Sex in the Gilded age


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Jan 7, 2002
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Many people seem to be under the impression the 'Gilded age' was a time of asexual innocence, when sexulaity was somthing not expressed or explored ouside the context of marriage.
Balderdash!.
I know in the 1920s, German avante garde theatre involved a strong sexual theme, and did Parisian theatre.
America on the other hand has always been rather puritanical on matters of sexuality, though we did of course have periods of sexual promiscuiity in the 1840s, 1920s and 1960s &70s.
But in the period from 1910-20, in Europe and britian, were vestages of Victorian oppresiveness of sexuality still present, or were people openly exploring sexuality in art and film?


regards


Tarn Stephanos
 
Aug 29, 2000
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The fact that we are all here writing about this always intriguing subject is proof something was going on behind closed doors of those Edwardians who were fruitful and multiplying! I suppose the great difference is that in those days discretion was the operative word. Reading about the many lusty affairs of Edward VII, the pattern of morals evident at those country "house parties" is well-established. Edward VIII would continue the pattern of naughtiness ,culminating with the the affair of the 20th century with Mrs. Simpson. I recently visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see the Art Deco exhibit there, and was surprised to learn this movement actually began in France as early as 1910. The sexy, form-fitting, flesh-baring evening dresses were a far cry from the voluminous upholstered dresses and layers of tight-laced corsets and mountains of petticoats and bustles of the Victorians. Those suffragettes had upset many notions of women's place. Increasingly athletic, educated and in the workplace- the frail and dainty pure morsel ideal of womanhood was becoming a thing of the past. Novelists such as Elinor Glynn wrote juicy and suggestive tales of romance. Art mirrors life and this post-Edwardian period saw the rise of many exciting movements in art which portrayed the human form and passions in ways the prim Victorians had never considered. Of course there was always the double standard of looking the other way as men were carousing -being "boys" sowing wild oats, but the "bad, fast girl" applied to that cigarette-smoking, promiscuous female of the period. Recently I read Margaret's Sanger's work on family planning, which raised many eyebrows and caused no end of consternation (among men mostly) at the notion women could actually want the pleasure without the progeny!
 

Bob Godfrey

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Sex on film is as old as film itself. Even before the end of the nineteenth century, erotic subject matter was perfectly acceptable in France and the catalogue of the great Georges Melies, a leading pioneer of cinema, included such titles as Peeping Tom at the Seaside. The standard subject matter was a strip scene, preferably with a male voyeur who wasn't required to contribute to the action other than making a series of exaggerated and suitably appreciative facial expressions.

In the UK these French-made shorts were imported and openly promoted for showing to rather more restricted male audiences like those at 'smoking concerts and stag parties'. For those who wanted something stronger, certainly there were pornographic films available to Edwardian connoisseurs. The earliest preserved examples are in the Kinsey collection and date from around 1910, but the industry was well established by that time. I could offer some titles, but somehow I don't think they'd be in stock at Blockbusters! :)

In mainstream film, nudity was acceptable for generally static extras in historical scenes (Roman slave markets and the like), but no lead player appeared nude on screen until Audrey Munson, an artist's model by profession, bared all in 1915. The level of acceptance of such 'justified' nudity varied from place to place. Some fleeting scenes of nudity which failed to raise an eyebrow with European audiences were shown in certain US states only after clothing had been carefully painted onto every frame of the film!

If a sexual theme was acceptable in a mainstream drama, the invariable message was that for a 'good girl' sex was the road to ruin, as shown in Edwardian melodramas with titles like The Downward Path and Traffic in Souls. But it wasn't moral indignation that drew large audiences for such titles. The genre of the 'explotation film' had arrived.
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I recently saw (with some regret) the Titanic film with Barbara Stanwyck. One thing that did catch my attention was that the clothes seemed very much more up-to-date than they did in ANTR. One woman, I think it was Molly Brown, in particular had some very striking outfits and hats. I don't know which film was the more accurate, but in view of what you're saying, Shelley, ANTR might have got it wrong. I expect Cameron's got it more right - he being a research fiend. Molly and Ruth being suitably upholstered, and Rose (despite the corset scene) clearly moving towards the 1920s. I had to wear a corset in a play once - I mean a real one, not a Janet Raeger one, and I have to say it was simply ghastly. As a child, I remember my elder sister feeling she had arrived at adulthood at the age of 17 because my mother bought her a "roll-on girdle" - this for a perfectly slender girl. I recall watching the struggle to get into this garment and thinking it didn't look much fun. I was luckier - I was 17 in the 60s and we wore next to nothing by comparison.

I've seen a couple of those films, Bob. I believe the euphemism for such debauchery was a "Gentlemen's Evening"...... The Downward Path - I love it! Gentlemen have always been quite keen to tread that path themselves, but even more keen to prevent their womenfolk straying along it. Understandable, I suppose. Women always know they are the mother, but being certain you are the father has hitherto been much more of a problem. I understand this is causes trouble amongst sparrows. Recent research with DNA testing has, apparently, proved that lady sparrows are far too keen on nipping into a tree with someone other than their mate, and that up to 40% of the chicks are not the offspring of the poor old Dad who is foraging diligently for whatever it is they eat.

I don't know how people actually do this sort of research...
 
Jul 9, 2000
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Easley South Carolina
>>Recently I read Margaret's Sanger's work on family planning, which raised many eyebrows and caused no end of consternation (among men mostly) at the notion women could actually want the pleasure without the progeny!<<

What makes that all the stranger was that there was no shortage of men who wanted the pleasure without the progeny, and not just in the Victorian/Edwardian era, but throughout all of recorded history itself.
 
Aug 29, 2000
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By comparison America clung to its Victorian notions of outward prudery well into the late 1950's. I can remember when "pregnant" was never used in polite company, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in twin beds, and if a man on television had to sit on a bed with a woman in it, one foot had to be on the floor. Either blame the ultra- conservative Bible Belt, or the Banned in Boston, staight-laced New England ethic of work, constraint, and prayer-those risque French and bawdy Brits burst their figurative corsets long before the Colonies! I can recall being shocked in the 1980's by a bosom shot in Brideshead Revisited (aboard the Queen Mary episode), and British friends laughingly asked me if we did not have a Benny Hill counterpart. Actually, thinking back on Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" from last year's Superbowl, I guess as a nation we are still distressed about nudity. Then the most popular show now is the very hot and scandalous "Desperate Housewives"- so go figure-. I have a theory that we love pretending to be shocked. Remember the Catholic Code for movies?- and I wonder if the British have a film rating code. As far as undergarments, Monica- there's a great line in Steel Magnolias when Dolly Parton quips "These thighs never leave the house without their lycra-spandex- we was raised right!" That pretty much sums up the children of the 50's, until the mini-skirt and the swinging 60's arrived. Yes, I also thought the clothing was a little avant-garde in the Stanwyck film, until I found out gold lame was around, and the French were showing some very fresh ideas. We've covered this topic under the Gilded Age clothing threads before, but Rose in the 1997 version was certainly the new face of the pre- 20's in her choice of art and fashion. I loved the scene in which Frances Fisher is lacing her up in that corset and she is so obviously chaffing at it. Anytime several generations are alive, there's bound to be a diversity of opinion on everything. My Victorian granny (born in 1897)died not too long ago, and so many lively differences on every subject took place when she, my daughters, my mother and I were together. The adults on Titanic were Victorians, so naturally they would reflect many of the attitudes of their upbringing and training.
 
Jan 7, 2002
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In recent years, remember the shock in America at Elvis Presley's gyrations?
Pat Boone sang sqeaky clean white covers of Little Richard songs, as the originals frayed the sensibilities of conservative America..
Were it not for the arrival of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, America would never have let its hair down. (both literally and figuartively).

Its interesting- some regard Victorian Britian as the most sexully represssed western power, but given the popularity of prostitution at the time, I wonder if the 'lack of whoopie' in Britain was a myth.

I think the mantle of sexual stuffyness in the Gilded Age goes to the USA...


Regards


Tarn Stephanos
 

Bob Godfrey

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Shelley, we did have a Board of Film Censors in the UK (now replaced by a Board of Film Classification), but we've never had anything so stringent or rigid as the infamous Hays Code with its demands for single beds, one foot on the floor and all the other nonsense. However, many of our productions were indirectly restricted by those same Hollywood codes, because British studios hoped to obtain extra income from distribution of their films in the US.
 
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I remember seeing a documentary recently about the very early films- before talkies, made in America, and apparently a great deal of near-nudity, decadent behavior and titillation could be managed IF the characters, either fallen women or dissipated scoundrels repented, or the subject had a Biblical reference. One picture in particular was Sodom and Gomorrah, which was really pretty hot stuff, but could be foisted off as a morals lesson. There's nothing much under the sun that cannot be found either in Shakespeare or the Bible! I also remember Myra Breckenridge when it came out in the 60's which caused such a stir-and Lolita. Being a Cole Porter fan, I was amused to learn that the publisher made him add "Let's Fall in Love" as a subtitle under his mega hit "Let's Do It", and often clever writers and lyricists would go for the old double entendre. Delivered with Mae West's sly wink and ample belle poitrine, she could make the most innocent phrase sound positively X-rated. And speaking of stage potboilers- you can't beat the Stanford White murder by Harry Thaw over that irresistble tart, Miss Nesbitt-the girl in the red velvet swing.
 

Susan Alby

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Hi Shelley,
How lucky for you to have had the chance to know your Victorian Grandmother, she must have been a lovely woman. I am sure she passed on many pearls of wisdom to you and your daughters.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Just bought today: The Gilded City: Scandal and Sensation In Turn-of-the-Century NY. (M.H. Dunlop)

We often make the mistake of terming the Victorian Era, in America, as being "oppressive" particularly in terms of sex but, of course, it wasn't.

One of my "favorite" bits of Gilded Age scandal was the well known (in its day-1896/'97) Seeley Bachelor Party Orgy at Sherry's. Reduced for simplicity, here are the bare bones details of the scandal: a member of the Barnum family had a "stag party" at Sherry's on Fifth Avenue. One of the "theatrical agents" hired to procure "talent" for the party offered an 18 year old a certain cash amount to bare her "lower regions" for the benefit of the guests. Her father was insulted, as was she, not by the attempt at corrupting her morals but by the dollar amount offered and tipped off the police. Anyway, what followed was a tabloid paper journalist's dream as the details of the party emerged- obscene dancing, corruption of minors, entertainers being "cut out" of their costumes and mauled by the all male ensemble and the tittilating detail that the heads of some of NY's "best families" had been cavorting au naturel with harlots in the banquet room at Sherry's. And, this was not an isolated incident, just the best publicised.
 

Jim Kalafus

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VICTORIANA 1: This clipping of one-column newspaper ads illustrates some of the more common sexual problems and concerns of the American Victorian:
93664.jpg


Tansy Pills were an abortifacient. "Woman's Salvation" is an interesting turn of phrase, barely visible in the text of that ad.
 

Jim Kalafus

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>Pat Boone sang sqeaky clean white covers of Little Richard songs, as the originals frayed the sensibilities of conservative America.

To be honest, and hopefully not sound mean, so too did the Beatles. Much of their 1963/'64 output consisted of soulless covers of Motown and earlier R&B standards, and 'though comparing Pat Boone and the Beatles is a case of apples and oranges (two different styles, and no real basis for comparison ) it is to Pat Boone's credit that at least he DIDN'T try to sound "black" and fail:

I should have realised a lot of things be-fo.
If this is love, you gotta give me mo'.

being a particularly egregious example of white boy ebonics
happy.gif


>Were it not for the arrival of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, America would never have let its hair down. (both literally and figuartively).

There was that Elvis fellow; Carl Perkins; Gene Vincent; the entire rockabilly genre; pre-Supremes Motown; The Philly Sound as well as the several hundred R&B songs which "jumped the color line" pre 1964. 1964 just marked the point where one generation of teen bratz' "rebellious" music was supplanted by that of another. The "f" word popped up on several major label singles as early as 1936 (RCA Bluebird released Ev'rybody's Truckin' that year, in which a similar sounding word beginning with F was repeatedly substituted for Truckin') and 1947's Ice Man Song (Roy Lee Brown) contains a closing verse which still has the power to make people do a double take. Lucile Bogan's notorious "Shave 'em Dry" remains, bar none, the most in-your-face vulgar song ever recorded (a title it has held since the mid 1930s)
It is a common misconception that suddenly, ca. 1964, "The White Folks" awoke and began "getting down" (remember the 1920s?) it is just that the 1964 generation seems to be the first which chose to perpetually define itself by the music to which it listened in high school.
 
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I have an old 1920s blues record by Lillian Glinn and one of the verses always makes me laugh:

Well, he’s a l-o-n-g, tall daddy, and he k-n-o-w-s how to strut his stuff."

I think it’s wild that a woman could make such sexual allusions in a song back then, and allusions that seem so modern.

I’ve also heard Lucile Bogan’s song, and I have to agree with Jim that it is absolutely raunchy — at the same time, it’s over-the-top funny. It’s so outrageous even SHE laughs halfway through it! The lyrics aren’t printable here; suffice to say that next to Miss Bogan, Miss Glinn was a Sunday school teacher.
 
Aug 29, 2000
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Well Tarn- just look what a provocative thread you have begun. While studying Goodyear's blimp skins, I learned that Goodyear did indeed produce the first vulcanized rubber condoms in 1844. Along with supplying the Civil War rubberized tents, mats, and slickers, -no wonder Goodyear was a financial success.I saw an advertisement in a 1861 newspaper for "French Preventatives" which no doubt coined the term "French Letter". Latex rubber prophylactics appeared in 1880, but the Comstock Law which prohibited the advertisement of any sort of birth control devices had passed a few years previously. Post office officials could even confiscate such items- hence the evolution of "the plain brown wrapper". Sadly, it took World War I with American troops suffering the highest incident of STD's (70%) to rid the armed services and society of the outdated ideas of the need for protection. By WWII all the G.I.'s were routinely issued "overshoes". And now, back to folding the church bulletins.....
 

Kyrila Scully

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Well, Jim, ya had ta BE there to understand what was going on with the Beatles and Elvis. It's all about the context.
Frankly, I can't recall one Little Richard song that Pat Boone ever did...although I can think of an Alice Cooper cover he did a few years back.

Kyrila
 
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Tutti Fruitti Kyrila! A whop boppaloobop awhop bam boom! I am sorry to admit I remember both versions! I still have the 45- and named my Plymouth Rock Rooster after the song. He subsequently smothered himself behind the horse cart- probably died of shame. Ah, they don't write lyrics like that anymore. . .
 

Noel F. Jones

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"Tutti Fruitti Kyrila! A whop boppaloobop awhop bam boom!"

I have it on good authority that the more correct version runs: "a-wop bop a loo-mop, a-lop bam boom!".

Just forget I posted here, will you...

Signature withheld.
 
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