This article has been peer-reviewed under the direction of Professors Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge (University of Victoria). It forms part of the Great Expectations Pregnancy Project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Knowledge about sex and reproduction circulated in a wide variety of print forms throughout the Victorian period. Contrary to common assumptions, trade in many of these works was highly visible in the public sphere, especially during the first three decades of Queen Victoria's reign. The nature and availability of certain kinds of sexual information changed over time as new media technologies came into use; infrastructures of publishing, manufacturing, and retailing transformed; and ways of thinking and communicating about sexuality shifted. Readers living in Britain in the 1830s, 1860s, and 1890s would each have had different experiences of accessing sexual knowledge in print. Their experiences were also shaped by social class, education, gender, age, and geography. However, expanding transport networks and the practices of reprinting and translation created overlapping reading experiences across these divides.

Sifting and Searching for Sexual Information

Victorians left few accounts of their experiences of reading about sex and reproduction. Those that have survived are often derived from the autobiographies of people — usually women and working-class men — who recalled finding it difficult to get their hands on straightforward explanations in print. These accounts suggest that the Bible was the most readily available source of sexual information for young readers. It was so routinely mined for this purpose that some editors bowdlerized children's editions of the Bible (Rose 209). As one working-class reader recalled of his childhood circle, "the sex lore of Leviticus was our chief attraction, for it inspired earnest enquiry into the full meaning of adultery, fornication, and childbirth, the information being communicated to each other by gestures and whisperings that cleared up some of the mysteries that puzzled our inquisitive minds" (qtd. in Rose 209).

Illustration of breast pumps from the section, "Disorders
incident to child-bearing," Gardner 342.

Young people in search of sexual information also turned to medical dictionaries, domestic encyclopedias and other household reference works (such as John Gardner's Household Medicine and Sick-room Guide....), which often included sections on pregnancy, childbirth, menstrual problems, and venereal disease. The nurse and activist Vera Brittain remembered scanning a volume called Household Medicine as an adolescent. "I was secretly excited at the prospect of menstruation," she recalled, and "found the details of confinement quite enthralling" (qtd. in Flint 215). However, these works frustrated some readers. Because they were issued by conservative general publishers and intended to be kept on family bookshelves, the information that they communicated was not comprehensive: medical dictionaries like Spencer Thomson's (1852) rarely described sexual intercourse, for instance, leaving knowledge seekers wondering what caused pregnancy in the first place.

Other young readers rummaged through secondhand bookstalls or visited public libraries to hunt for information in medical journals and textbooks. Unfortunately, the specialized language and images in these publications could be difficult to parse. Allen Clarke, "the son of Bolton textile workers, found physiology textbooks in the public library incomprehensible" (Rose 210). After a while, Clarke gave up trying to decipher them. Like many of his peers, he turned to literary works, which offered less explicit but sometimes more comprehensible representations of pregnancy, childbirth, and sexual relationships. Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (1849–50) and George Eliot's Adam Bede (1859) were reportedly routine sites of searching for clues about sex amongst adolescent girls, as were the works of Shakespeare (Flint 215). Privileged adolescent boys could turn to Greek and Roman classics, which referred to queer as well as heterosexual sexual acts and desires. This prompted some editors to expurgate school editions of classical texts (Harrison).

Cheap Medical Works

Readers' anecdotes about the difficulties they encountered with accessing or interpreting sexual information represent common Victorian experiences. However, they were far from the only experiences that Victorians had in the context of a diverse and changing print culture. Although they clearly did not reach all who wanted to read them, or tell readers all that they wanted to know, cheap pamphlets and manuals on marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, contraception, and venereal disease were sold throughout the Victorian period.

"Process of Delivery" in Aristotle's Works, facing p. 161.

By all accounts, Aristotle's Masterpiece, a manual on sex, pregnancy, and childbirth first published in 1684, had an enormous middle- and working-class audience. As with many cheap works on reproduction and sexual health, inexpensive illustrated editions of this text were continuously advertised in newspapers and sold by mail order, at bookstalls, and by itinerant booksellers throughout the nineteenth century. Simultaneously offering a profusion of traditional knowledge about reproduction and perhaps "the most easily accessible pictures of a naked woman in cheap print," Aristotle was a work that women passed down from generation to generation, and young men passed around with their friends (Fissell 61; Rose 207). A handful of other cheap works on reproduction (like that by Horace Goss (Woman: Her Physiology and Functions, 1853) were sold continuously throughout the period, but their popularity and accessibility fluctuated. The American physician Charles Knowlton's birth-control pamphlet The Fruits of Philosophy(1832), for example, was sold in relatively small numbers in Britain from shortly after its initial publication until the 1870s. This changed when the activists Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh republished the work as a political statement in 1877 (Dawson 116–61). The obscenity trial that resulted garnered Fruits enormous publicity, and it became a sought-after pamphlet overnight.

Other cheap medical works attracted wide audiences only to vanish after a few years or decades. Between the 1840s and the 1860s, the print marketplace was flooded with inexpensive manuals on venereal disease and sexual dysfunction, boasting titles such as The Silent Friend (R. and L. Perry, 1841) and Manly Vigour (1841). Marketed to young male readers across the British empire to cultivate customers for their authors' more expensive medical services and proprietary medicines, these works' descriptions of untreated venereal disease and the supposedly awful consequences of masturbation struck critics as deliberately terrifying; but they offered images and descriptions of anatomy, physiology, and symptomology that many readers would have found enlightening (Rosenman; Watson). Advertisements for these manuals were ubiquitous in the press, in military barracks, at public urinals, and in other books. They were distributed through bookshops and newspaper offices, by post, and through public anatomical museums, such as Joseph Kahn's Museum in London, which offered ticket-holders opportunities to inspect preserved genitalia alongside other medical curiosities (Alberti 164–95; Burmeister 195). By the middle of the 1870s, however, such manuals were rapidly fading from the marketplace. Although the genre lived on in new forms, it was increasingly replaced with direct advertisements for proprietary medicines.

Birth control activists and contraceptive manufacturers harnessed publicity generated by the Bradlaugh-Besant trial in the late 1870s, prompting another major shift in the market for cheap print on sex and reproduction. In the 1880s and 1890s, they frequently promoted themselves as medical booksellers, trading in pamphlets and manuals that described contraceptive techniques, with euphemistic titles such as "Advice to the Married," alongside catalogues for contraceptive goods (Jones 100). Although works that offered advice on how to practice birth control were not novel, the scale at which they were distributed was: Claire Jones has estimated that as many as two million birth control manuals were sold in Britain between 1876 and 1891 (101). Like anti-masturbation and venereal disease manuals before them, these works were advertised in the press: discreet notices were posted alongside advertisements for clothing, jewelry, washing soap, and other domestic items (100).

Specialized Medical Works

A panoply of more specialized medical and scientific manuals, textbooks, atlases, lecture series, and monographs on reproduction, sexuality, and sexual health was published throughout the Victorian period. Bigger, longer, and more sober-looking than their cheap cousins, most of these works were tools of the medical profession (Richardson). Medical students used them to cram for examinations, and experienced doctors thumbed through them to figure out how to treat difficult cases. Many of these works were issued by specialist medical publishers, and they were often accessed through circulating medical libraries. However, boundaries between "lay" and "professional" reading material were blurry, especially during the first half of Queen Victoria's reign. Works on midwifery, obstetrics, and venereal disease with an implied medical audience were sometimes reviewed in mainstream periodicals, and frequently advertised in them. Well-off readers may well have purchased some of these works for collection and entertainment as well as education. George Spratt's expensive Obstetric Tables (1833), which was still being sold in the 1850s, is one example of an especially desirable medical textbook. Obstetric Tables invited playful and potentially erotic interaction by making use of mobile coloured prints to teach obstetrics: readers could peel back flaps on beautifully illustrated body parts to reveal female genitalia and the growing fetus in the womb (Whiteley).

Other specialized medical and scientific works, including monographs on heredity, public health, medical jurisprudence, and tropical medicine responded to, influenced and enabled state attempts to regulate sexual and reproductive practices in Britain and its colonies (Cryle and Stephens; Phillips; Salesa; Weeks). Some of these works addressed subjects that medical manuals and pamphlets aimed at popular audiences rarely covered in any detail, if at all, including queer sexual behavior and desire, sexual abuse and assault, and the bodies and sexual behaviours of racialized people. Like textbooks on anatomy or midwifery, however, they were not always used for strictly professional reasons. As an essay appended to Sins of the Cities of the Plain (1881), a pornographic novel that depicts sex between men, suggests, some men who desired other men sought out writing about sodomy in books on medical jurisprudence. Such textbooks communicated a negative view of queer sex, however, as did many early European sexual-scientific works, which were sold in small numbers in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. Sexual Inversion (1897) offered the first major sympathetic medical representation of queer sex in Britain (Crozier).

Obscene Prints and Publications

The New Swell's Flash Guide (London, c.1847). British Library shelfmark: C.194.a.1217. Public domain.

Dealers specializing in sexual entertainment offered alternative depictions of sexual bodies, acts, and desires in print. Emerging in and around London's Holywell Street in the 1820s and 1830s, these dealers are best known for their traffic in luxuriously produced novels and periodicals that reveled in representing "exotic" and "perverse" sex (Sigel; Colligan). Scenes depicting sex between women are common in these works, as are gender-bending scenes involving cross-dressing, birch rods, ejaculating dildos, and other props. Foreign settings such as harems, plantations, and colonial outposts are not unusual. These works were very expensive, and their readership was probably quite small. However, their publishers also advertised a range of less expensive items in newspapers and sold them by post. At mid-century, this material included coloured prints depicting naked women and sexual situations, bawdy song and joke books, pamphlets about the lives of cross-dressers and "hermaphrodites," salacious penny papers, medical works like Aristotle's Masterpiece, and "night guides" or "flash guides" (Howell; Bull). The latter mainly provided reviews of brothels and other "fast" urban entertainment venues, but some guides (such as Yokel's Preceptor) offered information about venereal disease and male prostitution.

Packets containing cheap, sexually explicit prints could also be obtained from itinerant hawkers, but turning to these sellers risked disappointment: as Henry Mayhew observed in the early 1850s, hawkers sometimes stuffed packets allegedly containing explicit images with religious tracts or old newspapers. Access to visual pornography became more reliable in the 1860s, when advances in photography made producing it cheaper and more efficient. Erotic photographs, stereoscopic slides, and postcards appear to have rapidly become accessible across the country. Often advertised under euphemisms such as "Photos from Life," which suggested that they were simply artist's models or scientific references, explicit images were routinely advertised in newspapers and could be purchased by post, through tobacco shops, newsstands, and itinerant sellers, and directly from producers (Popple; Stoops 143–55; Sigel 119–64).

Knowledge Circuits and Stoppages

Putting sexual knowledge into circulation wasn't always smooth or straightforward. Although British obscenity laws were unwieldy and poorly enforced, crackdowns on the pornography trade periodically interrupted trade in sexual entertainment and the cheap medical works that were often sold alongside it. Officials in Britain and its colonies also sought to "purify" print culture by seizing suspicious print materials at customs and passing laws against advertisements for abortifacients and other "indecent" items (Heath). Concerns about propriety and reputation additionally influenced what kinds of sexual knowledge appeared in print, where it appeared, and how accessible it was. John Addington Symonds published two works on homosexuality, A Problem of Greek Ethics (1883) and A Problem of Modern Ethics (1891), privately in extremely limited numbers, partly so he could have control over their readership; and although many readers looked to literature to learn about sex, the conservative policies of powerful literary institutions, such as Mudie's Select Library, discouraged authors from even alluding to sexual acts in novels (Brady; Bassett).

Front cover of Richard Burton's trnaslation the Kama Sutra, 1883.

At the same time, though, expanding transport networks and the practices of reprinting and translation extended the shelf life of all kinds of works on sexual matters, and carried them across cities, countries, and continents. Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy, originally published in America, became a mainstay of the British market, while British manuals on venereal disease were sold in colonies like Australia, New Zealand, and India, and translated into other languages. Works on sexuality from non-English speaking countries were also translated and reprinted in Britain. In the 1880s, for example, the clandestine Kama Shastra Society translated Indian sex manuals, including the Kama Sutra, for study and collection by wealthy male readers (Sigel 64–68). In the 1890s, translations of European sexological works were made available to British readers by a motley range of publishers, from the respected Rebman Publishing Company to the University Press Limited, an imprint run by the radical con-man George Ferdinand Springmühl von Weissenfeld (Kuhn).

Additionally, old works such as Aristotle's Masterpiece were continually edited and updated for new audiences, and writing on reproduction and sexuality initially intended for one audience was often carved up and presented to others in new forms (Porter and Hall 129–31). The surgeon Michael Ryan's commercially successful The Philosophy of Marriage in Its Social, Moral, and Physical Relations (1837), for example, provided middle-class readers with a collage of information gleaned from specialized medical and scientific sources: its content ranges from descriptions of obstetric procedures to discussions of botantical reproduction to outlines of racial hierarchies and supposedly "foreign" sexual practices. The end of the century witnessed a resurgence in the production of these kinds of works in the pornography trade, as enterprising publishers moved to capitalize on public fascination with "strange," "foreign," and "deviant" sexual practices. Several works in the Paris-based publisher Charles Carrington's "Jacobus X series," which were heavily advertised to professional men in England, were cobbled together from discussions of sexual behavior in anthropological, ethnological, criminological, historical, and forensic medical writing. Sexual knowledge was always reaching readers in new ways.

Links to related material

Note on web resources outside this website

Readers interested in viewing digital copies of works described in this entry can do so online for free in a number of places, including Google Books, Hathi Trust, Wellcome Collection, and the UK Medical Heritage Library. A video demonstration of the mobile illustrations in George Spratt's spectacular Obstetric Tables (1833), created by Duke University Libraries, is available on Youtube. Advertisements for many of the items referred to in this entry can be viewed in digitized historical newspaper databases, such as the British Newspaper Archive (subscription required), or in periodicals that appear in free databases, such as Google Books.

A panoply of more specialized medical and scientific manuals, textbooks, atlases, lecture series, and monographs on reproduction, sexuality, and sexual health was published throughout the Victorian period. George Spratt's expensive Obstetric Tables (1833), which was still being sold in the 1850s, is one example of an especially desirable medical textbook. It is advertised, for instance, in the Lancet of 1855 (Vol 1: 144). Other volumes of Lancet are available on Google Books. There were also books of medical jurisprudence, like that by Alfred Swaine Taylor (see bibliography). Advertisements can be found in many newspapers, in the British Newspaper Archive (subscription required).

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Created 19 July 2022