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]

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. []

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. []

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. []

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. []

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. []

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. []

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.” []

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.

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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 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 “”]

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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PRP3: A Fair to Remember

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 3

A Fair to Remember

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

Although my family had been to and enjoyed Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida several times since shortly after it opened in 1971, we didn’t make it to EPCOT center until 1988. I had been entertained by the environment and attractions at Magic Kingdom, but EPCOT took it to a whole new level.

epcot iconic

The themed “pavilions” in the “Future World” half of the theme park were widely spaced on gorgeously-landscaped grounds, the crowds were much less crushing than at Magic Kingdom, and because we went in the fall, you could literally visit every attraction almost leisurely, with little wait.

future world

It was the same in the other half of the park, the “World Showcase” of pavilions of a variety of nations around the Showcase Lagoon.

epcot mexicoepcot china night

Among my favorite attractions on that first visit was the “Spaceship Earth” ride inside the large geodesic sphere near the entrance to the park. You had your own little private vehicle that took you past numerous clever life-sized dioramas that depicted the history of communication, while individual speakers inside your vehicle broadcast a running commentary by Walter Cronkite about what you were seeing.

spaceship ride seatsepcot sphere egypt

Another favorite was the ride in the Horizons pavilion (which was closed in 1999, replaced by the Mission: SPACE pavilion and thrill ride). It had a similar ride-through experience that took you past a variety of scenes with audio-animatronic figures depicting “visions of the future.” These scenes offered speculation on how man would, in the not too distant future, conquer the obstacles to living in deserts, undersea, and in space, as well as in ultra-futuristic cities.

horizons desert

horizon seahorizon space

The whole park was full of examples of the amazing things man had accomplished up to the present, and his noblest aspirations for the future, as well as sharing the breathtaking beauty of the natural world that he had been able to more and more fully explore—and capture on film, for all to see. Circle Vision or ultra-wide projection screens in several pavilions showed everything from the Canadian Rockies to the Great Wall of China and the Rivers of France.

circlevision canada

I couldn’t help but ponder that being immersed in all the attractions at this unique place was just a bit like getting to look down on the Earth from God’s vantage point and see the very BEST of what man had been able to accomplish with his God-given creativity, in the even greater context of the beauty of God’s Creation itself. Yes, outside the park’s perimeter I knew that the world had many dark spots, and had even had many periods of “dark ages,” where man had made a mess of things. But after all, the Bible does say that whatsoever things are good and pure and of good report are worthy things to “think on.” And this place reminded me that SOME of what mankind has done really has been “of good report.”

It was quite a few years after that visit (and a few more visits) that I began stumbling, on the Internet, on information about where some of inspiration for the infrastructure of EPCOT came from. Up until then, I hadn’t ever heard much, if anything about the various “World’s Fairs” of America’s history. I particularly came across descriptions and pictures of the Columbian Exposition/ World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago, and the New York World’s Fair of 1939 in New York City. These fairs were essentially huge “cities” built at great expense over a period of a few years, to be used for a year or two to “host” a world’s fair, and then destroyed. And it slowly dawned on me that EPCOT was essentially a “permanent world’s fair.” Those earlier fairs included many of the same elements I’d experienced at EPCOT, including spacious, beautiful landscaping, impressive architecture, themed pavilions (e.g., “transportation,” “fine arts,” “science and industry”) that featured displays and even “rides” that exhibited the accomplishments of man in their own time—and sometimes speculation about the future. The fairs included pavilions put up by nations from around the world to exhibit aspects of their own cultures and products. The Chicago fair even grouped pavilions around a lagoon, much like EPCOT!

I particularly became fascinated by the parallels between EPCOT and that 1939 New York Fair.


In the pilot of the animated comedy Futurama, the protagonist awakens from a millennium of cryogenic slumber to find himself in the year 3000.

futurama cartoon1

The first thing he hears is a portentous, booming voice: “Welcome…to the world of tomorrow!” The speaker is soon revealed to be a lab technician with a flair for the melodramatic. The scene riffs on a 70-year-old fair ride, a vision of the future that’s been so influential it’ll probably seem familiar even if you’ve never heard of it.

The direct reference is to the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, whose tagline was a promise to show visitors “the world of tomorrow.” The most memorable exhibit at the fair was the General Motors Pavilion, and the most memorable feature in the General Motors Pavilion was a ride called the Futurama.

futurama entrancePeople stood in line for hours to ride it and experience the exciting possibilities of life in the distant future —the year 1960.

The Futurama ride carried fair visitors past tiny, realistic landscapes while a narrator described the world of tomorrow. The effect was like catching a glimpse of the future from the window of an airplane.

futurama seats

As you might expect from a ride sponsored by GM, the focus was on what roadways and transportation might look like in 20 years.

… GM’s ride presented a utopia forged by urban planning. Sophisticated highways ran through rural farmland and eventually moved into carefully ordered futuristic cities. “You have to understand that the audience had never even considered a future like this,” says Howland. “There wasn’t an interstate freeway system in 1939. Not many people owned a car. They staggered out of the fair like a cargo cult and built an imperfect version of this incredible vision.” [Wired]

This obviously put me in mind of the futuristic Horizons ride at EPCOT, and the parallel was cinched when I saw the opening title shot of the 1939 documentary that covered the Futurama attraction.

1939 new horizons vid pic

The main icon of EPCOT center, looming in every picture, is the Spaceship Earth geodesic sphere.

spaceship earth distance

Compare this to the icon of the 1939  Fair.

trylon and perisphere

The Trylon and Perisphere were two modernistic structures, together known as the “Theme Center,” at the center of the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940. Connected to the 610-foot (190 m) spire-shaped Trylon by what was at the time the world’s longest escalator, the Perisphere was a tremendous sphere, 180 feet in diameter. The sphere housed a diorama called “Democracity” which, in keeping with the fair’s theme “The World of Tomorrow”, depicted a utopian city-of-the-future. Democracity was viewed from above on a moving sidewalk, while a multi-image slide presentation was projected on the interior surface of the sphere. [Wiki: Trylon and Perisphere]

Here’s a little “digital recreation” of what it would have been like to visit the attraction.

Here’s a picture of the layout of Democracity.


You may wonder how this ties in with EPCOT. Well, the Epcot you can visit now (note the recent name change that eliminates the original ALL CAPS spelling of the park’s name) doesn’t give any hints of this. But Walt Disney didn’t plan EPCOT to be a “theme park” with attractions and rides. His original plans were to literally make what the letters of EPCOT stand for…an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.”  His intent was to build an actual futuristic, semi-utopian “demonstration city” near Magic Kingdom, with people living and working in it. When he unexpectedly died in 1966, five years before even the Magic Kingdom opened, his staff put the EPCOT plans on hold. And they eventually opted to make a drastically altered version of what Walt originally had in mind, turning it into the Epcot people are familiar with today. But the original EPCOT plans looked like this in the concept paintings made for Walt by Disney Imagineers. The parallel to Democracity is very clear.

original epcot artwork

Walt had obviously been influenced by the “futuristic” plans of the 1939 Democracity and related “idealistic cities of the future” of that time.


Anyone who has been to a Disney park, including EPCOT, is well-familiar with the use of audio-animatronic robotic characters that bring artificial “life” to many of the attractions, such as the Carousel of Progress.


It was Walt’s Imagineers who actually created what they came to call audio-animatronics, very lifelike robots, starting with an Abraham Lincoln character they built on commission from the state of Illinois for its pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. So there were obviously none of those extremely human-like robots at the 1939 Fair. But the ‘39 fair did introduce essentially the original prototype for the “manlike robot,” which started the techno-genealogy toward the eventual robotic characters in the Horizons attraction at EPCOT and so many other Disney attractions. And here he is … Elektro the Moto-Man and his trusty sidekick, Sparko.

elektro and sparko

Elektro could do 26 actions on command, had a vocabulary of 700 words, could tell red from green lights, and could even smoke… and crack stupid—and on occasion, sexist—jokes! Here he is in action.

Elecktro and Sparko were a hit with most fairgoers—including fictional ones.


Tom Middleton, his wife Jane, their children Babs (18) and Bud (14), and “Grandma” were the fictional family starring in a one hour promotional video produced by the Westinghouse Corporation to encourage Americans from across the land to make the trip to New York for the fair. (And, of course, in particular to visit the Westinghouse exhibit—which included Elektro and Sparko.) You can see the Middletons and their adventures online: The Middleton Family at the World’s Fair .

Yes, the whole idea of the 1939 NY World’s Fair really caught my imagination as a wonderful, idyllic place much like EPCOT, that I wished I could have visited. It seemed like it would have been such a fun, enlightening, refreshing experience to go there with the enthusiastic Middleton family.

That is, until I recently found out about the ‘39 Fair’s dark underbelly. But more about that later.

The Amusement Zone

Those civic leaders responsible for creating and hosting World’s Fairs have always had high aspirations for their efforts to be highly educational and informative, exposing the masses to places and ideas and inventions and ways of doing things that they aren’t familiar with. There are usually displays of fine arts and music, the crafts and customs of other countries, the latest offerings of industry to create “a better life” for everyone.

But from the earliest fairs on, it became obvious to those involved that the masses don’t want to JUST be educated and informed and exposed to “highbrow things.” They also want to be entertained. And if World’s Fairs don’t provide a big dose of entertainment too, they will be financial flops. So one of the features of every fair since the 1800s has been an “amusement strip.” The 1893 Chicago fair was the first to have a totally separate zone dedicated to “lowbrow” entertainment such as thrill rides and popular music shows. The strip at that fair was dubbed the “Midway Plaisance” (plaisance is a French word implying a pretty park). From that comes the common term “midway” used for the comparable part of county and state fairs to this day.

1893 chicago midwayThe midway at the St. Louis Fair of 1904 was called “The Pike.” That’s where, for instance, the famous Ragtime composer and piano player Scott Joplin (remember his catchy “The Entertainer” composition that made the pop music charts back in the 1970s?) and other African American musicians performed at that Fair.

1904 the pike

And the 1939 NY Fair had The Amusement Zone. Including the lake in the midst of it, it covered 1/3 of the Fair’s whole area.

zone map

As you might guess, The Amusement Zone had a great appeal to children and teens. And no wonder. First there was the six acre “Children’s World,” that featured miniature trains that took kids on a “Trip around the World,” including side boat trips to Holland or Italy, or to a visit with an Eskimo family.

There was the splendiferous “Billy Rose’s Aquacade” which featured Johnny Weismuller, star of the Tarzan movies, and a bevy of lovely, skilled synchronized swimmers.


There was a “Theater of Time and Space” sponsored by a watch company, which “transported you to the far away shores of island universes in the dark cosmic depths aboard a rocket ship at speeds faster than the speed of light.”


There was a roller coaster, a parachute drop, a replica of George Washington’s home, even a “Little Miracle Town” populated by “The World’s Greatest Little People”—“65 of the greatest Midget Performers from the Four Corners of the Earth.”  This included acrobats, ballet dancers, magicians, comedians…and even “Three Orchestras.”

I have a number of attractive books either about, or including sections on, the 1939 New York World’s Fair. They all have numerous photos of many of the attractions found in the main section of the Fair, and usually some of attractions of The Amusement Zone, such as those listed above. What I didn’t realize until recently was that there was a whole “other world” at this World’s Fair that didn’t make it into the standard Coffee Table Books. It doesn’t feature prominently on most ‘39 Fair websites either. You have to do a bit of Web rummaging, a bit of creative googling, to find hints of it.

Well, maybe most books or websites have tiny hints of it. Most mention a few cryptic “details” of a couple of the attractions in The Amusement Zone. First there was the Salvadore Dali “Dream of Venus” attraction.

One of the most intriguing and remembered exhibitions at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City was without a doubt Salvador Dali’s bizarre, surrealist funhouse, Dream of Venus.  Those who were at the scene in 1939 and dared to enter Dali’s interactive, artistic spectacle, would have had to pass under a pair of woman’s spread-apart legs and purchase their tickets at a giant fish head.

This avant-garde  ”girlie-show” featured displays of naked ladies swimming in water tanks while some were perhaps milking a wounded cow or typing on a floating typewriter.  Inside, visitors found live lobsters sizzling on a hot bed of coals, another naked woman laying in a giant bed, surrounded by red satin, flowers and leaves, and a rubber female figure painted as a piano.

And this brief excerpt is a mild description of the full extent of what was “going on” inside the bizarre house. Yep. Live naked ladies. Some wet, some dry. Doing strange stuff. Inside a building like nothing you’d ever seen unless you were a guy prone to eating way too much pizza and drinking too much beer before going to bed at 4 in the morning. Evidently that was the kind of guy Dali was. Only difference was … he was a “famous artist.” Which made it possible for him to bring his nightmares into the real world, and populate them with naked ladies, and pass them off as “good clean art appreciation” experiences for Fair Goers.


Well, OK. That was “art.” So it is somehow understandable how it could make its way into the World’s Fair.

And then there was the “Jack Sheridan’s Living Magazine Covers.”  As you might expect, this was an attraction within which you saw life-sized magazine covers with “live” humans being the illustrations on them. You paid a small entry fee, and entered the building where young women posed with the magazine backdrops. You were allowed to take pictures as each one posed for about 15 seconds, and the whole show took about 8 minutes.

Yep. You’ve guessed it. The young ladies were all naked from the waist up. At least. A “Bride” magazine with a naked lady in a see-through bridal gown. And so on. They stood real still, of course. Although they breathed real deeply and heavily, which evidently was intended to emphasize their “aesthetic attributes.”

Art. It must have been art. That’s it. It was art. Which makes it OK that the sleazy exterior of the building, with not-naked-but-scantily-clad women posing on balconies, while the barker below hawked the wares inside—was right across the walkway from the entrance to the Children’s World.

And what was right across the walkway from the gen-yoo-wine replica of George Washington’s home? (The Fair was ostensibly “honoring” the “150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as President in New York in 1789.) Why, over yonder was the entrance to the “Aztec Sun Worshippers” attraction.

congress of beauty

Which had no Aztecs, and no worship going on. Just … taDA … naked ladies (topless … at least…) wandering around a park-like area soakin’ up the sun. Eating sandwiches at picnic tables, taking showers, playing “jacks.”

Art. It must have been art. That’s it. It was … No.  It wasn’t art. It was pure voyeurism. But … but … at least it was “clean,” innocent voyeurism.  No bump and grind, no come hither looks. Just cheerful half-naked young women making a living by eating sandwiches in front of gawkers snapping souvenir photos with their Kodak Brownie Cameras.

Yes, I have long been aware of the three “attractions” mentioned above. I have never really understood how, in the 1930s, when the “Hays Code” for the motion picture industry made it impossible to even show two married people in the same bed, or anybody kissing more than three seconds—and even had flapper Betty Boop required to wear longer skirts than she used to because very little flesh was to be exposed by actresses—the promoters got away with these sorts of “attractions” at such a public event. But I decided what I said above … two of them got by on the technicality that they were ostensibly “artistic presentations,” and the third had the young women doing such innocuous things that it was hard to pin it down as something that would provoke people to certifiable “lust.”

Ah …but I was naïve. I didn’t realize that the passage of time had “filtered out” the Rest of the Story about The Amusement Zone. Those three attractions were indeed only the tip of a very deep and grimy iceberg.

For instance, you may have noticed in the pic above that the entrance to the Sun Worshippers realm was immediately connected to the entrance the Congress of Beauty. Until recently, I’d seen no description of what this was all about. Oh. More art.

If that’s what you can call a collection of seedy burlesque show acts. There was a woman who danced with a parrot…who, at the appropriate time, pulled most all of her skimpy outfit off with its beak, to the hoots and hollers of the appreciative audience. There were dances involving mostly naked men and women imitating sex acts. There was a scene with a mostly naked man and woman making love …interrupted by an ape who drags off the woman, paws all over her, and dumps her in a volcano. There’s the “dance of the roses,” where the dancers have teensy flowers covering parts of their tops and bottoms … and they eventually toss the teensy flowers to the men in the audience. Who evidently seemed very appreciative to have the pretty flowers. To take home to their wives, no doubt.

And so it went on at sleazy venue after sleazy venue down the midway, tucked between the Time and Space theater and the Midget Town, between the Aquacade and the Roller Coaster. Barkers everywhere, offering their wares…like at the Little Egypt show, where the barker urged you to “See Stella before the cops get here; you will not find this in the Guide Book.”

Or the Crystal Lassies: “Described as a ‘polyscopic paradise for peeping Toms’ by the New York Post.” That’s where fully and partially nude dancers appeared, one at a time, on a floor of glass in front of numerous intersecting glass walls and cavorted, so it looked like one girl was a whole chorus line. And so you could see every possible inch of her from above and below… “Viewers” watched through “one way glass” (600 private viewing spots along the circumference of the room were available for each 12-minute show.)  Indeed, a Peeping Tom’s Heaven. The creator of this “attraction” was Norman Bel Geddes… the famous theatrical and industrial designer who also created the Futurama exhibit. He settled on the name “Crystal Lassies” after considering “Bel Geddes’ Sexorama” and “The Teaz-orama.”

Or the Artist and Model show, where another pitch man insisted if those entering saw “even a string” on the model, they would get their money back. Nobody requested a refund.

I think what turned my stomach the most was a description of a show called “Extasie.”


It was, of all things, based on a Biblical story. At the beginning you saw a pit on the stage. You quickly realized this was “jail” and the top half of a naked man (at least as far as you could see him) playing “John the Baptist” was sticking up out of the pit.

A mostly-(maybe-all) naked Salome, stepdaughter of Herod, was leaning over trying to seduce John into kissing her. He rejected her, and she stomped off to find Herod. She then did a really, really sleazy Dance of the Seven Veils for Herod. He was pleased and promised her anything she wanted, which was of course the head of John the Baptist. Some aides brought the head and tossed it on stage. (Not sure how lifelike… and/or how gory the simulation was).  She leaned down and began fondling it and kissing it on the mouth, bragging to “it” that she finally got to kiss it. Then she laid down next to the severed head on the stage and writhed in a simulated sexual frenzy.

Art. It must have been art. Or freedom of religious expression. Or somethin’.

As were the frequent parades and public expositions by some of the “stars” of such shows right out on the “midway” where everybody could see them. No, there wasn’t outright nudity in those (unless a participating young woman had the 30’s equivalent of a “wardrobe malfunction”). But the outfits were extremely skimpy, the writhing, jiggling, shimmying dances and posturing extremely provocative. 14 year old Bud Middleton sure would have gotten an eyeful, even though he would have to have been all of 16 to get into the smut shows!

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…

1939 kiddies

…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.

Pam’s Lament

I viewed EPCOT as getting to see a little taste of what God would see looking down and choosing to focus on the very best that mankind had done with the creative gifts He had created them with.

I thought that was what the 1939 World’s Fair had been … but I’ve come to realize it was really as if God was looking down at a lovely city…joined at the hip to a cesspool.

Here’s how one chronicler of that event in the New York Daily News put it.

OSTENSIBLY, IT WAS about international goodwill in a darkly war-beclouded world. Ostensibly, it was about the peoples of the Earth together joining hands in celebration of their noblest and most harmonious ideals. Ostensibly, it was about The World of Tomorrow, that gleamingly marvelous place where every home had an electric waffle iron and an automatic washing machine and where robot cars sped efficiently along the super-expressways that linked great domed cities.

What it was really all about was naked ladies. You couldn’t have a world’s fair without ‘em. Everybody knew that. Ever since Little Egypt wowed the folks in Chicago in 1893, there had never been a successful exposition absent naked ladies. The Chicago fair of ‘33 had been going bust until Sally Rand came along with her fans and plumes and bubbles. Sally was the top draw at the San Francisco fest [the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition World’s Fair] right this minute, her “Nude Ranch” revue bringing in double the revenues of any other attraction.

sally nude ranchIf you didn’t have naked ladies, you didn’t have a fair.

Although not everything predicted by the General Motors Futurama came to pass, by the 1960s we were soon well on the way to the Interstate Highway system envisioned by the attraction, a great improvement over the congestion of the 1930s.

But it’s a good thing we didn’t “progress” forward from the state of acceptance of sexually explicit entertainment in public places that seems to have been true of the times in the late 1930s. Otherwise every Disney park, every Six Flags, every county fair in America by this time, would no doubt have a whole section of their property dedicated to live, participatory orgies … complete with animals and more.

Once again, the “media” of the times from the 1950s and earlier—movies, and later TV—has given us a false view of the real “way it used to be.”

Can you perhaps begin to see why I am fed up with those … particularly the “older” generations … who rant about how “awful” the world of modern America is now, and how much more pure and good and godly and decent it was “back in the day”?  I’ve now seen more  than ever before some of the rest of the story of “back in the day,” and have become convinced that it was no different from now.   There are people with a strong sense of sexual morality today, just as there were back then. There are people for whom just about “anything goes” now, just as there were back then. People haven’t changed at all “inside” in general.

As a matter of fact, there are some aspects of modern society that I find much more conducive to living decently than was so, say 75 years the past.  I cannot fathom going to visit the Magic Kingdom next time and finding, next to “It’s a Small World After All” … a nude review!

Yes, there’s nudity in movies now, even at “regular” theaters. Yes there is gross porn on the Internet. But you have to go looking for it. You don’t just stroll by it with your kids at Six Flags!  There seems to have been, inexplicably to me, much more tolerance among those in positions of civic responsibility back in the 1940s and before, for an “acceptable level” of filth in public places. And there seems to have been, equally inexplicably to me, much more tendency for men in particular to be willing to walk into such places right out in public in venues such as the World’s Fairs back in the 1940s and before. In recent decades, most men have at least had the pseudo-decency to “put on a disguise” before walking into a XXX-rated movie theater if they are somewhere where they might be recognized!

Even the smut peddlers (XXX theaters, girly shows, etc) here in my home state of Georgia have the “decency” to set up shop out on obscure exits of the Interstate.  They don’t put ‘em next to the Cracker Barrel at the busy exits, nor do they come in town and put them next to the public libraries and museums.

No, I have no desire to go back to the Good Old Days!

But wait. Maybe I just didn’t go back far enough, to the real Good Old Days. Little House on the Prairie and all that. OK. Keep your rose-colored nostalgia glasses firmly in place as you check out the next Panic Button blog entry:

Double Trouble

Once again, you’re gonna need ‘em. And maybe smelling salts.

smelling salts

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

PRP 2: God’s Decade?

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 2

God’s Decade?

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

In the previous Painting a Rosy Past blog entry, we explored the possibility, touted by many, that one of the reasons for the great prosperity of the US of the 1950s was the fact that God was “blessing the nation” for being so basically godly … not like how “awful” the current generation is now. One factor that is so “awful” now is the rampant disrespect and misbehavior in general of the youth of the land in the 21st century. Not, as many would like to assert, like the wonderful behavior of youth in general in God’s Decade.

As we saw in that entry, the concept of the ‘50s as being a heyday of a generation of perfect young ladies and gentlemen … is nonsense.

mov 1958 live fast die young

It is nonsense promoted by people who are looking at their own youthful days in that generation through rose-colored nostalgia glasses. And also by people born in later generations who have believed the televisionary illusion of classic ‘50s shows like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, and thus inherited their own set of such glasses.

rosy dog

I grew up in the 1950s. I have some nostalgia for the period myself. For instance, I get a kick out of seeing clips on Youtube of old TV shows I remember like Howdy Doody. They bring back some pleasurable memories of fun things and fun times in my own young life… such as this little collection of 4 inch high Howdy Doody puppets I found on the Web recently.

howdy doody

I owned a set just like it, with Clarabell the Clown (originally played by Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan), Howdy, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, and Dilly Dally, when I was about 7 years old. Except for Clarabell (who never talked until the last moment of the last episode of the series, when he said, “Good bye, kids”), they each had a little lever in the back of the head that allowed you to “make them talk” just like real ventriloquist puppets. I thought I was SO cool because I owned such amazing toys that looked so much like the real TV characters.

But my nostalgia has nothing to do with thinking that people in general back then, including teens and young adults and older adults, and senior citizens, were so much more wholesome and godly than now. I don’t have rosy glasses that cloud my memories … of kind people, mean people, cheerful people, grumpy people, well-behaved children, brats, respectful teens, wild teens, middle class people, poverty-stricken people.  Life—and the nation of the US—was full of all kinds of people back then, just as it is now.

But perhaps some people are not convinced yet. Of course there were juvenile delinquents, they may say. Enough to cause an “epidemic” of delinquency. But how about adults? See, in the 21st century our society is just reeking with sexual immorality among adults. Just like Sodom and Gomorrah! Not like the simple, wholesome times of God’s Decade, when almost everybody, except for a tiny minority on the “fringes” of society in ghettos or somethin’, was morally clean and upright. When the divorce rate was low and the family unit solid and stable. When sex was clean and wholesome, kept between a man and his wife.

Jesus, they insist, is absolutely coming back very, very soon because it can’t get much worse than it is now. What a shame we can’t turn our nation back to the ‘50s again.

Yessir. Marital sex was so pure even married couples slept in separate beds! We know that’s true, because we can see it on I Love Lucy reruns!


Not a hint of out-of-control lust there! Why, wives couldn’t even get “pregnant.” The TV Code wouldn’t allow it. Well, actually, Desi and Lucy on the I Love Lucy show fought the censors to allow them to show Lucy on her show as she really was in real life in 1952 leading up to the birth of her second child, Desi Jr. (called Little Ricky on the show.) The censors relented, but she couldn’t be referred to as pregnant … they had to use the word “expecting.” (Which Desi’s mangled Cuban-American accent turned into “spectin.”)

No, what we saw on TV back then and what we can see on re-runs now wasn’t a reflection of reality at all. Few young married couples would have slept in separate twin beds back then, any more than they would now. The censors just didn’t want any prudish viewers or critics to complain to the sponsors about the “sexual implications” of showing married couples, even fully clothed in modest pajamas, in bed together. That might cause a loss in revenue!

And even more “real” … the idyllic marriage of “America’s Favorite TV Couple” was an illusion itself. Although Desi and Lucy reportedly had an honest love for one another of some sort … Desi also had a huge problem with womanizing. (Or its biblical term … serial adultery.) And heavy drinking. Their real-world marriage was shaky for years. After I Love Lucy’s run of nine years…

On March 2, Desi’s birthday, 1960, the day after the last hour-long episode was filmed, Lucille Ball filed for divorce from Desi Arnaz. It made that playful, yet passionate kiss at the end of the final episode, which aired April 1, “Lucy Meets the Moustache”, all the more poignant, as the world already knew that this storied Hollywood marriage was all but over, and also lent extra meaning to the use of the song “That’s All” in that episode. [Wiki article, I Love Lucy]

Let’s be honest … even though marital problems were never shown on the TV shows and reruns of the ‘50s, troubled marriages were just as rampant back then as now. Maybe divorce itself wasn’t quite as prevalent, especially since so few women could “afford” it—even if their husbands were promiscuous philanderers like Desi—because they didn’t work outside the home and would be unable to support themselves if no longer married. But that didn’t stop the philandering, and the emotional turmoil “behind closed doors.”

Extra-marital sex was evidently pretty widespread according to the research cited in the infamous Kinsey Reports (on male sexuality in 1948, and female sexuality in 1953).

Kinsey estimated that approximately 50% of all married males had some extramarital experience at some time during their married lives.Among the sample, 26% of females had extramarital sex by their forties. [Wiki: Kinsey Reports]

Although the methodology of the studies may have been a bit flawed, inflating the figures a little, it was still obvious that there was a lot more going on behind those closed doors in their neighborhoods than most people realized.

And then there is the “sexual immorality” issue of pornography. Yes, indeed, there is a real serious problem with pornography on the Internet today, and porn addiction no doubt affects many men. But is this an indication that 21st century men just “naturally” have more of a propensity to be interested in dirty pictures (and videos) now than men in the 1950s?  Is the existence of Internet porn evidence of a totally immoral generation that deserves to be violently brought to an end by the Return of Christ?  Or is it just a matter of “accessibility”?

I have to wonder … Let’s take a typical male of the 1950s. Call him Joe.  What if this man showed up on Joe’s  doorstep one day while his wife was off grocery shopping.


And he explained to Joe he was from the Future.

And he whipped out a Black Box with a screen on the front (like a TV, only much thinner), with a little gadget attached to it by a cord, and put it on Joe’s kitchen table. As he moved the little gadget around the table, suddenly on the screen appeared amazing pictures. Really amazing! “Nekkid women” doing things Joe had never seen nekkid women do in pictures!

And he told Joe that the box contained thousands upon thousands of these pictures. Some of them still photos, some of them “movies.” And he told Joe he COULD, if Joe wanted him to, LEAVE this box with Joe when he went Back to the Future.


What do you think? Would the “moral purity” that Joe absorbed from living in the 1950s impel him to turn his back on the opportunity?

I would suggest to you that the average male of the 1950s didn’t spend as much time looking at porn as those in the 21st century NOT because he was a paragon of virtue—but because he just technologically didn’t have it available to him with the ease and volume available now.

But I would also suggest that whatever was available in the way of porn to men at the time back then…tempted many a man. Were some “good Christian men” impervious to temptation? I do not doubt that! I believe some, maybe many, are today too. That’s the issue I am addressing. YES, there is a lot of filth out there today. But … there was, relatively speaking, a lot available back in what has been alleged to be God’s Decade too. And many men availed themselves of it.

I can remember being about 8 years old, in about 1953, and going to visit my friend Karen at her home a few blocks from mine. Karen’s family was well-off and respectable, with a very nice home—far nicer than the little two bedroom duplex my family lived in. I don’t know what her dad did for a living, but I do not doubt it was a very respectable job.

I’m not sure where Karen’s mother was that afternoon. Perhaps out grocery shopping. But she must have been out of the house for a while, because Karen felt bold enough to take me into her parent’s bedroom. There she rummaged around, maybe in a nightstand or chest of drawers—that she’d obviously cased before—and pulled out a box. And when she opened it, I was indeed amazed. It was full of a whole collection of what I came to realize when I got older were likely “dirty French postcards.” There were all these stark nekkid ladies with skimpy “costumes” made out of filmy, totally see-through material.  Not sure any more what they all were, but I do remember seeing a cowgirl.

That was my introduction to the reality that not everyone’s dad was like the paragons of virtue and purity one saw on the TV shows.

And I’m highly suspicious that Karen’s dad was not in the minority among his male friends and neighbors in his interest in nekkid women.

Later in the decade I rummaged in my own parents’ room at about age 12, when they were both out of the house, and by then wasn’t surprised to find that my dad had a little hidden collection of his own: a calendar with those ever-present nekkid women, and some “dirty men’s magazines.” Can’t remember the names … probably somethin’ like True Grit.  I had time to speed-read one article. It was all about the risqué adventures of Ben Franklin in Paris. Which I assumed at the time was probably fiction, but later found out it was not. Ol’ Ben liked nekkid women too. And not just pictures.

But see, you never read about these interests of men in the 1950s in history books when they tell about the Presidency of Dwight D Eisenhower, or the first flights into space, or whatever. So the average person has no way to get their mind around the fact that a whole “other dimension” existed in the idyllic ‘50s.

I’m not quite sure why, though. After all, Hugh Hefner didn’t start Playboy magazine in the Swinging Sixties. The first issue … with a totally nekkid pic of Marilyn Monroe from a 1949 nudie photo shoot as the “center fold” … was published in 1953!  And Playboy was just what was “on the surface” of the sexual immorality of the ‘50s. How about behind the scenes?

How about the “Tijuana Bibles”? Right. I never heard of those either until recently.

Tijuana bibles (also known as bluesies, eight-pagers, gray-backs, Jiggs-and-Maggie books, jo-jo books, Tillie-and-Mac books, and two-by-fours) were pornographic comic books produced in the United States from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Their popularity peaked during the Great Depression era. The typical “bible” was an eight-panel comic strip in a wallet-size 2.5×4 inch format with black print on cheap white paper and running eight pages in length. In most cases the artists, writers, and publishers of these are unknown. The quality of the artwork varied widely. The subjects are explicit sexual escapades usually featuring well known newspaper comic strip characters, political figures, or movie stars, invariably used without permission. …

When they say “well known” they mean it. Caricatures of everyone from Cary Grant and Gandhi to Rita Hayworth, May West, Jimmy Durante, Greta Garbo, and Stalin were featured in these little publications. All of them vividly drawn, stark nekkid of course, in the crudest and most explicit of sexual encounters. I can only imagine how unnerving all that would be to see, but beyond that there were all the folks from the “Funny Papers” involved in equally scandalous activities too! Blondie, Barney Google, Popeye, Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon—yes, even Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck! Here’s a pic of the cover of one from the article on this topic on Wikipedia. It features the burger-eating buddy of Popeye, Wimpy.

tijuanaI can’t emphasize too much just how explicit these sexual escapades were, and often how kinky. Yes, there were boldly-drawn scenes with males with multiple sex partners, and all sorts of non-standard sexual acts. These folks were not all primly having sex in the “missionary position” with the lights down low.

But surely these had limited distribution, and just among the lowest classes of society?

People distributed Tijuana bibles “under the counter” in places such as schools, garages, cigar stores, burlesque houses, and barber shops as well as from the hatches of station wagons and from persons selling them on the street. The term “Tijuana bibles” refers to the apocryphal belief that they were manufactured and smuggled across the border from Tijuana, Mexico.

The scale on which Tijuana bibles were produced can be gauged from the large hauls announced in police seizures. In one November, 1942 raid by FBI agent P.E. Foxworth and his men on a New York City warehouse and a printing plant in the South Bronx, 8 million bibles were reported seized, and small time businessmen Jacob and David Brotman were arrested along with several associates. According to the FBI four tons of material were ready to ship across the country and 7 tons had gone out recently and were being rounded up at regional distribution centers in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland/Akron, and Indianapolis. [Wiki article: Tijuana Bible]

Such raids evidently did little to stem the tide of these grotesque little books, as distribution was still widespread a decade later.

Even though you likely never saw a Tijuana Bible, you likely HAVE seen the artwork of one of the primary artists who created them.



Yes, Bazooka Joe, the Bubblegum Wrapper Icon, and his gang were created by Wesley Morse, who was, prior to his employment with the Topps candy and gum company, famous “behind the scenes” among those in the know as the artist behind many of the steamiest Tijuana Bible editions.

Another unnerving story I read recently about the connection between the cheerful, wholesome “G-rated” Comic Book World and the seamy underbelly of the 1950s: In the 1930s, the cartoon Superman was created by artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel. For the first decade of his career, from the first magazine featuring him in 1938, until 1948, Shuster and Siegel were directly involved in production of the Superman stories.

But a nasty fight with the publisher over copyright issues left them in 1948 with a relatively small financial settlement, and fired from any further part in Superman’s future adventures … and money-making superpower. Obviously the HUGE popularity of the character from that day to this has meant a goldmine to those owning the copyright. But Siegel and Shuster found themselves basically stripped of what they no doubt considered practically their “birthright”!

Shuster had originally envisioned Superman as a hero for Peace, Justice, and the American way.


There was always an emphasis in the comics themselves on integrity, morality, and goodness, as seen in this episode of Superboy.


But after losing the copyright battle, Shuster felt he had not received much justice, and became bitter. He tried various outlets for his artistic talent, without much success. It is unfortunate what he finally ended up doing for a while, especially given the noble aspirations of Superman.

Recent research seems to have shown pretty conclusively that he was one of the primary artists for a series of anonymous “underground sadomasochistic fetish comic books” distributed in the early 1950s with the title Nights of Horror.  Comic historians note that many of the male characters in the series bear a strong resemblance to Superman, and the females to Lois Lane. It must have been unnerving to see illustrations of a clone of Lois Lane in leather,  whipping a clone of a bound and chained nekkid Superman!

Yes, no doubt some of the hardcore porn on the Internet of the 21st century would make this comic art look tame. But let’s be very clear here … the fact that such abominable trash exists does NOT tarnish the whole generation of people who exist at the same time. Yes, a subset of people are attracted to and may become addicted to such filth. That is true today … and it was true in the 1950s.

I am not convinced that the “heart” of the husband of the 1950s who had his private stash of porn—whether Tijuana Bibles, Playboy, nude pin-up calendars, French postcards, or whatever—hidden in his closet was any less “tainted” than the heart of his counterpart of the 21st century.

So we seem to be still looking for that magical time in the history of our nation when people were “so” different from the people of today, so “godly” and “pure” as almost a whole nation, that God smiled down and said “I shall bestow great prosperity on this people in the post-WW2-1950s because they are so worthy.” And thus that this same God is now looking down in utter wrath on virtually the whole nation of people, insisting they are unsalvageable, and Jesus MUST be sent soon to bring the Great Tribulation down upon all of them because they have fallen so far from that Pinnacle of Purity.

Since we couldn’t establish the 50s as that idyllic time, perhaps we will find it if we just rummage back in history a tiny bit farther. Better put your Rose-colored Nostalgia Glasses back on before you check in on the next installment of this blog series. You are definitely going to need them for

A Fair to Remember

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PRP 1: Introduction–Painting a Rosy Past

Painting a Rosy Past: Part 1

Introduction–Painting a Rosy Past

disney rosebush

Alice enters the garden and finds three gardeners, shaped like playing cards, hurriedly painting the white roses of a rose tree. Alice asks why they are painting the roses red, and one of the gardeners (the Two) admits to her that the tree was supposed to be a red rose tree. If the Queen learned about the error, she would cut off their heads.  (Alice in Wonderland)

Our personal memories can be almost as demanding as that Queen! We WANT “the past”–of our own youth, or of previous generations–to be the “way we think it should have been.” If facts don’t line up with those desires, we can literally try to deny and cover up the facts. But you don’t need paint. If you have rose-colored nostalgia glasses, the reality of the past can be changed to line up with the demands of your faded, faulty memories.

rosy dog

Passing on a Passion for the Past

Posts on Facebook, and email rants that are copied and re-copied and sent around by CC Mail, often contain gripes from “older people” about how much worse the teens and young adults of today are—rude, disrespectful, immoral, selfish—compared to what things were like in the youth of the writers. For instance, have you seen any posts in your Facebook newsfeed with statements such as these actual ones, with encouragement to hit the “LIKE” button if you are eager to say, essentially, “AMEN. Ain’t it awful how bad it’s gotten? These sure are the Worst of Times!”

  1. We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient.
  2. When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.
  3. What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?
  4. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. The girls are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.
  5.  I think morals are getting much worse. There were no such girls in my time as there are now. When I was 24 or 25 my mother would have knocked me down if I had spoken improperly to her.

As you may have guessed by now, based on the slightly stilted language in the quotes above, these are indeed “actual” statements by real people. But they didn’t come from Facebook, and in fact, aren’t from the 21st century at all. Or even the 20th century:

Number 1: These words were actually inscribed on a 6,000-year-old Egyptian tomb.

Number 2: This comment was made by Hesiod, in the 8th century BC.

Number 3: Plato made this remark in the 4th century BC.

Number 4: This quote is attributed to a man named Peter the Hermit in 1274.

Number 5: And this was what a 60-year-old lady named Charlotte Kirkman testified in 1843, as part of an investigation in Great Britain into the bad behavior of contemporary youth. Lord Ashley, speaking in the House of Commons in the same year, argued that “the morals of the children are tenfold worse than formerly”. (From the webpage 8000 Years of Civilization-threatening Behavior)

Yet there is no question that similar comments, just as passionately sure that these ARE the Worst of Times in terms of youth behavior, and lamenting the disappearance of the Good Old Days, are made all the time on the Internet. Here’s a piece of advice about that notion:

Don’t always be asking, “Where are the good old days?”
Wise folks don’t ask questions like that.

If that advice was just from me, perhaps you would be justified in thinking you can brush it off. Unfortunately, it’s not from me.

It’s from the Bible. Ecclesiastes 7:10.

The author of Ecclesiastes (King Solomon, according to some Bible scholars, but at the very least one of the wisest men of ancient times in Israel) penned that well over 2500 years ago. The quote above was from The Message translation.  The King James Version puts it this way:

Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.

And the New Living Translation words it this way:

Don’t long for “the good old days.”
This is not wise.

No matter which translation you pick, the advice is the same. STOP IT. Take Off Those Rose-colored Nostalgia Glasses. Just as those Playing Card Painters from Alice in Wonderland weren’t succeeding in making white roses into red roses, you aren’t really changing the reality of the past by filtering it through the lenses of your rosy glasses. You’re just creating an illusion that never was.

rosy dog

Besides, even IF young people were so much better in some more idyllic past, you are not living then. You are living now. It’s not wise to waste time “wishing” you were somewhere else or in some other time. It is wise to make the most of the situation in which you find yourself.

As a matter of fact, by the time this blog entry is over, you may find your memories of that idyllic past a bit tarnished. And not nearly so rosy.

For starters, here are a couple more quotes from the past wondering, as the old song from the 1960 Broadway Musical Bye Bye Birdie put it, “What’s the matter with kids today?”

In April 1738, the press covered a report from a British Government committee which had been set up to “examine the causes of the present notorious immorality and profaneness” [among youth].

“Juvenile delinquency has increased at an alarming rate and is eating at the heart of America”: US juvenile court judge, 1946

It is that last comment that we will be focusing on in this installment of this series. Many senior citizens in the 21st century are absolutely certain that our society would be so much better if we could return to the mid-century world of the 1950s, back to the days of Leave it to Beaver (which ran on TV from 1957-1963). Why can’t all young men these days be like The Beaver’s clean-cut, respectful brother Wally?

wallyHe is an above average student and a top-notch athlete, eventually lettering in three sports. Wally is popular with his peers as well as adults, and, has little difficulty attracting girlfriends, among them Mary Ellen Rogers and Julie Foster. The girls referred to Wally as “the absolute most.”  (Wiki)

But of course, the 1950s were not populated with schools full of Wallys. Just like today, they were full of the complete spectrum of personalities and attitudes—“good” kids, “bad” kids, shy kids, quiet kids, noisy kids, “cool” kids, awkward kids, sensible kids, troubled kids, happy kids, angry kids. (I know this from personal experience. I was there. I started first grade in 1952, and graduated in 1964.)

That’s one of the pitfalls that older people tend to fall into. If they have had a few unpleasant run-ins with a certain type of young person, if they’ve “fed on” news stories of troublesome young people who may be aberrations even in their local communities, such older people are often all too prone to jump to the conclusion that their own experiences with young people represent “the way it is” … everywhere.

And before you know it, they have painted a whole generation as worthless. Not even worth trying to redeem, either! Why, there’s no way that this generation can even begin to compare to the good qualities of the time of their own youth. So why even bother with them? Some “Christians” even gleefully hope that Jesus is going to come back soon and wipe most of ‘em out in the Great Tribulation! Then they’ll learn not to “disrespect their elders”!

Some days I am loathe to admit that I AM part of that “older generation,” and am disheartened at how dismissive so many of my age peers are of the generation of my grandchildren. I have to wonder at times just how many young people they’ve even met, upon which to come to the conclusions they draw about the whole generation. I certainly don’t doubt that there are some insolent, ill-mannered, rude, angry, hate-filled young people “out there” in places. I don’t doubt that the rough neighborhoods of major metropolitan areas may have more than their share of such youth. Yes, hardened gang members, and ones with violent tempers.

But those are not “unique” to the 21st century.

Yet there was nothing new to children forming criminal gangs, particularly in New York. In Low Life (1991), Luc Sante (so often the last word on New York’s sordid underpinnings) describes juvenile delinquency at the turn of the last century: “There was very little that adult gangsters practiced or enjoyed that child gangsters did not contrive to reproduce on their own scale. There were boys’ saloons, with three-cent whiskies and little girls in the back rooms, and there were children’s gambling houses, in which tots could bilk other tots at the usual menu of faro, policy, and dice games.”

In the 1800s, hordes of teens and pre-teens ran wild in American city streets, dodging authorities, “gnawing away at the foundations of society”, as a commentator put it. In 1850, New York City recorded more than 200 gang wars fought largely by adolescent boys.

But surely, by the time of the idyllic Cleaverian 1950s, this had changed, at least “for a season,” hadn’t it? (Until the rebellious Hippies of the 70s came along …) After all, weren’t the ‘50s “God’s Decade,” in which the US was THE example of boundless postwar prosperity–and an ideal society, to be admired and emulated by other countries around the world?

Well… they did at least emulate our movies. About our problem with juvenile delinquency.

You might not recognize the name of the main actor on this 1956 poster, “Henry Bookholt” … this was a German film, but the poster has been translated into English. In Germany the young man went by the name he later used in many US films. It’s Horst Buchholz, who played the young “Chico” in Magnificent Seven. Note the mention in the poster above that he is a new “James Dean.”


horstHere’s how the original German version of the movie poster looked.


James Dean … surely most folks in my age bracket aren’t so smitten by their rose-colored nostalgia glasses that they have forgotten the popularity of his “persona” among young people of that ‘50s generation. Dean roared onto the screen in 1955 with what has now become a “classic film.”

mov 1955 rebelRebel Without a Cause is a 1955 American drama film about emotionally confused suburban, middle-class teenagers. Directed by Nicholas Ray, it offered both social commentary and an alternative to previous films depicting delinquents in urban slum environments. (Wiki)

Movies about urban slum delinquents? Yes, there were plenty of those, most notably the equally classic film from that same year that starred Glenn Ford.

blackboard jungleRichard Dadier (Glenn Ford) is a teacher at North Manual High School, an inner-city school where many of the pupils, led by student Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), frequently engage in anti-social behavior. Dadier makes various attempts to engage the students’ interest in education, challenging both the school staff and the pupils. He is subjected to violence as well as duplicitous schemes; he first suspects Miller, but later realizes that Artie West (Vic Morrow) is the perpetrator, and challenges him in a classroom showdown.

Yes, Blackboard Jungle featured a 28-year old rising star (playing a teenage gang member) named Sidney Poitier.

blackboard gang\Oh … and also featured, as the music behind the title credits, a new song that had just hit the charts the year before…


But if these two films were just a fluke, I wouldn’t be writing about them. The reality is that they were a symptom of a very pervasive issue of the 1950s.

Juvenile delinquency was considered a major social problem in the 1950s. Americans under the age of eighteen were committing serious crimes in growing numbers; their elders were horrified at the severity of the crimes and at the young criminals’ disregard for authority. Most of all, though, people were concerned about what the rate of juvenile crime said about how the nation was raising its children. Of course, there had always been youth crime in America, even vicious youth crime. But in the 1950s, because of the growth of cities across the United States, it became a national cause for concern.

As early as 1953 the statistics suggested a youth crime wave. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reported: “persons under the age of 18 committed 53.6 percent of all car thefts; 49.3 percent of all burglaries; 18 percent of all robberies, and 16.2 percent of all rapes. These are the statistics..

As a result of these factors:

The United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was established by the United States Senate in 1953 to investigate the problem of juvenile delinquency.

The public hearings took place on April 21, 22, June 4, 1954 in New York. They focused on particularly graphic “crime and horror” comic books of the day, and their potential impact on juvenile delinquency. When publisher William Gaines [Gaines had begun publishing Mad Magazine in 1952, but also had a large stable of horror comics] contended that he sold only comic books of good taste, Kefauver entered into evidence one of Gaines’ comics which showed a dismembered woman’s head on its cover. The exchange between Gaines and Kefauver led to a front-page story in The New York Times the following day.

Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser asked: “Then you think a child cannot in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that the child reads or sees?” William M. Gaines responded: “I do not believe so.” Beaser: “There would be no limit, actually, to what you’d put in the magazines?” Gaines: “Only within the bounds of good taste.” Sen. Kefauver: “Here is your May issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that’s in good taste?” Gaines: “Yes sir, I do – for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding her head a little higher so that blood could be seen dripping from it and moving the body a little further over so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.” Kefauver:(doubtful)”You’ve got blood coming out of her mouth.” Gaines: “A little.”

What none of the senators knew was that Gaines had already cleaned up the cover of this issue. Artist Johnny Craig’s first draft included those very elements which Gaines had said were in “bad taste” and had him clean it up before publication.  (From

Magazine articles and books abounded which dissected the growing menace of juvenile delinquency. I grew up in a small town of less than 10,000 in far northern Michigan. We had a few “greasers” or “hoods” in town, who wore long, greased-back hair (in the style known as the D.A. because in the back it looked like a duck’s… ahem…tail) and black leather jackets and played “chicken” with switchblades and such. Our own versions of The Fonz.


But it was mostly just for show. There were no real “gangs” and no actual hoodlum activity in town. So I wasn’t exposed very much to the kind of problems that went on in metropolitan areas.

But in my freshman year at Michigan State University in the fall of 1964, I met my new roommate, who was from Long Island, New York. She had a much more urban youth than mine, and would regale me with stories of the escapades of the girl gangs from her area. I particularly remember her explaining that they would tease their long hair into a “ratted” mass to create the beehive and other “big-hair” styles popular at the time … and then secretly tuck away within the tangled mass…razor blades. That way when the kind of “cat fights” that such girls got into began, and their “rivals” would grab a handful of their hair to try to yank it out, they’d get their hands bloodied.

And I recently found that this type of scenario was meticulously documented in a 1964 expose’ book of the time.

mov 1964 book rebels in the streetsIn Rebels in the Streets, the NY Daily News reporter Kitty Hanson suggested what no self respecting girl gang member would be caught without, and it wasn’t mascara: “Weapons include iron pipes, brass knuckles, bicycle chains, belt buckles, the honed handles of garbage can lids, beer can openers, radio antennas sharpened into sabres, knives (of course) and guns.”  (From

Not to be outdone by the ladies, of course, the young male gang members of the time had bigger and badder arsenals, as described in this 1962 investigative reporting book, The Shook Up Generation.

mov 1962 book shookup

The variety of gang weapons is endless. Some possess hand grenades, dynamite-and-caps or acid bottles. One gang leader in Queens goes into battle with a can of lye into which he has urinated. Broken bottles, steel chains, lead pipes, tire irons–almost anything makes a deadly weapon in street combat.

There is a Brooklyn gang which is known to have in the arsenal half a dozen old Navy cutlasses. Machetes are common because they can be bought from a bin in many hardware stores. Some boys make Molotov cocktails…

The automobile, where gang members have access to it, is the most feared weapon. It inspires the kind of terror among street boys that the tank aroused when it was sent against infantry in World War I. Cars are driven with lethal intent straight at enemy boys. A youngster trapped in the open street is simply run down. Survival is sheer luck. (ibid)

As early as 1949, the juvenile delinquency epidemic had started enough to make it a hot topic for comic books like this one.

mov comic 1949 hate alley

And the topic even made it onto Broadway in 1957 with West Side Story, with its battles between the Jets and the Sharks.

west side storymov 1957 jsts sharks wss

But the subject was most publicly noticeable during the 1950s through the never-ending stream of “teen exploitation films” that homed in on delinquents for an extended period in the decade.  Rebel and Jungle were two highly acclaimed movies for their cinematic values. Most of the rest of the genre didn’t quite rise to that standard…

mov 1953 girls in the night1953 Girls in the Night

mov 1957 the violators1957 The Violators

mov violent 19581958 Violent Playground

mov juvenile jungle 19581958 Juvenile Jungle

mov 1958 teenage crime wave1958 Teenage Crime Wave

mov 1958 live fast die young1958 Live Fast, Die Young

mov 1958 highschool hellcats1958 High School Hellcats

I hope that this commentary and the few photos might prod some readers toward realizing that the view through their rose-colored nostalgia glasses about their own youth is creating an illusion of the past for them when it comes to thinking the decade of the 1950s was some idyllic time when youths were almost all perfect Little Lord Fauntleroys. (Who was, of course, a fictional character from an 1886 novel, unlike almost all youth of his own time too.)

fauntleroyFreddy Bartholomew, age 12, in the 1936 movie Little Lord Fauntleroy

In fact, it’s not just Baby Boomers who have hung on to an illusion of the ‘50s as God’s Decade.  My daughter was born in 1970. By the mid-1980s, she had developed an illusion of her own about the ‘50s. It was as a result of all of the re-runs on TV of ‘50s shows, like I Love Lucy, and ‘50s themed shows, such as Happy Days. It all seemed so appealing to her in her own early teens, when she wasn’t quite sure how to fit into the “current” teen scene. It was much less threatening to daydream what it would have been like to hang out with Richie and Joanie Cunningham at Arnold’s Drive-in. Even the resident “greaser,” The Fonz, seemed like a real pussycat.

She admits she fell for the illusion totally, and assumed that indeed, the whole society of the 1950s would have been like living with the Cunninghams. She found herself actually estranged from her own peers in favor of this illusion world—even though her teen peers were primarily the kids at a very wholesome Christian high school! (She found it even harder to even pass “unknown” teenagers in the hallway when shopping at the mall–just their very existence, because of images she’d seen on TV and in movies about contemporary youth culture of the ’80s,  seemed threatening.)

She now realizes that the youths in the generation she grew up with (and now the generation her own teen son and daughter are growing up with) were really very little different from most youths in the 1950s. There were good aspects and bad in the youth culture of that decade, just like every other decade. Kids then and now have issues about working toward establishing independence from their parents. Those of both eras have had to deal with the strong pulls of sexuality. And with the strong influences of peer pressure. Both eras have had subcultures of gangs.

If the prognostications of many TV and Internet evangelists about Jesus returning real soon to set up His earthly Kingdom happen to be false,  this generation of youths are going to become adults. They will have the responsibility to take civilization forward. I cannot fathom how Christians cannot see that we must NOT just “write off” the young of our generation, and cling to some useless nostalgia for the past, and a rabid insistence that Jesus IS Coming in the immediate future. What Christians really need to do is reach out to the youth of the 21st century with the love of Jesus, and the wisdom of the Bible that could help them MAYBE even make some changes for the better on Earth while we are all waiting for the “Someday” Kingdom.

For more consideration of the era of the 1950s, continue on to the next blog entry in this series,

God’s Decade?

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