the halls of heaven itself were not free from the pollution; and crim. cons., adulteries, lewdness, drunkenness, and other debaucheries, were as rife in the courts of Jove, as in our sinful world at this time. Themes like these have engaged the loftiest intellects, and have been sung in strains the most melodious and divine, that ever enraptured or soothed the ear; or ministered to the prurient impulses of our nature. And these are the productions which are put into our almost infant hands—with good cause—for what intellectual and accomplished or virtuous and pious parent would forbid to his child an acquaintance with those literary treasures with which their authors have enriched the store house of human learning.

But of course, the average reader of these newspapers wasn’t really looking for a Classical Fix in the copy he bought from the newsboy outside the local saloon. He just wanted a liberal dose of smut and gossip.

The weekly [The Flash]— sold for six cents by vocal newsboys and carrying advertisements for the Grotto and the Climax eating houses, cheap dress coats, midwifery and antisyphilitic nostrums like Hunter’s Red Drop — was an immediate success, and almost immediately it got into trouble. In the issue of Oct. 17, 1841, appeared one in a series of articles called “Lives of the Nymphs.” The article told the story of a rich, successful courtesan, Amanda Green — the tall, full-formed daughter of a dressmaker, who was abducted by a man in a coach and plied with Champagne. “At the crowing of the cock she was no more a maid,” said the article. Abandoned by her gentleman abuser, she took up with a German piano tuner — after which there was no recourse but a life of open shame. “May those who have not yet sinned, take warning by her example,” the Flash reporter piously wrote. “She is very handsome. She resides at Mrs. Shannon’s, No. 74 West Broadway.”

The burst of published indecorum reached its peak in the summer of 1842 …By that summer, there were two more flash rags, The Rake and The Libertine, and a printer and cartoonist named Robinson was busy selling dirty drawings with titles like “Do You Like This Sort of Thing?” [The Way the World Works]

I suppose those who “liked that sort of thing” were particularly happy when nude photos became available before too long, and the “home grown” erotic novel market got started a few years later, in 1849, with a book titled Madge Bufford: A Lively Letter to a Lonely Lover. What Uncle Bob taught her; and how she profited by his instruction with men and women black and white, with diversions among the quadrupeds. Showing that Yankee gals, grope, gape, gallop and take the salacious sweet as sensually as their smutty sisters over the sea. It contained, as one website put it, “prurient descriptions of intercourse, sodomy, voyeurism, and miscegenation [inter-racial sex].

Up until then, Americans wanting written erotica had been limited to boot-leg copies of European classics such as Fanny Hill, a 1748 British novel that was the “first English prose pornography and the first pornography to use the novel form” (Wiki: Fanny Hill). Fanny Hill pulled no punches … it included extremely explicit descriptions of a wide variety of sexual activity, so much so that it was STILL officially banned in the US until the ban was lifted by the US Supreme Court in 1966. (This doesn’t, of course, mean that it wasn’t widely available “under the counter.” Both in the 1850s and the 1950s. It was.) Once American authors got geared up to meet the growing demand, they regularly cranked out fodder for the booksellers, including, in 1864 a classy book titled The Life and Amours of the Beautiful, Gay and Dashing Kate Percival, The Belle of the Delaware, Written by Herself, Voluptuous, Exciting, Amorous and Delighting.

It’s obvious that American Victorian book authors wanted to make sure that prospective purchasers had enough information in the title to decide if the book was for them!

It would seem that Victorian life was all not “as advertised” in the past hundred and more years in history books and popular culture, such as in the Christmasy Currier and Ives-style artwork. As The Flash Press book put it—

The flash papers describe on their own terms and in their own flippant way an underworld that formed a larger part of antebellum [“before the Civil War”] American culture than hitherto acknowledged, a world that drew in a surprising range of participants and offered a challenge to what has often been seen as a monolithic Victorian sexual regime emphasizing suppression if not outright denial of sexual urges. The papers illuminate an erotic universe with models of masculine and feminine behavior differing from those of the dominant culture. With humor and sarcasm, the editors challenged the ethos of sexual purity that constituted the official story about respectable sexual morality.

So we’ve come once again to the question…have we found in the early Victorian Era the Golden Age of American sexual purity, that so impressed God that He smiled down and began showering the nation with bountiful blessings as His favored nation? Two hundred years later, have we “sunk so low” from this high point that God is now disgusted with the alleged Sodom and Gomorrah our current generation has become? Should we have “returned” to that glorious yesteryear, those “Good Old Days” of yore? And can we thus assume that “Jesus MUST be coming soon” because our children and our grandchildren’s generations are hopeless?

As readers of this series should know by now, I am convinced ALL of that reasoning is horribly flawed. I have provided documentation for “reality” throughout the history of this nation that refutes the assumption system it is based on. Yes, there have been many GOOD things we can point to in the history of this nation. We can be proud of the accomplishments of many of our forefathers … and foremothers. There have been many examples of people of high morals and ethics and humanitarian caring in all eras of America’s past. But the society as a whole has never been the “shining light on a hill” that all nations could look to and want to emulate, whether in sexual morality or many other aspects of society.

We’ve just about reached back to the founding of the nation. In the next installment, we’ll do a quick check of that era to see if maybe the Good Old Days could have been the Colonial Era and the decade or two or three surrounding the Declaration of Independence and the signing of the Constitution. Continue on to Colonial Times:

Colonial Hanky-Panky

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PRP7: The Not-So-Civil War

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 7

The Not-So-Civil War

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

If you are an aficionado of historical documentary films, especially those shown on PBS, you are no doubt familiar with “The Ken Burns Effect.”

The Ken Burns effect is a type of panning and zooming effect used in video production from still imagery.

The name derives from extensive use of the technique by American documentarian Ken Burns. The technique predates his use of it, but his name has become associated with the effect in much the same way as Alfred Hitchcock is associated with the Hitchcock zoom.

The feature enables a widely used technique of embedding still photographs in motion pictures, displayed with slow zooming and panning effects, and fading transitions between frames. [Wiki: Ken Burns Effect]


Burns first used this effect, to great popular acclaim, in his 1990 PBS series The Civil War.

ken burns

Ken Burns was inspired to make this documentary because of Mathew Brady’s photographs. More than 10 hours in length, the documentary has nine episodes that explore the Civil War through personal stories and photos. During the creation of the movie, Burns made extensive use of more than 16,000 archival photographs, paintings, and newspaper images from the time of the war. This resulted in the coining of the term the “Ken Burns Effect.” [Wiki: The Civil War]

Burns often gives “life” to still photographs by slowly zooming in on subjects of interest and panning from one subject to another. For example, in a photograph of a baseball team, he might slowly pan across the faces of the players and come to rest on the player who is the subject of the narrator. This technique, possible in many professional and home software applications, is termed “The Ken Burns Effect” in Apple‘s iPhoto and iMovie software applications.

As a museum retrospective noted, “His PBS specials [are] strikingly out of step with the visual pyrotechnics and frenetic pacing of most reality-based TV programming, relying instead on techniques that are literally decades old, although Burns reintegrates these constituent elements into a wholly new and highly complex textual arrangement.” [Wiki: Ken Burns]

I’ve seen a number of Burns’ series, and found the technique fascinating. But I must admit that one thing I find equally fascinating about the Civil War series is what Burns chose to mostly “leave out” of his vast collection of Civil War era pictures—he made only a few glancing references to sexual matters of the time. I understand why he did—but the “missing pieces” would add quite a bit more to the “reality” of what life was really like during that era of American history.

Other TV documentarians have, however, filled in a lot more of the story. The History Channel has had two special on Sex in the Civil War. You can see the second in the series online at More Sex in the Civil War.

Yes, Ken Burns could have chosen to include extensive material on this topic if he wanted…it certainly isn’t that documents and pictures aren’t available from that time period that tell the less glorious side of the story of the War. As mentioned earlier in this series, “ephemera” is widely available from that time period that can fill in the missing pieces, everything from letters sent home by soldiers, to court-martial records, newspaper clippings, posters, photos, and photographic “carte de visite” cards.

The carte de visite … was a type of small photograph which was patented in Paris, France by photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854, although first used by Louis Dodero. It was usually made of an albumen print, which was a thin paper photograph mounted on a thicker paper card. The size of a carte de visite is 54.0 mm (2.125 in) × 89 mm (3.5 in) mounted on a card sized 64 mm (2.5 in) × 100 mm (4 in). In 1854, Disdéri had also patented a method of taking eight separate negatives on a single plate, which reduced production costs.


The Carte de Visite was slow to gain widespread use until 1859, when Disdéri published Emperor Napoleon III’s photos in this format. This made the format an overnight success, and the new invention was so popular it was known as “cardomania” and eventually spread throughout the world.

Each photograph was the size of a visiting card, and such photograph cards became enormously popular and were traded among friends and visitors. The immense popularity of these card photographs led to the publication and collection of photographs of prominent persons. “Cardomania” spread throughout Europe and then quickly to America. Albums for the collection and display of cards became a common fixture in Victorian parlors. [Wiki: Carte de visite]

In other words, the carte de visite was essentially a “calling card” or, in modern terms, a business card, with a photo instead of text.

Their small size also made them relatively inexpensive, and they became so widespread that by 1863 Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes would write, “Card portraits, as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the ‘green-backs’ of civilization.”

Cartes were introduced in New York, probably by C. D. Fredericks, late in the summer of 1859. The American Civil War gave the format enormous momentum as soldiers and their families posed for cartes before they were separated by war—or death. Queen Victoria compiled more than a hundred albums of cartes, featuring royalty and others of social prominence. In England, sales of cartes de visite ran in the hundreds of millions, annually.  [ Photographymuseum.com]

You can see examples of cartes at Small Worlds: The Art of the Carte de Visite, including these three below. The first is Lincoln’s 1865 funeral procession. The second is the family of Queen Victoria, gathered around a bust of her late husband Albert, who had recently died in 1861. The third is a carte of Sojourner Truth, a former slave from the North who by the time of this picture in 1864 was an ardent, popular speaker in abolitionist and women’s rights circles. She sold cartes like this one at the public meetings where she spoke, to support her efforts.




It’s nice that Civil War recruits had pics of family from back home to comfort them during their miserable existence in the field of war. Maybe some even kept collections of pics like those above as a hobby to while away the time and share with their tent-mates.  But because of the proliferation of inexpensive photos and cartes de visite, that’s not all they had pics of.

Remember The Menken from the last couple of entries in this series? She sold cartes de visite at her performances, of herself basically in her undies, and many made their way to the Civil War trenches to serve as pinups.


Adah did pose for some nude versions—those were sold “under the counter” and didn’t make it into general public circulation. But her publicly sold cartes were modest compared to many others that showed scantily clad, topless, or fully nude young ladies. And many of those did make it to the trenches.

Along with many more items to comfort the lonely soldier. When Mail Call came at the barracks, soldiers frequently found, in their stack of personal mail, circulars or “catalogs” of items that mail-order businesses thought they might find of interest. Sort of the Harriet Carter Catalogs of the day! But these weren’t catalogs selling comfy slippers or warm gloves. No, they promised “heat” of a different kind.

… Disturbed by the army’s failure “to checkmate and suppress” the sale of these items, Captain M.G. Tousley wrote directly to Commander in Chief Abraham Lincoln, enclosing as evidence a circular advertising “New Pictures for Bachelors.” Tousley’s vigilance has left a rare record of midcentury tastes in male fantasy. For twelve cents apiece or $1.20 a dozen, men could purchase twelve-by-fifteen-inch pictures, suitable for framing. Most of the advertised pictures placed the man in the role of voyeur observing groups of young women in various states of undress. In “Wood-Nymph’s Frolic,” for example, girls “engaged in a rustic dance…in all the consciousness of innocence, caring little whether or not they are seen in their nude and interesting frolic.” Less frequently the viewer could imagine himself in sexual command, selecting or seducing a woman. Significantly, the women depicted in these scenes—“Circassion Slaves” and an Indian maiden—were not white. [The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell, Lowry]

Circassian slaves?

Circassian beauties is a phrase used to refer to an idealized image of the women of the Circassian people of the Northern Caucasus. A fairly extensive literary history suggests that Circassian women were thought to be unusually beautiful, spirited, and elegant, and as such were desirable as concubines. This reputation dates back to the Ottoman Empire when Circassian women living in the Sultan’s Imperial Harem started to build their reputation as extremely beautiful and genteel, and then became a common trope in Western Orientalism.

…In the 1860s the showman P. T. Barnum exhibited women whom he claimed were Circassian beauties. They wore a distinctive Afro-like hair style, which had no precedent in earlier portrayals of Circassians, but which was soon copied by other female performers, who became known as “moss haired girls”. These were typically presented as victims of sexual enslavement among the Turks, who had escaped from the harem to achieve freedom in America. [Wiki: Circassian beauties]

The women featured were usually American girls whose hair had been soaked in beer and teased to stand up and out, dressed exotically, and given foreign sounding names.


Purported to be escaped sex slaves from harems, these “beauties” were often featured on postcards (kind of naughty ones for the time) and in actuality did not really resemble real Circassian women.

The bushy hair was also not typical. Although the clothing styles varied for the women in these exhibits, the hair was almost always the same. They were dressed the very opposite of the modest Circassian women, in the styles that would appear most exotic and alluring to Americans. [from Newlynatural.com]

As another site put it, regarding the Afro hair style, “The Circassian blended elements of white Victorian True Womanhood with traits of the enslaved African American woman in one curiosity.” The pics of alleged “Circassian slaves” sold by the “circulars” were no doubt a lot racier than the one shown above, which was likely sold at circus side shows.

A book titled The Porning of America mentions more about the brisk mail-order business of the times.

Now they were amassed in camps, by the thousands and tens of thousands, away from the prying eyes at home that would certainly have prevented them from trafficking in pornography via the mail. Companies such as G.S. Hoskins and Co. and Richards & Roche in New York City sent out flyers and catalogs to the soldiers, detailing their offerings: photographs of Parisian prostitutes; condoms and dildos; even miniaturized photographs that could be concealed in jewelry such as stickpins, and that, when held close to the eye, revealed a couple engaged in a sex act.

Foreign and home-grown “dirty books” were also available via mail to the soldiers. (And the general public back home.) Yes, I understand why Ken Burns didn’t include this kind of info in his documentary productions, and I applaud his choice. But because it is largely ignored in “family-oriented” TV specials, it tends to give the illusion that soldiers of the distant past in the US, and men in general of Victorian times, were somehow more morally upright than the young men in uniform in WW2, the Korean War, Viet Nam, and the Middle East today. It gives the illusion that we are now living in a time of “Sodom and Gomorrah” and that mid-century 1800s was in contrast a Golden Age of virtue.

And that thus God was beaming down on the nation in times past, blessing it with prosperity for the moral purity of its people. And that He now has nothing but disgust and rage for the average American today, and that we are surely in The Time of the End—Jesus MUST return in our lifetime to set things right because God’s patience has run out. I suggest in this series of blog entries that if we could see the hearts of people and what went on behind closed doors throughout the whole history of this nation—in the way God has been able to do—we’d have to assume that His patience, by our standards, should have run out two centuries ago. Or more. Maybe, just maybe, He has a different view and a different plan for this current generation of young people, and maybe more to come, than many prophecy pundits have insisted.

Not convinced yet? Let’s examine a bit more ephemeral history.

How about this from The Sex Lives of Civil War Soldiers?

Johnny Reb and Billy Yank had a secret life, one that they and their families tried to hide from posterity and Ken Burns.

They largely succeeded. Most men left no record of their sexual activities, or if they did, their survivors expurgated or expunged the record through destruction; the reality was a bit too seamy for pure sensibilities, legacies needed to be protected. Reports of wild times and venereal disease were not likely to be appreciated by descendants.

Thus the Civil, our most holy, War, ennobled at the time and forevermore as a moral cause by both sides, has been stripped of that most human and earthy dimension and instinct. War is a rite of passage for all young boys and men, and leaving home for the first time, to a large degree innocent and inexperienced, they often become unmoored from traditional, peacetime standards of moral behavior and drift into those of wartime, which is to say, the world turned upside down and violently shaken.

But in a volume that might otherwise be buried deep within the annals of weird books, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War (Stackpole, 1994), Thomas Lowry, M.D., addresses and fills, through diligent, original research that at the time of the book’s publication unearthed a wealth of new material, that lacuna in the military record. Collectors of general military history, Civil War, or sexology literature should consider adding it to their shelves.

There is a whole city of whores. Yes, father, a whole city. They have laid out a village to the east of where the railroad bends to the docks” (Young worker in the Sanitary Commission, City Point, Virginia, 1864).

“There has been a bonfire in the rear of my tent, burning up a large quantity of obscene books, taken from the mails” (Marsena Patrick, provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac,June 8, 1863).

Those who follow modern shenanigans within shorts inside the Beltway will be unsurprised to learn that, according to file Volume 298, RG 393, Register of the Provost Marshall, 22d Army Corps, in 1864-65 there were seventy-three bawdy houses in Washington D.C. to service our servicemen. The register notes names, addresses, number of “Inmates,” and “Class,” i.e. 1 is best, 2 is fair, 3 is poor, and “low” is bad. Most houses had from 1-5 women in their employ, and earned a “1′” or a “2.” Mary Taylor, however, had six girls working for her; her brothel was, however, rated ““low.” One house stands out amongst all the others. Elizabeth Harley, at 4 Maryland, Island, ran a #1 rated brothel, apparently the city’s high-end, big-box flesh retailer, featuring eighteen women.

…On June 27, 1863, the 14th North Carolina Regiment captured a large supply of Yankee whiskey at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A musician in the regiment’s band (band musicians, then as now, traditional suspects in matters of vice) reported that “some of the Pennsylvania women, hearing the noise of the revel and the music, dared to come near us. Soon they had formed the center of attention and joined in the spirit of the doings. After much whiskey and dancing, they shed most of their garments and offered us their bottoms. Each took on dozens of us, squealing in delight. For me it was hard come, easy go.”

And these most assuredly were no isolated incidents.

Prostitutes were available almost everywhere that soldiers encamped.

Low wages during the inflationary war period inspired many women, especially of the lower class, to take up prostitution, including women who were barely older than what we today consider to be children.

Dr. William Sanger of the Venereal Disease Hospital on Blackwell’s Island, New York, conducted a survey in 1858 of about 2,000 prostitutes. He found that 80% of them were under age 30, and 40% were under age 20. About 62% of them were foreign-born, with 57% being Irish, 20% German, and 8% English. Most of the prostitutes died within an average of four years due to venereal disease or alcoholism—an important insight into the lives of prostitutes at the time. [American History @ Suite 101]

As the war dragged on, the ranks of the prostitutes available to the men swelled.

Prostitution was not a crime in the 19th century, and any concentration of troops during the Civil War attracted flocks of “camp followers” who were available for a price. Women often would show up after battles and offer their services to the generals as nurses. The “nursing,” however, frequently became an open door to those less honest and caring, and when armies experienced theft, prostitution and other less traditional forms of nursing, generals sometimes rejected offers of female help. [Civil War Stories ]

Because of the silence on the subject in the history books I read in high school and college, I did wonder years ago how the issue of unwanted pregnancy was dealt with back then—among the few immoral people I assumed existed in Victorian times. I assumed that in such ancient, unenlightened times, birth control was unheard of. I’m not sure when I thought modern birth control methods were invented, but I do know for sure I had no idea it was this early …

Contraception Civil War Style

In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of rubber which gave rise to the manufacture of condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes, diaphragms, and cervical caps. Before this time, condoms, often known as “French safes” or “male safes,” were made from animal membranes and had been associated with the stigma of being a preventative for syphilis in the brothels. Due to improved technology and lower costs, rubber condoms came into widespread use during the 1850s.

Womb veils were cervical caps or diaphragms. By the 1860s, these contraceptive pessaries were advertised under a variety of names, including “French shields” and “womb guards.” Secrecy and non-interference with sexual pleasure were promoted with their use. Why secrecy? Not all men were reliable with coitus interruptus or in wearing a condom. As well as that, some men were unsympathetic to a woman having reproductive control.

Contraceptive sponges were mentioned in the advice literature as early as the late 1700s. Opinions varied as to a sponge’s reliability, but they became commercially available by the mid-nineteenth century. Druggists sold wide varieties or a woman could buy a sponge of the correct size and attach a silk thread to make her own.

Civil War Condoms? Yep.

Unlike modern condoms — made to be used once and thrown away — early condoms were washed, anointed with petroleum jelly, and put away in special wooden boxes for later reuse. British playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw called the rubber condom the “greatest invention of the nineteenth century.” [Birth Control History on MedicineNet.com]

Unfortunately, the fact that they were becoming widely available doesn’t mean everyone could afford them, nor that those who could, would use them. This becomes painfully obvious when the stats for venereal disease among Civil War soldiers are considered. Confederate records are fragmentary, but for Union troops…there were 73,382 cases of syphilis reported during the war, and 109,397 cases of gonorrhea… which means about 82 cases per 1000 men over all … per year. Over 8%. Among some branches of the troops the percentage has been reported to have been as high as 17%.

And remember … this was before antibiotics, and “treatments” that were preferred at the time for these two diseases were totally ineffective—but often excruciatingly painful.  I won’t trouble you with the realistic photos from that time of what an advanced case of syphilis was like for the sufferer … but here is a “statue” which gives just a hint.


8-17% seems like a high incidence, but evidently the US armies were in better shape than other armies around the world involved in other wars regarding venereal disease—the Redcoats of Queen Victoria’s army had a rate of 200 per 1000 at the time!

You may remember the mention above of 73 officially “recorded” houses of prostitution in DC to meet the needs of Civil War soldiers. Well, seems that was perhaps just for “the soldiers.” There seems to have been many more available for the civilians. Including politicians.

Mary Ann Hall catered to the nation’s elite in Washington as the proprietor of the capital’s best brothel during the Civil War.

Located just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol on Maryland Avenue on what now is part of the Mall, her house, a three-story structure nearly the size of a city block, included parlors, an elegant dining room and, almost assuredly, the most attractive of the city’s estimated 5,000 “soiled doves.”

… Houses of prostitution were fairly common in America’s larger cities, and Washington had as many as 450 entertainment venues on the “wilder side.” The presence of affluent politicians, lobbyists and the hierarchy of the government departments helped make Washington a man’s home away from home.

Elected representatives in those years did not routinely bring wives and families to Washington. Service in Congress was not necessarily even a full-time job. The city was hot and steamy. Nights could be filled with drinking, smoking, gambling and frolicking with willing companions of the gentler sex, far from the eyes of the electorate at home.

Mary Ann Hall took every opportunity to provide such indulgences. The throngs of men willing and able to pay her comparatively exorbitant rates deserved the best. Imported hats, dresses and perfume enhanced her staff. Magnums of champagne added an air of dignity, gentility and grace. Fine food filled the supper tables. Her real goal as hostess, however, was to supply attractive women.

…Hall insisted on certain standards of decorum, and her house, which opened around 1837, flourished until it closed in 1878. She was never raided by police, was not the subject of public disgrace or even controversy and was never discussed in newspapers. Editors in those days believed that what was private should stay private. Unless a public figure disgraced himself so thoroughly that prosecution was in order, private excesses remained unreported.

Rep. Daniel E. Sickles of New York learned the limits the hard way. Rumors abounded in the late 1850s that he maintained close personal relationships with a variety of women. Though tongues wagged, his private pleasures never merited newspaper interest. Then, when he murdered his much-younger wife’s lover, Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”– detailed accounts of the court proceedings made newspaper sales soar.

The 1859 trial and associated juicy details sold newspapers and became for a time the talk of Washington and New York. Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper printed 200,000 copies as the trial opened. Demand forced a second printing of 300,000. (During the Civil War, then-Gen. Sickles’ private indiscretions returned to the realm of private matters. After the war, despite routine and well-documented misbehavior, his private life remained taboo to journalists.)

Mary Ann Hall became a wealthy woman. She died in 1886 and was buried in Congressional Cemetery beneath a carved stone statue of herself. [Civil War Stories ]

What? Politicians in compromising positions so early??

In a rare nineteenth-century publication entitled Mysteries and Miseries of America’s Great Cities, a full chapter is devoted to illicit activities in Washington, D.C. In the book, the author implies that the nature of Washington as the national capital offered high-class prostitutes additional business opportunities, because they could be hired to use their charms to influence the passage of particular laws on the floors of Congress. If they succeeded, they were rewarded handsomely by the corporate interests who derived benefits from the legislation. [Link]

It wasn’t just Washington DC that had “civilian” houses of prostitution around Civil War times:

In the 1850s Dr. William Sanger estimated there were over six thousand prostitutes, or one for every sixty-four men, in New York City. Smaller cities had their brothels, as well. Between 1865 and 1883, forty madams in St. Paul, MN, operated houses that lasted for eight to ten years each. … One estimate claimed that Chicago had over five hundred brothels in 1860…”

…In 1858 the mayor of Savannah estimated that his city had one prostitute for every thirty-nine men and that Norfolk had one per twenty-six men.  [From Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America]

Sodom and Gomorrah? Sounds like there were contenders for the title long ago in America.

But maybe some readers are convinced I just haven’t gone back far enough in US history to find the Golden Age. Maybe something just magically happened at the time of the Civil War to turn a virtually righteous nation down a debauched path.

OK. We’ll keep Time Traveling backward, to see what we might find, in the next entry in this series:

Flashy Victorians

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PRP6: Victorian BareBack Riding

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 6

Victorian BareBack Riding

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

(Be sure in particular to at least read Part 5 of this series, The Great Menken,  before you read this blog entry—this one is a direct continuation of the “story” in that entry.)

You might say Victorian BareBack rider Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868) was the ultimate cross between Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Sally Rand.

Like Liz, she had numerous husbands … five by most accounts. (A pretty extensive record for a young woman who first married at 21 and died at 33.) Besides a “voluptuous figure,” they were also both known for their startling eyes… Liz’s dubbed “violet eyes to die for,” Adah’s a deep, dark blue said to be “glorious,” “intoxicating,” and even “not wholly human.”

Like Marilyn, she was wildly popular, particularly based on sexy roles and sexy pinup pics—and died young. Marilyn was 36 when she committed suicide in 1962. Adah was 33 when she died almost a century earlier in 1868, likely of TB and/or peritonitis.  Also like Marilyn she was at one time married to a famous sports figure, and at another time to a writer. Marilyn had been married to baseball great Joe DiMaggio and highly-respected author Arthur Miller. Menken had been married to the top bare-fisted heavyweight boxer of the day, Joe Heenan, and later to Robert Henry Newell, author and editor of the New York Mercury newspaper.

But unlike either Liz or Marilyn … and in spite of it being in the supposedly repressed, prudish Victorian era, she appeared not just in cheesecake photos (like Marilyn’s nude calendar posings), but live, in the flesh, looking, to all intents and purposes, totally naked. To the acclaim of huge crowds across the US and Europe. As Charles Henry Webb, poet and humorist, said in his Californian weekly newspaper of the time, “The Menken is unrivaled in her particular line—but it isn’t a clothes-line.” Or as Sally Rand is reputed to have said in the 1930s, “I haven’t been out of work since the day I took my pants off.”

Adah got started in theater around the age of 20, even playing classic characters like Lady Macbeth, but according to most reports was not all that good an actress. There was, however, one thing she was great at … self-promotion. And in 1860…

…she appealed to her business manager Jimmie Murdock to help her become recognized as a great actress. Murdock dissuaded Menken from that goal, as he knew she had little acting talent.He offered her the “breeches role” (that of a man) of the noble Tartar in the melodrama Mazeppa, based on a poem by Lord Byron.At the climax of this hit, the Tartar was stripped of his clothing, tied to his horse, and sent off to his death.The audiences were thrilled with the scene, although the production used a dummy strapped to a horse, which was led away by a handler giving sugar cubes.

Menken wanted to perform the stunt herself. Dressed in nude tights and riding a horse on stage, she appeared to be naked and caused a sensation. Not only was she a woman playing the part of a man, and playing with conventions of gender, she heightened the sensationalism by appearing to be nude. New York audiences were shocked but still attended and made the play popular. [Wiki: Menken]

Over the next few years, although appearing in other plays at times, she milked Mazeppa and the role of the Tartar for all it was worth, all the way to Europe. And she made it her own. In her version, the climactic scene was no longer just a “horse led away by a handler.” She actually trained herself to ride tied to a horse, had a four-story “mountain” with a narrow pathway going up it built for big theater stages, and at the crisis moment of the play the horse dashed pell-mell with the evidently-nude Menken on its back up the mountain, disappearing behind a backdrop. (She did get injured a few times, and at least one woman was killed trying to imitate her stunt in later years.)

And Adah knew how to take the fame from the live performances and multiply it.

Fortunately, the camera and reproducible photos had been invented. North and South the [Civil War] boys in uniform tacked up Adah’s 3 by 5 inch shots on tent poles, along with those of her husband John Heenan, world heavyweight boxing champ.

The original power couple, Adah and John landed in court, to become the original sex scandal spread across the front pages of tabloid two-penny newspapers. To the background of cannon fire, the world of celebrity was being invented.

War and the love goddess are brother and sister in arms. Just as Betty Grable was the siren of World War II, Marilyn Monroe the darling of the Korean War era, Adah Menken, who toured by rail the war-threatened Union, captured the libido of her divided nation.

Crowds overwhelmed the theaters she played, advanced seating was attempted, preachers railed against Adah’s nudity, and the media of the day — newspapers, the telegraph, photography — spread her image, and stories of her love life, far and wide. [From thewrap.com]

And she was just as well-known for all her off-stage shenanigans as her onstage performances, including her multiple marriages … and numerous friendships, dalliances, and outright affairs with very famous people.  Mark Twain, for instance, didn’t just write about her. He knew her personally. As did his friends and fellow authors Artemus Ward and Bret Harte. His friends implied strongly that he was really smitten with her.

Charles Dickens was said to have had a crush on her. Pictures are still extant showing her in France in 1866 draped all over French author Alexandre Dumas (Count of Montecristo, The Three Musketeers) with whom she was allegedly having an affair. Dumas was about 64 at the time. Reports indicate his son, Alexandre Jr., became enraged at the foolish old man trying to carry on an affair with a woman less than half his age, and put an end to it. Although it probably wasn’t easy to do so … Alex Sr. had been a lifelong dirty old man, reputed to have had at least 40 confirmed adulterous affairs—( I read somewhere that he himself claimed it was more like 300)—including with the woman who had given birth to Alex Jr.



The pics above were in the collection of the “modest” photos from the Dumas/Menken photo shoots. Reports from the time indicate that there may have been more… ahem… candid … ones that were taken, and “leaked” to outside sources and reproduced… “which the local pornographers eagerly hawked on the sidewalks” of Paris. [examiner.com]

Arthur Conan Doyle even introduced a character modeled on Adah in his first Sherlock Holmes story published in The Strand magazine, A Scandal in Bohemia in 1891.  He’d only been about seven years old when she had taken Great Britain by storm. But her fame long outlasted her premature death in 1868. (As Sir Elton wrote of Marilyn just about a century later, “Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did.”)

Arthur was an impressionable youth in Edinburgh when Adah, known as The Royal Menken, rivaled Queen Victoria. She reigned over Britain’s erotic imagination. Mazeppa and its several imitators packed the theaters, and Adah’s love life was the theme of newspaper and cafe chatter. But the mature Conan Doyle had more reason to be fascinated by her: He was deeply into Spiritualism, really his religion. He was especially impressed by Daniel Home, a Scottish-American medium whose amazing séances were done without any discernible trickery, and whose favorite spirit to call up and interact with was Adah Menken. [thegreatbare.com]

While overseas, she also had an affair with the English poet Swinburne. Back in the USA she was also friends with Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow is said to have perhaps even been at her bedside when she died in France in 1868—in any event, he wrote a posthumous poem about her.

(I could do lots more “famous name dropping” from her résumé of male conquests, but this gives you a good idea.)

And then there was her friendship with the occasionally cross-dressing much older female author who went by the pen name George Sand. “George,” born in 1804, was from an earlier generation, as you can tell from her pic with Adah below. But she also had lots of famous special “men friends” and lovers. Including an extended affair with composer Frédéric Chopin.


Adah was not at all averse to cross-dressing herself.


And, in fact, wasn’t averse to playing the male part not just on stage.

One night, to win a bet, she dressed in a sporting gent’s attire, and chomping a cigar, she toured the brothels of the Barbary Coast. Afterward, Adah boasted that she could make out better than the girls she had seen. [thegreatbare.com]

Her final comment about herself, written to a friend shortly before her death, was “I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go.”

Yes, for some reason modern standard history books have totally ignored Adah. But actually I wasn’t correct saying I’d never heard her name before until recently.  As a matter of fact, I’m now pretty sure I did, clear back in the 1950s! I just thought it was the name of a fictional character at the time. You see, I was a big fan of the new TV show Bonanza that premiered in 1959 when I was 13:

That same year episode 10, “The Magnificent Adah,” opened with The Menken and her touring company arriving at Virginia (nobody bothered with “City”) to perform her showpiece, the thrilling and dangerous Mazeppa. Intrigued by the poster of a supposedly naked woman strapped to a runaway horse, Joe (personable, clever) and Hoss (big, simple) sneak out to the theater. They fear they will be reprimanded by their older, serious brother Adam or the patriarch Ben. Both, however, are also in attendance. During the show, Hoss is confused, and Joe explains that the male hero, Mazeppa, a tribal leader fighting against Russian Czarist tyranny, is being played by the woman on the poster. After the show, at the saloon, where a circle of men has gathered around Adah, Hoss is dying to know if she really was naked, because he is sure she’s a woman.


Adam explains that in the drama, Adah cross-dresses, or undresses, and she wears flesh-colored tights. Ben enters and heads straight for Adah.

She was played by the beautiful, busty Ruth Roman.

Not a bad choice. Here’s Roman.

bonanza ada1

Here’s Adah.

ada female1

Adah was a Jewish/Black/Creole blend from New Orleans, dark and fiery. Ruth was of Russian/Polish background, from Boston. For reasons best known to studio casting, she starred in numerous big-screen and TV Westerns. Back to the saloon: Adah, who knows Ben, suddenly asks him to accompany her to her hotel. She has seen her ex-husband, the famous bare-knuckle boxer “John Regan.” This is John Heenan, and by the time Adah actually toured the West, in the midst of the Civil War, Heenan was reduced to giving sparring exhibitions. In his prime, in 1860, John had fought the British champ Tom Sayers to a draw for the world heavyweight championship. The illegal fight held outside of London drew an immense crowd that included Charles Dickens and a special reporter for Queen Victoria. Prize fighting then was more like Extreme Fighting today–no holds barred.

The long, bloody battle was finally ended by a police raid and was declared a draw. On John’s return home, English mistress in tow, he rejected Adah and claimed they had never married. This ignited a front-page scandal. In the Bonanza episode, Ben says John beat Adah and is now trying to mooch money from her. Ben falls for Adah, he wants to marry and protect her, and the boys try to break up the romance but she tells them off. The scoundrel John beats up Little Joe and nearly blinds him. Ben goes to fight him but the boys intervene and Hoss fights the boxing champ. The big guy gets the worst of it until he turns to wrestling. Hoss then demolishes John and leaves him lying on the floor. Surprisingly, Adah rushes in and embraces her old love. The dejected Cartwrights leave, and bewildered Adam wonders how the glamorous star Adah Menken can love such a heel. There are as many kinds of love as there are women, explains Ben. In fact, for years afterward Adah remained broken-hearted by John Heenan’s infidelity. [thegreatbare.com]

There have been many more “moving pictures” made either loosely or directly based on the life of The Menken since the earliest days of the cinema shortly after 1900. Including this one:

In 1960, Paramount released the western comedy Heller in Pink Tights starring Sophia Loren… Director George Cukor freely admitted that Loren’s character was based on Menken. [thegreatbare.com]

Back to the Big Question

So let’s consider morality among the “general population” in the Victorian Age—just how “dedicated” to purity and modesty was the average person of the time—particularly the males? To look at the enthusiasm for the chaste Jenny Lind, whose story is popular in history books to this day, it looks like “Victorian Prudery” was alive and well and that virtually every “decent American” bought into that paradigm. Yes, God could have looked down smiling on the populace of the time and said, “Well done, young American nation. You are showing the world what biblical morality is all about. I shall bless your nation with great prosperity because of this so that you may be a shining beacon to the world.” Yes, from the evidence of the “average history book” one might be tempted to think we’ve found that Golden Age we were looking for. “If only” modern Americans could go back to the pure moral value system of the Victorian Age!

But dig a little deeper into the ephemera of the time, and it would appear that we have perhaps been sold a fairy tale rather than real life. Yes, there is no doubt that there were many…well, at least some…husbands of the time who wouldn’t even consider looking with lust at a modestly dressed Victorian female besides their own beloved wife—out of Christian values and morals at best, or basic chivalry and decency at least.

And yes, there were no doubt many people, Christian ministers and others, who spoke out against the kind of “entertainment” offered by Adah Menken–and others like her … there is little doubt that she was only the “poster girl” for a whole movement of risqué entertainment. The evidence of much of it has slipped into that dustbin of history and gone largely unnoticed by most modern folks. But dig a little in that dustbin and you’d no doubt unearth many more pieces of ephemera that wouldn’t line up with the common image of life in the Victorian period.

It sure seems from the evidence that a significant proportion of even the middle class Victorian male populace was not only willing to look with lust at a woman other than their own wives. They were willing to go right out in public, maybe even taking their wives along to the theater, in hopes of getting a titillating glimpse of an almost completely undressed woman. And the wives? They may have tsk-tsked, but many went along—and became obsessed with voyeurism about the life and scandals of that same undressed woman. Much like many women today will snap up the mags and tabloids at the checkout lanes at the supermarket, savoring the latest gossip about the love lives of the big-bosomed women singers or movie stars that they know their husbands lust after.

There truly is nothing new under the sun. And we still haven’t found an American Golden Age.

When you consider the year 1861, what looms large in your mind? For me it would be that our country was just beginning that awful war that would pit brother against brother and almost tear the “United States” apart. But that’s because we have hindsight. What loomed large to many people of that the time?

Performing at her peril in the Gold Rush fields of California (peril because hot appreciative miners tossed gold nuggets at her head), Menken soon found herself in demand in Europe – and threw London for a loop, where the show was even a greater success. Prior to this, she virtually owned an 1861 crumbling America – a typical touring headline being: THE NAKED LADY (her new nickname) CAPTURES OUR CITY…and, in smaller type underneath, Fort Sumter Fired Upon. [Examiner.com]

Strange and surprising footnotes to The Great Menken’s story

Lest you are left with the impression that Adah Isaacs Menken was just an airheaded “sexpot,” totally carnal and without any interest in intellectual or spiritual matters, there really was another facet to Adah. Here’s one piece of evidence of that:

Following her death, T. Allston Brown [American theater critic, newspaper editor, talent agent and manager, and theater historian] paid a final tribute to her: “Miss Menken possessed a character of mind peculiar from the many. She was a lady of extraordinary intellectual endowments and of high literary attainments. Her writings are redolent of bright and beautiful thoughts, and while very young she produced many poems and tales. It was the study of her life to make all within the circle of her acquaintance happy and contented. In her habits she was social and genial, of an equable, amiable and pleasant disposition. Only those who knew her intimately could properly appreciate her noble qualities. Her memory will long be affectionately cherished by a large circle of sorrowing friends, who have known and fully appreciated her many excellent traits of character.” [from “the vault at Pfaff’s“]

And here’s another:

Her first marriage, to a Jew named Alexander Isaacs Menken in 1856, lasted only a few years but confirmed her own Jewish identity. Adah Menken’s true religious origins are controversial. Born in Louisiana in 1835 to Auguste and Marie Theodore, some historians believe that she was raised a Catholic, an assertion that Menken herself denied. In response to a journalist who called her a convert, Menken replied, “I was born in [Judaism], and have adhered to it through all my erratic career. Through that pure and simple religion I have found greatest comfort and blessing.”

In 1857, Adah and Alexander moved from New Orleans to Cincinnati, then the center of Reform Judaism in America. Adah learned to read Hebrew fluently and studied classical Jewish texts. It was at this time that Adah’s other artistic and intellectual talents emerged. An aspiring writer, she contributed poems and essays on Judaism to Isaac Mayer Wise’s weekly newspaper, The Israelite. Menken saw herself as a latter-day Deborah, advocating for Jewish communities around the world. She urged the Jews of Turkey to rebel against oppression and place their faith in the coming of a messiah who would lead them to restore Jerusalem. She publicly protested the Mortara Affair, the kidnapping by Italian Catholic officials of a young Jewish boy whom the officials claimed the Jewish community had stolen. She also spoke out forcefully when Lionel Nathan was denied his seat in the English Parliament. And long before Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax did so, Menken refused to appear on stage during the High Holy Days even at the very height of her public success. [Koufax and Greenberg were famous Jewish baseball players. Greenberg, in 1934, and Koufax, in 1965, each refused to play in crucial ball games on Yom Kippur.] [From the Jewish Virtual Library]

And this reminded me that indeed there is a bit of another parallel with Elizabeth Taylor … who was not born Jewish, but converted to Judaism—and stayed with the faith long after she was no longer married to a Jewish husband. Liz’s funeral was presided over by Rabbi Jerry Cutler.

Taylor, the irreverent and dazzling actress was raised a Christian scientist, but converted to Judaism at age 27. Though some say the decision was motivated by marriage to her third husband, Mike Todd—born Avrom Goldbogen, the grandson of a Polish rabbi, according to Time Magazine—Taylor famously denied it, insisting she had always been interested in Judaism. In her book, Elizabeth Takes Off, Taylor tried to set the record straight, and according to Wikipedia wrote: “[Conversion to Judaism] had absolutely nothing to do with my past marriage to Mike [Todd] or my upcoming marriage to Eddie Fisher, both of whom were Jewish. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time.”

Divas do things on their own terms. When she finally decided to convert, Taylor did so at Temple Israel of Hollywood, under the tutelage of then-rabbi Max Nussbaum. According to Time, who reported on Taylor’s conversion in April 1959, Rabbi Nussbaum developed a special curriculum for the actress that included: the Bible, and the books—A History of the Jews, by Abram Leon Sachar, What Is a Jew?, by Morris Kertzer, and Basic Judaism, by Milton Steinberg. Afterwards, “[T]hey discussed the ancient traditions and modern problems of the people of Israel,” Time reported.

At her conversion ceremony, Taylor was given the Hebrew name Elisheba Rachel Taylor (Elisheba being the Hebrew version of Elizabeth and Rachel being the actress’s biblical heroine). [From the Jewish Journal ]

In 1959 she bought $100,000 in Israeli bonds—which got her films banned in the United Arab Republic.

She narrated the first film produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a documentary about the Holocaust that won a 1981 Academy Award.  And then there was this—

In 1977, JTA reported that Taylor had offered herself as a hostage for the [Jewish] Air France hijack victims being held captive by terrorists at Entebbe, Uganda, before Israelis rescued them. That offer, made personally to Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz, was graciously declined, but Dinitz told Taylor, “The Jewish people will always remember it.” [forward.com]

And, finally, regarding Adah herself, there is this. This is a private letter from her to an admirer.

“Your letter and poems came just today, when kind and beautiful things were so much needed in my heart. That letter and your thrilling poems have fulfilled their mission: I am lifted out of my sad, lonely self, and reach my heart up to the affinity of the true, which is always the beautiful.

“I am not in the condition to tell you all the impressions your poems have made upon me. I have today fallen into the bitterness of a sad, reflective and desolate mood. You know I am alone, and that I work, and without sympathy; and that the unshrined ghosts of wasted hours and of lost loves are always tugging at my heart.

“I know your soul! It has met mine somewhere in the starry highway of thought. You must often meet me, for I am a vagabond of fancy without name or aim. I was born a dweller in tents; a reveler in the ‘tented habitation of war ‘; consequently, dear poet, my views of life and things are rather disreputable in the eyes of the ‘just’. I am always in bad odor with people who don’t know me, and startle those who do. Alas!

“I am a fair classical scholar, not a bad linguist, can paint a respectable portrait of a good head and face, can write a little and have made successes in sculpture; but for all these blind instincts for art, I am still a vagabond, of no use to anyone in the world—and never shall be. People always find me out and then find fault with God because I have gifts denied to them. I cannot help that. The body and the soul don’t fit each other; they are always in a ‘scramble.’ I have long since ceased to contend with the world; it bores me horribly; nothing but hard work saves me from myself.

Perhaps after all, The Menken was more akin to the tormented Marilyn Monroe than anyone else.


Strange footnotes indeed!

But since we haven’t found our Golden Age, continue on for the next Blast from the (even farther) Past in this ongoing series:

The Not-So-Civil-War

Oh… and P.S. If you were fascinated by the plot of the old Bonanza episode, you can see the whole thing on Youtube.

Posted in Morality in America: An Historical Overview | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

PRP5: The Great Menken

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 5

The Great Menken

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

My parents both died in 2009, when they were each 87 years old. Dad was an Old School Old Guy, a WW2 vet who hated modern music, modern movies, modern TV shows … just about anything reflecting society since the death of his hero, John Wayne. Mother was a stroke victim … a 1986 stroke left her unable to read or write for over 20 years, and unable to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. So she didn’t read women’s magazines, didn’t watch Chick Flicks, didn’t watch TV sitcoms, didn’t pick up the National Enquirer at the supermarket checkout. If they listened to music at all, it was on an Oldies station that played Big Band Era platters.

HOWEVER … the CNN cable channel was blasting on their TV almost 24 hours a day so they could keep up with their beloved politics (they’d been Democrat and proud—even during the Clinton/Lewinsky fiasco—since voting for Franklin Roosevelt) and significant world news. But of course CNN and all the news channels don’t limit themselves to info about politics and wars and economics. And thus my octogenarian parents were well aware of just who Britney Spears was … and the state of her underwear in public—or lack thereof. They were also aware of the meaning of the term “wardrobe malfunction,” and how and why it applied to singer Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl.

Those kinds of “news” stories are what you might refer to as “ephemeral news.” Ephemeral—lasting a short time, transitory, fleeting. In other words, it doesn’t have the “weight” carried by Big Stories about wars or major stock market crashes or devastating natural disasters. Societies tend to record for posterity those Big Stories and put them in The History Books.

Some ephemeral stories last a little longer than others, particularly if they involve individuals who make a strong impression on a generation… or two, or three … because of their fame—or notoriety.


Yes, in addition to knowing about Britney and Janet, my parents could both tell you about the ins and outs of the marriages of Liz Taylor from back in the 50s and 60s.For readers too young to know about it all, the top picture is of movie star Elizabeth Taylor, on the left, and one of her closest friends, singing/and/movie star Debbie Reynolds, with Debbie’s husband, singer Eddie Fisher in the middle. Very shortly after this picture was taken…Mr. Fisher was taken from Mrs. Fisher by Ms. Taylor. The other picture is of cheery Eddie with his new wife Liz on his lap, while their good buddy movie star Richard Burton looks on. Shortly after THIS picture was taken…Mrs. Fisher was taken by Mr. Burton, leaving Mr. Fisher wifeless. (As the old saying has it, what goes around, comes around.) Ms. Taylor was eventually married eight times, to seven husbands. (She and Mr. Burton divorced but then remarried for a time.)

My octogenarian mother even remembered quite a bit about many other marital pairs … she knew, for instance, that Arnold Schwarzenegger was married to Maria Shriver, who was a niece of John Kennedy. (She missed the scandal in 2011, two years after her death, when Arnold confessed to fathering a child out of wedlock with a family housekeeper, and Maria left him and filed for divorce. Mother would have been very disappointed in Arnold …)

Although my parents may have known about all this “stuff,” what do you think will make it into the high school history books of 100 years from now if US society keeps chugging along? I think all of the ephemera will be swept into the “dustbin of history.”

The ash heap of history (or often garbage heap of history or dustbin of history) is a figurative place to where objects such as persons, events, artifacts, ideologies, etc. are relegated when they are forgotten or marginalized in history.

The expression—or something like it—arose in the 19th century in various places. But it was popularized by Leon Trotsky in response to the Mensheviks walking out of the Petrograd Second Congress of Soviets, on October 25, 1917 (Julian calendar), thereby enabling the Bolsheviks to establish their dominance. Trotsky declared: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!”

It has since been used in both the direct and the ironic sense in political and nonpolitical contexts. [Wiki: Ash Heap of History]

It only recently occurred to me that most of what happened in any era in history actually ends up in that dustbin or on that ash heap, when it comes to whether or not it is included in formal descriptions of historical periods, such as that which shows up in high school and college “overview of history” textbooks.

Where did you get what you know about any period of history? Except for the relatively small number of “history buffs” among us, the answer is—a combination of what we read in those textbooks and a hodge-podge of isolated tidbits of information we have picked up willy-nilly from mass media and pop culture. That can include movies (I’m guessing the Charlton Heston movie Ten Commandments is where many people in recent generations have gotten everything they know about the period of history around the events of the Book of Exodus in the Bible—most have never read the Old Testament itself!) It can include short biographical blurbs about famous people that show up in Reader’s Digest or Guideposts magazine, or slightly longer popularized versions of bite-sized pieces of history on the History or Biography cable TV channels. It can even include popular artwork—what was life and society in the 1800s in the US like? Many people likely assume it was like the Currier and Ives pictures that still dominate the Christmas card industry and all its spinoffs such as tree decorations, figurine dioramas, and more.

Currier and Ives was a successful American printmaking firm headed by Nathaniel Currier (1813–1888) and James Merritt Ives (1824–1895). Based in New York City from 1834–1907, the prolific firm produced prints from paintings by fine artists as black and white lithographs that were hand colored. Lithographic prints could be reproduced quickly and purchased inexpensively, and the firm called itself “the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints” and advertised its lithographs as “colored engravings for the people.”

…In 1835, [Currier] created a lithograph that illustrated a fire sweeping through New York City’s business district. The print of the Merchant’s Exchange sold thousands of copies in four days. Realizing that there was a market for current news, Currier turned out several more disaster prints and other inexpensive lithographs that illustrated local and national events, such as “Ruins of the Planter’s Hotel, New Orleans, which fell at two O’clock on the Morning of May 15, 1835, burying 50 persons, 40 of whom Escaped with their Lives.”He quickly gained a reputation as an accomplished lithographer.

In 1840, he produced “Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington”, which was so successful that he was given a weekly insert in the New York Sun. In this year, Currier’s firm began to shift its focus from job printing to independent print publishing.


In other words, Currier caught on to the value of quickly getting out pics of ephemeral news! The Planter’s Hotel fire and Steam Boat Lexington conflagration are certainly nothing that made the history books. But the news-hungry public of his time for some reason loved the idea of having their very own print to hang on the wall of the event. (Which could tell us something about the times back then, if we would meditate on it perhaps! Something somewhat akin to the modern fascination with disaster movies like Towering Inferno.)

…The name Currier & Ives first appeared in 1857, when Currier invited James Merritt Ives (1824–95), the company’s bookkeeper and accountant, to become his partner. … Nathaniel Currier soon noticed Ives’s dedication to his business and his artistic knowledge and insight into what the public wanted. The younger man quickly became the general manager of the firm, handling the financial side of the business by modernizing the bookkeeping, reorganizing inventory, and streamlining the print process.Ives also helped Currier interview potential artists and craftsmen. The younger man had a flair for gauging popular interests and aided in selecting the images the firm would publish and expanding the firm’s range to include political satire, and sentimental scenes such as sleigh rides in the country and steamboat races. In 1857, Currier made Ives a full partner.

…Currier & Ives prints were among the household decorations considered appropriate for a proper home by Catharine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, authors of American Woman’s Home (1869): “The great value of pictures for the home would be, after all, in their sentiment. They should express the sincere ideas and tastes of the household and not the tyrannical dicta of some art critic or neighbor.”

Reading between the lines, one can easily see that the content of the “sentimental” pictures produced by Currier and Ives to be displayed in the home weren’t necessarily a reflection of the way the vast populace of the country actually lived. They were more a reflection on the “image” that the aspiring middle classes wanted to project in their homes.

It is interesting to note that the “unsentimental topics” that were the subject of many Currier and Ives prints—disasters, military engagements, sporting events, political cartoons, even a major series—their best-selling!—of spoofing of the lifestyle of African Americans (with the usual gross caricaturizing of features intending to be “humorous” that would now be considered abominably racist)… none of that was retained to today except among collectors. But the subliminal assumption of American Life of the period being reflected in the idyllic winter scenes on Christmas cards shown in C&I pics is almost impossible to resist. Like this one…


We don’t see mass-produced today any of the examples of the other not-quite-so-idyllic C&I winter scenes from the so-called “Darktown” series.

candi darktown7 donkey sled

What is my point? My point is that it actually would be sifting through a huge collection of “ephemera” of the Victorian Age that would likely give a much more honest picture of what life was like back then, than just reading the skim-over-the-top of “significant events” that show up in high school history texts.

What is ephemera? It’s a word that basically means “lasting only a day,” or “lasting but a short time,” or “transitory.”  Among collectors, it is a specific type of (usually) printed materials. The Ephemera Society puts it this way:

Ephemera includes a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use. The 402-page Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists more than 500 categories from bookmarks to fruit wrappers to posters to theater tickets.

It also includes newspapers and, to a lesser extent, magazines.  Why do I say “to a lesser extent” magazines? Well, you can’t really call the National Geographic Magazine “ephemeral!” For most of its run since 1888, its content has been so cool—especially the amazing photos—that almost no one could bear to part with the magazines from their subscription as they piled up. Early on it was just the internal photos, as the covers were pretty bland.


But it became even more difficult when they added fabulous full-color pics on the covers, starting with the July 1959 issue, such as this intriguing pic from October 1978.


I can remember as a teenager in the 1960s my own parents’ collection, which went back to the 1940s, and continued on almost until their deaths in the 2000s. My grandparents had a similar collection too. Almost nobody, of course, really “collected” them … and read them over and over. They merely “accumulated” them and consigned them to storage boxes. There are no doubt lots of “almost mint condition” Geographics out there because of this.

The affliction is almost universal … and has long been a topic of both humor and angst. You can google “hoarding National Geographic” and get 296,000 websites! Humorously, the National Geographic Channel website itself mentions a number of its own television programs which have been about the topic of pathological hoarding.  I don’t know if they addressed the issue of … hoarding issues of National Geographic or not!

(Sigh. I just succumbed myself. While googling for old issues of the mag to find some neat pics of covers, I discovered that you can order on Amazon.com a searchable computerized 6 DVD set of every National Geographic from 1888 to 2009 for less than $30. The whole set weighs less than 11 ounces, and takes up a space just 2.8 x 5.8 x 7.8 inches—barely that of a single mid-sized paperback book.  Compare that to the literally tons that the complete collection of paper editions would have weighed, and the garage-sized storage unit you would have needed to keep your whole “collection.” Besides …I need it for my research…  )

So what does all this have to do with the history of sexual morality in America, and what it may have been like in the Victorian period? It is my contention that The History Books are not going to even cover the topic of sexual morality at all, other than merely in passing with perhaps an off-handed reference to Victorian prudery. Because the “primary sources” they use to compile those history books  focus almost entirely on accounts of wars and battles, politics, inventions, major disasters, major economic upheavals, lastingly-famous artists and musicians, and the like.

For instance, lots of basic history books will make at least a passing mention of “Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale” in terms of the “popular culture” of the time.

jenny lind

Jenny was the premier female singer of her time, famous in opera circles in Sweden and across Europe. She was brought to America for a major concert tour in 1850 by showman P.T. Barnum (later founder of the Barnum and Bailey “Greatest Show on Earth” Circus.) Jenny demanded $187,500 for herself and her entourage, plus a percentage of the “take,” to make the tour, and Barnum was so sure she’d be a hit that he mortgaged all his own commercial and residential properties to raise the sum.

Still slightly short, Barnum finally persuaded a Philadelphia minister, who thought that Lind would be a good influence on American morals, to lend him the final $5,000. Barnum sent the $187,500 to London. Lind signed the contract to give 150 concerts in a year or eighteen months, with the option of withdrawing from the tour after sixty or one hundred contracts, paying Barnum $25,000 if she did so.

Few Americans had ever heard of Lind, and Barnum’s first press release set the tone of the promotion. “A visit from such a woman who regards her artistic powers as a gift from Heaven and who helps the afflicted and distressed will be a blessing to America.” Her biographical pamphlet and photograph proclaimed: “It is her intrinsic worth of heart and delicacy of mind that produces Jenny’s vocal potency.” Barnum heavily promoted her record of giving frequent benefit concerts for hospitals and orphanages. Before Lind had even left England, Barnum had made her a household name in America. In a statement to the New York Herald, Barnum spoke of the huge sums he had committed, but assured the paper, “If I knew I should not raise a farthing profit I would yet ratify the engagement, so anxious I am that the United States should be visited by a lady whose vocal powers have never been approached by any other human being, and whose character is charity, simplicity and goodness personified.”  [Wiki: Jenny Lind]

Boy. Sounds like the perfect match to the tastes of “godly, prudish Victorian America”!  And she was a hit, from Day One. On her arrival by trans-Atlantic Steamer…

So great was people’s desire for a glimpse of the star that several people were “severely bruised, some came off with bloody noses, and two boys, about twelve years of age, appeared to be seriously injured. Had not the rush been checked in time, many lives would have been lost.”When she set foot on American soil, Lind kissed her hand to the U.S. flag and exclaimed, “There is the beautiful standard of freedom, which is worshipped by the oppressed of all nations.” She further endeared herself to the welcoming crowd by stopping Barnum’s coachman from clearing a path through the throng with his whip.

And here was the upshot of the tour:

Lind gave 93 concerts in America for Barnum, earning her about $350,000; Barnum netted at least $500,000. From the outset, Lind had determined to give all her fees to charity. Her principal beneficiaries were free schools in her native Sweden, but she also distributed her U.S. concert earnings to local charities, including $1,000 to help build a church in Chicago, and $1,500 for the “mother church” of the Lutheran Augustana Synod in Andover, Illinois.

Yep. If one ever needed proof of what appealed to the Moral Victorians, these reports sure provide it!


But if one digs a bit deeper into the “ephemera” of the time, that has been collected and kept in obscurity by professional historians (not deliberately, just because there is so much of it crammed in ephemera collections in museums and libraries and private collections), a somewhat different picture comes into focus. At one point the picture looks like this:


Looks pretty much like the cherubic Jenny, doesn’t it? In fact, it looks like this young woman, Adah Isaacs Menken, age 19, could be the model for an illustration of the admirable Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, as shown played here by Jennifer Ehle in the BBC production.


But as we all know, looks can be deceiving.

Digging in old newspaper clippings is particularly helpful in what one might call “social archaeology” of the period.

In September 1863, between the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Address, a cub reporter named Samuel Langhorne Clemens described for his Nevada newspaper a stellar event that jolted San Francisco:

“About this time a magnificent spectacle dazzled my vision-the whole constellation of the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens like a vast spray of gasjets, and shed a glory abroad over the universe as it fell. I have used the term “Great Menken” because I regard it as a more modest expression than the Great Bare.”

The notorious actress Adah Isaacs Menken, at the beginning of a wildly successful year-long tour of the gold country, affected Sam viscerally. His employer, Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise, printed his piece, “The Menken, Especially for Gentlemen.” He signed it Mark Twain, one of the earliest uses of his alter ego. Sam boasted to his distant Ma that he had “the widest reputation, as a local editor, of any man on the coast.” Actually, the young dandy, with curly hair and flowing mustache, was a hard-drinking smart-aleck and an aspiring ladies man. Fortunately, Mark Twain would mature, shedding his bad habits such as punning “bare” for “bear.” [The “Great Bear”—Ursa Major—is the name of a larger stellar constellation that includes the stars making up the Big Dipper. Thus Twain’s pun that the dazzling effect of the presence of The Great Menken was like that of The Great Bare… er, Bear. Read on to see the reason for the pun.]

…Adah, athletic and five-foot-two, had a curvy, hour-glass figure that pleased masculine tastes in the age of Queen Victoria. When Sam Clemens called her “a Venus,” he recognized that Adah Menken was the original American love goddess. Before burlesque theaters, Hollywood, and adult DVDs, Adah drove her largely male audiences to distraction, while women scoured the newspapers for gossip about her latest amour. Fans collected her “cheesecake” photos for albums, and at her theatrical shows “big men” tossed bags of gold dust on stage.

…The going wager was whether she would or wouldn’t take it all off. Sam Clemens answered the question for his Nevada readers:

“When I arrived in San Francisco, I found there was nobody in town but “the Menken”-or rather, that no one was being talked about except that manly young female. I went to see her play Mazeppa. . . . She appeared to me to have but one garment on-a thin tight white linen one, of unimportant dimensions; I forget the name of the article, but it is indispensable to infants of tender age.  (Twain)” [from “thegreatbare.com”]

Yes, Miss (or Mrs., depending on the month and year) Menken, the sweet cherubic lady with the curly hair in the pic above, performed in “legitimate theaters” (not just grimy western saloons…) appearing to the eyes of the audience to be at best topless (as described by Mark Twain above) and at worst (or maybe this was considered “best,” by many I suppose!) totally nude. From contemporary accounts it’s difficult to be totally sure just what was going on. Some describe her as being clad in a skin-tight, very sheer “pink body suit,” appearing from the vantage point of the audience as if wearing “nothing at all.” Others, such as Twain, describe her as literally going topless, with just a tiny diaper-like garment. One thing is for sure … there are still photos extant of her from the period which make it clear she had no problem posing at least topless for the close up camera. No sheer pink body suit that might fool the eye from a distance on the stage.  Yup, her pics would have fit right in to the stereoscope Peep Shows at the 1893 World’s Fair, although she lived thirty years earlier. Back when nudity wasn’t acceptable by polite Victorians.

Except when it was.

Even though Menken has never made it into most “respectable” history books, and I never heard of her until recently, the ephemera related to her fame of the time was so extensive that many folks, particularly in the entertainment industry, are well familiar with her story, even though she died in 1868. And it’s hard to over-state her popularity back in that prudish Victorian time.

She was so well known internationally at the time that she was called “the Menken”.

Check out the next entry in this series to find out more of the Rest of the Story of the Victorian Obsession with The Great Menken.

Victorian BareBack Riding

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PRP4: Double Trouble

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 4

Double Trouble

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

Most everyone who grew up in the 1970s or earlier is familiar with this gadget. My daughter, born in 1970, had one just like this bright red plastic model as a child.


Viewmasters are still made, but what with the advances in TV, VCRs, computers, and video games, the kind of tame viewing experience they offer to the user isn’t nearly as exciting today as it was in the device’s heyday.

The original Viewmaster was introduced to the public at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. At the time, it wasn’t considered a child’s toy as it is today. You purchased them in photography stores or scenic attraction gift shops.  Most reels of pictures were of scenic or cultural interest—maybe vistas of Yellowstone National Park, Niagara Falls, or “Old Covered Bridges of New England”—and aimed at adults. Here is the type of “black Bakelite” model I remember from my own childhood in the 1950s. I had lots of those reels of scenic spots that came in the little blue and white paper sleeves you see in the picture.


By the early 1950s, the company had acquired the rights to Walt Disney’s characters, and the emphasis shifted to reels that entertained children, such as scenes from Disney movies recreated in three-dimensional clay dioramas.



I always considered the Viewmaster idea a strictly “modern” device, based on modern photography, until a few years ago. When my mother in law Lucy died in 2000, my husband had no siblings. He was laid up with a broken leg at the time, so I inherited the job of sorting through large storage units filled with Lucy’s accumulated life clutter… and that of her mother, Elsie, who was born in the 1890s. Buried somewhere in all of it I found an item that looked pretty much just like this.


I had a vague recollection of seeing one somewhere before, but didn’t even know what it was called. I happened to have a replica of an old Sears Roebuck catalog of 1903, and in it discovered an ad for the exact same item we now owned. It is called a stereoscope, and was a forerunner of the Viewmaster. Instead of a disk of transparent slides like the Viewmaster used, it worked with two regular photographs mounted side by side on a card. A stereo camera, with two lenses, had taken the pair of pictures at the same moment from just slightly differing angles. When the card is placed on the stereoscope, each of your eyes can only see the picture straight in front of it, and your brain combines the two images into a three-dimensional view. (The Viewmaster works on the same principle.)

fair stereo pic

Elsie had likely bought the stereoscope we now owned in the first decade or so of the 20th century. With it was a collection of stereo cards she had owned, including pictures from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, one of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, a picture of San Francisco taken just before the Big Earthquake of 1906, pictures of the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair, photos from Panama of the recently-completed (1914) Canal, scenes from the Holy Land, and even a couple of cards  from what was obviously a “story-telling” set, a very racist bit of so-called humor with a black couple in a rowboat, with “folksy” dialogue below the picture in which the woman calls the man the N word. Here’s one of the cards from Elsie’s collection, of Theodore Roosevelt taking the oath of office in 1901.

roosevelt stereo

After looking up details on the stereoscope we now owned, I was still under the impression it was at best a “new” invention in the 1890s. I was surprised recently to learn the gadgets go back much farther than that.

The stereoscope was first invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838.When pictures were viewed stereoscopically, it showed that the two images are combined by the brain to produce 3D depth perception. (Wiki)

These original stereo cards were drawings or paintings. But as soon as photography was invented, it leaped almost immediately to use by makers of stereoscopes. The first successful method of photography, the daguerreotype, was patented in 1839.

The stereoscope was improved by Louis Jules Duboscq who made stereoscopes and stereoscopic daguerreotypes, and a famous picture of Queen Victoria that was displayed at The Great Exhibition in 1851. Almost overnight a 3D industry developed and 250,000 stereoscopes were produced and a great number of stereoviews, stereo cards, stereo pairs or stereographs were sold in a short time. Stereographers were sent throughout the world to capture views for the new medium and feed the demand for 3D.

The fad continued on well into the early 20th century. And just like modern Viewmasters, kids loved the stereoscope too, as evidenced by this 1922 Post cover by Norman Rockwell.

1922 post rockwell stereo

It even became the butt of jokes, such as this cartoon in an 1882 newspaper.

1882 cartoon stereo

It certainly is reminiscent of the jokes that went around in the 1950s about people who set up a projector and screen in their family room and bored their friends and family with 100s of slides of their vacations!

Why am I telling you all this, in relation to the history of the problem of sexual immorality in America? Because I’m suspicious that the bored friend in that cartoon above wouldn’t have been quite so bored if his host had brought out the REAL stereo card collection he may have “hidden from the wife” in a dresser drawer in his bedroom. But more about that later.

The stereoscope wasn’t limited to home parlors. Very early on “commercial” stereoscope machines were produced and sold across the country that allowed the original version of “Pay Per View.” These were installed in places such as amusement parks, carnivals, circuses, and World’s Fairs.


Drop in a penny, or maybe a nickel, and like a jukebox drops a record, the machine would automatically drop a series of cards, one by one, into your line of sight through the binocular lenses so you could see amazing 3-D views. An early version of the slide-show.

So by the time of the 1893 World’s Fair, that Fair’s “Midway Plaisance” (mentioned in the previous blog entry in this series) had a number of attraction venues that included little booths where folks could drop a penny or a nickel in a slot on the Peep Show box and see a series of stereo scenes of sights such as the Eiffel Tower.


OR … if you happened to be a gentleman, and approached a machine with a sign reading “no ladies or minors,” you could get an eye-full of a different kind of sight.

Victorian Era

If you are like me, you may have looked at pictures like these from 1889 of the fashions of what is called the Victorian Era  …

dresses 1889

… and assumed that maybe interest in sex outside of marriage hadn’t been invented yet. The ladies all seemed to dress ultra-conservatively, with little chance their attire would be the cause of sexual arousal among the men around them in public.

And of course, most have heard the term “Victorian prudery.” If you believe the pop history hype, people in the era of Queen Victoria of Great Britain (1837-1901), both men and women, were so prudish they didn’t talk or even think about sex at all, except after marriage. And even then, only with great restraint.

Oh, of course there were maybe a few dirty old men who sneaked a lustful peek at a woman’s uncovered ankle if she raised her skirts to get across a mud puddle. So maybe the extent of “hardcore” Victorian Porn would have been—catching a glimpse of an actual naked ankle!

Well, and then again, maybe somewhere, out in the Wild West, grimy cowboys coming off a cattle drive might get likkered up at a saloon like Miss Kitty’s …


…and ogle some loose ladies doing scandalous can-can style dances on the stage. But they were FAR from the edges of respectable society.

As a small aside … I discovered recently that Miss Kitty wasn’t just a “respectable business woman” who owned a respectable dinner establishment that served alcohol, even though she sometimes looked like it.


The original producer of Gunsmoke, which debuted on the radio, explained her “backstory”:

Kitty’s profession was hinted at, but never explicit; in a 1953 interview with TIME, [Gunsmoke creator/director] MacDonnell declared, “Kitty is just someone Matt has to visit every once in a while. We never say it, but Kitty is a prostitute, plain and simple.” The television show first portrayed Kitty as a saloon employee (dance-hall girl/prostitute) then later as the owner of the Long Branch Saloon. [Wiki: Gunsmoke]


Which, to be blunt, eventually made Miss Kitty a madam. All of this might explain the “publicity photos” of her below, which I sure don’t remember seeing on the TV show.



But back to polite society Back East. Yes, because of all the pics I’d seen in history books of people of the Victorian Era, and the lack of even the slightest hint of hanky-panky among the respectable citizenry of the time in any historical reading I’d done (well, other than a few “bohemian” artists and writers, who probably hung out in France), I always assumed that the Victorian Era in the US and Britain was pretty much morally upright by nature. Only when the Roaring Twenties came along did people somehow tumble down into degeneracy and suddenly “discover” having illicit sexual interests as … recreation and entertainment.

Back to the Fair

So imagine my surprise when I discovered what was REALLY in those peep-show boxes at the ultra-respectable World’s Columbian Exposition. Yep. Turns out it wasn’t just stereo pics of the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Canyon after all. Remember what I said about the organizers of the 1939 New York World’s Fair in the last blog entry in this series? Apply the same exact words to the 1893 Fair in Chicago, which was supposedly commemorating the 400th anniversary of the “discovery of America” by Columbus.

Surely the producers of a World’s Fair, where the US was “on display” for the admiration of the whole world…


…where our nation’s noblest and finest and highest qualities were offered for open inspection;


…where families were encouraged to bring their children and teens from all over America to come see the noblest and highest aspirations we have for our country…



…surely such men couldn’t possibly have just allowed the vilest of smut and filth to be sprinkled right in the middle of it all…could they?  And surely a nation of basically godly men wouldn’t have flocked to see, often right with their wives and children and mothers and mothers in law in tow, the dregs of what man…and the naked young ladies men could hire … were able to produce.

Surely this couldn’t have been going on back in “the Good Old Days.” Could it?

Yes, it could. And did. “In spades,” as the old saying goes.

Bingo. Take ‘er back 47 years to the 1893 fair, and the same thoughts apply. Oh, they hadn’t worked their way up to live shows like those in ‘39 yet. (Well, except for “Little Egypt,” the “hootchie-cootchie” dancer, at the 1893 Fair’s Algerian pavilion, who wowed all the men with her naked belly and her proto-belly-dancing routine … you can still see video clips of that dance made by ancient motion  picture cameras, and it sure doesn’t look “culturally esthetic” and “energetically graceful” … just mostly lots of very violent pelvic thrusts. I’ve seen modern belly dancing routines, and although they include a lot of jiggling and shimmying, they really don’t look a thing like that utterly “raw” dance of 1893.)

Although the shows in the Peep Show boxes obviously weren’t “live,” they were not paintings or drawings. And no, they weren’t of prim ladies with a skirt demurely pulled up to seductively show off a “well-turned ankle.”

I have discovered they were photos of live Victorian women, mostly very young, many of ‘em totally naked . No pasties. No G-strings. No attempt to look like graceful Greek Statues or somethin’ to give pseudo-respectability to the scene. Just raw sexuality on display. Sometimes with a bit of clothing for a strip-tease look, but often as not just full frontal nudity. Standing, sitting, lying sprawled on beds and couches, prancing around in fields and forests, you name it. Naked women singly and in groups. And in quite effective 3-D, no less!

I was stunned to learn that these were so prevalent at the time that thousands of different stereocards from that time period, including many that were indeed on display in the peep boxes at the 1893 Fair, are still around to this day in the collections of the collectors of such things. I doubt many men, other than those fairly wealthy, could afford their own “personal” collection of these cards back then, but I do not doubt that hundreds of thousands of them took the opportunity, whenever it presented itself, to check out the Peep Show boxes at the World’s Fair and beyond. For they very soon found their way across the country to midways at county fairs, parks like Coney Island, and more.

Actually, by 1894 someone invented a “moving picture” peepshow. A series of photos, just like a “stop motion animation” film of today, or an animator’s “Flip Book,” was arranged in a sort of “Rolodex” of pictures inside the box. As you watched through the peep hole and turned the crank, you could see “action” in the pictures as you viewed them quickly one at a time.


The “Mutoscope” became a commercial hit, with reels holding about 850 cards that played about 1 minute of a “movie.” Of course, those making money off the pennies and nickels inserted in the slots of those machines didn’t want people standing at a machine for a long time watching their favorite parts over and over, so, as the Mutoscope company put it…

Each machine holds a single reel and is dedicated to the presentation of a single short subject, described by a poster affixed to the machine. The patron controls the presentation speed but the crank can be turned only in one direction, preventing the patron from reversing and repeating part of the reel. The patron is advised that stopping the crank or slowing it too much will throw the images far enough out of focus to blur them beyond recognition.

Of course the ads for the Mutoscope always showed a prim lady peeping through the peep hole.


And you were to assume, of course, that she was watching something educational like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace or a volcano erupting or some such. And I don’t doubt such reels were produced. The Mutoscope was around for many years, becoming a staple in most amusement parks and county fairs and the like. Eventually they provided cartoons for kiddies and great moments in baseball and all sorts of varied topics. But I can guarantee you that the most popular Mutoscope machines in any peep show area were those clearly not intended for “women and minors.”

I hadn’t thought about it in years, but looking back at my childhood in the mid-1950s, I can remember going to the county fair in the little far-northern town in Michigan where I lived and entering the amusement tent where the little bowling alley machines and pinball machines and such were. And yes, I can remember the penny Mutoscope machines, with the crank and the crackly pictures inside the peephole. I was thinking that by then, they may have been little film strips rather than flip cards. But my husband, who also grew up in the 50s, says he distinctly remembers the machines at fairs he went to also, and being able to see the “cards” inside being flipped.

I am absolutely sure some of those machines at our little small-town fair were “for gentlemen only.” (After all, they still had a “girly show” tent in the back corner of the Fair in those days, with no admission for “minors.”)

But you know what? I’d be willing to bet a significant amount of money that NONE of the pictures in those peep show boxes in the 1950s were as graphic as some of the steamy stereoscope peep show pics that were available to the casual passers-by on the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 World’s Fair!

And thus there you have it again… I just can’t imagine going to Epcot center now in the 21st century, and finding little booths sprinkled among the World Showcase pavilions where men and teenage boys could take a break from the boring cultural and educational displays … and feed quarters into a machine where they can ogle a few naked ladies.

And I am SO glad that the Viewmaster company never succumbed to the temptation to issue R-rated reels for your young lad’s Viewmaster stereo viewer collection.

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to see a large “peep show” machine in a hall in our local mall. You dropped in a quarter or two and looked in one of the stereoscope peepholes. I wondered what on earth they would be showing in such a machine these days when I first saw it, since everyone already has access to movies and television. Turns out it was just exquisite ultra-high-definition three dimensional photos of particularly gorgeous scenery. Yet back in the 1890s in a similar public setting, it might well have been hi-def, stereo pics of totally naked women. Yes, I am SO glad I don’t live back in “the Good Old Days.”

So while we have indeed progressed down the road of the easy spread of pornographic materials, just by the nature of the new technology as it has come along, it seems to me that there is MORE general societal decorum today than there was back in 1893 and 1939! Yes, there is Internet porn. Yes, there are sexually graphic movies at the movie theaters. But society seems in general to have agreed to keep it all “cornered” in special arenas, not inserted into the daily street scene in family settings!

It would appear that the “Gay ‘90s,” as the period in history we have been discussing has been called, was not “The Good Old Days” of American sexual morality either. (I won’t bore you with stories of the numerous splendiferous brothels of Chicago that gave visiting international dignitaries and American society gentlemen places to go to relax after a busy day at the nearby Fair in 1893. Some complete with grand pianos, chamber orchestras, and sumptuous meals. Suffice it to say that high-priced prostitution is not a modern invention.)

Yes, not everyone in that era was sexually immoral … just as not everyone is today. There were people of high moral standards, just as there are today. And there were “moral reformers” back then who disapproved of and vociferously protested the public availability of such things as the sexual stereoscope peep shows. But the very existence of “zealous reformers” indicates a widespread problem! And quite often they lost their battles.

Well, OK then. Maybe if we just went back a little farther into US history we’d find that Golden age, when God was smiling down and blessed the nation with growing prosperity because of our purity. Surely it’s just that folks somehow “suddenly” became more tolerant of raw hanky-panky seeping in from the seamy edges of society in the late 1800s.

Make sure your rose-colored nostalgia glasses are firmly in place and your smelling salts are nearby, and let’s go back to the Civil War period in the next installment of this series:

The Great Menken

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