The Birds and the Bees, 1920

27 07 2010

Shorpy’s entries today have been really interesting, all from 1920.  See this, this and this.  The booklet shown in the third pic can be seen in its entirety here.

Notice the top right entry in the first item is from the St. Louis Department of Health.  Also the bottom right placard in the first item uses “whores” as an official term; it’s considered a bit too pejorative for official use today.

Need help from an amateur or professional historian:  Was there a particularly bad outbreak of gonorrhea about 1920?  If so, I could imagine that it happened for the same reason that the 1918 Spanish Flu happened, that being World War I.  For the first time, young American men were mass involved in military conflict outside the United States.  They probably picked up a lot of diseases from European prostitutes, and spread it back and forth between themselves and other soldiers and other prostitutes, and even other European women who weren’t morally loose but were destitute because of war damage, so they had no choice but to trade sex to soldiers for money.  (Likewise, this is where the first wave of mixed-race people in America came from after the WBTS — freed black women, without any economic prospects, sold themselves to the well-paid Union occupiers.)  Even not counting sex, the soldiers easily picked up non-sexual communicable diseases from each other and took them home in a big way.  Hence, the 1918 flu outbreak in America and much of the white world.

As for the booklet, I can provide some historical insights:

*  Page 10:  Note that an actual shower is said to be “equipment everyone can hope to use,” in contrast to the sponge bath, which was ubiquitous in the home environment at the time.  Most American homes didn’t have showers until after WWII.  While I said above that I was the first mass involvement for young American men overseas, II was even far more encompassing.  (For the United States, I was about 1.5 years in one theater.  II was more than 3.5 years and in two theaters, and another half if you don’t count North Africa as the European theater.)  By the time I came around, as you can read, it was already understood that daily cleaning was a necessary component to disease prevention.  But WWI didn’t involve enough men to convince the American public of that, such that the habit of daily or more frequent showering the military instilled into them would translate to civilian life.  That did happen after II — Not only did men actually want daily showers, they also convinced their wives that it was a good idea for them, too, and that’s when all new housing construction had showers, and when older houses were retrofitted with them.  (I think about a quarter of residential construction between the end of WWI and the Depression had showers.  Don’t quote me, though.)  Even in the 1920s, some bigger cities tended to have public baths or showers, mainly for men and boys.  The shower shown here is part of an open communal shower room.  I guess a private enclosed home shower wasn’t really considered, and this might make the statement I just made an urban legend.

While sponge baths were better than nothing, filthy water only has so many cleansing qualities.

*  Page 11:  They’re still screaming eight glasses of water a day, though people really don’t need that much according to credible research.  And why did we once think that evening water consumption was a bad idea?  I think this was because many people still had outside johns, and any late night trip to the bathroom that would obviously come from drinking too much before going to bed would mean having to go outside in the dark, and the trip would interrupt one’s sleep too much.  (Of course, they tell you how much sleep you should get.)

*  Page 12:  The third item has been disproven.  Certain infections make constipation inevitable, it has also been learned over the years.

*  Page 13:  Don’t try sleeping outside now!

*  Page 14:  “Self-abuse” here means masturbation.  Even in 1920, they knew it wouldn’t cause physical harm (i.e. blindness).  And today, it’s thought of as normal, not anything that precludes “vigorous manhood” or is indicative of “stupidity.”

*  Page 15-16:  Wet dreams.  Notice that in that time, it started some time between 15 and 17 in young men.  Now it’s a couple of years earlier.  This is indicative of the average age of puberty declining over the decades — The reason we’re allowed to know for that is better nutrition, and the reason is taboo for us to know is racial differences in the start of puberty.  Even frequent wet dreams isn’t considered a medical problem these days.

*  Page 17-18:  They didn’t understand then, or didn’t want to understand, how often men and teenage boys think about sex.  If thinking about sex necessarily gave you a boner, then no guy would ever be flaccid.  So that one has been debunked.

*  Page 22:  Actually, it does help a lot.  Certain hormones and endorphins are released during sex with other people.  That they didn’t know then.

*  Page 23:  The LeBron James of his day.  Aviators were truly the rock stars and role models of the 1920s.  If ole Charles Lindbergh’s not jacking off helped him fly across the Atlantic, then that was good enough reason for any young man not to play with himself.

*  Page 32:  They didn’t know the half of it.

*  Page 33:  They didn’t know the half of that, either.

*  Page 41:  Humans aren’t the only monogamous species.  Some eagles mate for life, and the father is intimately involved in the development of his chicks through many reproductive cycles between himself and the Mrs.

*  Page 42:  That’s what they all say.  Then or now.  It’s just that now, we don’t have any delusions.

*  Page 5 Women:  The definition of “lame” certainly has changed.

*  Page 7:  Notice the basketball is recommended for girls but not for boys.  I do think that high school basketball for girls and women was just as big or bigger than the same for boys and men in the early parts of the 20th Century in the United States.  Just a conjecture.

*  Page 9:  The platform shoes have only gotten more ridiculous

*  Page 11:  Notice they show no suggestive nudity in the woman bathing compared to the man.  And the only show a robed woman giving herself a sponge bath, not standing naked in a shower.  It’s as if they say women might like showers, but don’t back it up with a visage.

*  Page 14:  They tell the women to drink eight glasses of water a day, but they tell the men 6-10.  Then and now, men are expected to be more physically active, and therefore need more hydration.

*  Page 15-16:  Notice no body diagrams for the men.

*  Pages 17-27, disjointed:  Again, they give women information about both their own path to sexual maturity and what sex horomones do for both girls and boys — The boys only get information about themselves.  It’s only as if only women were to be trusted about the nature of both sexes and the physical process of child birth; men could only be trusted with information about men and only with words and not pictures or drawings; it was too salacious to tell men about the anatomy of a woman.  (It might get them to thinking about sex and give them a boner.)

*  Page 23:  I guess it’s easy to tell which side of the heredity vs environment debate they took.  Hereditarianism, and the racial sciences that were a natural implication, were pretty much the standard fare for official America until after WWII.  Environmentalism as an “intellectual” pursuit was taking shape in those years, but the Hitler atrocities were the killer app for that way of thinking, that which the enviros pointed to to demonstrate that “we were right,” the moral “superiority” of their position and the “defective” nature of hereditarianism.

*  Page 34:  Now, we call it the hook-up culture.

*  Page 36:  The Travelers Aid movement was founded in St. Louis.

*  Page 41:  True, but they weren’t heeding the message then, and we aren’t now.

*  Pages 43-48:  They were still plenty of decades away from the concept of a Mr. Mom, and of what has almost become a reversal in gender roles today.

Overall:  There is no implication that girls and women can masturbate, which they obviously can.  Men get no detailed drawings of their own unique anatomy, while women do.  They don’t suggest women do push-ups, sit-ups and knee bends, like they do men, even though those exercises by themselves are more beneficial for women than men, come to find out.  (Hint:  There’s only so much muscle development that can come from your own weight being your resistance.  Hence, the weight rooms in gyms that us guys love to use so much.  But that much muscle on a woman is just plain unattractive.)  And why didn’t they think women can’t get constipated?

I suppose that this was as far as Official America would tolerate discussion of sexual behavior.  Radio was just about to come into being, but talk of human sexuality on the public airwaves wouldn’t happen that explicitly until at least the mid-1960s.  I don’t know when the sex taboo was broken in mainstream Hollywood cinema, but I do know that there was a Doris Day movie from perhaps the early 1960s where she openly used the word “sex” a few times.  Any sex talk before then was purely a matter of implication outside official educational material.

Remember, the booklet was fundamentally about sex.  All the talk about sports and exercise and hobbies and great books were put there is suggested diversions to sex, and the discussion about expected family life was put there to show the consequences of correct behavior.  Everything else is an implication of the bad consequences of screwing around, for both genders.  This is why I’m guessing there was a gonorrhea/syphilis outbreak in the U.S. after WWI.



2 responses

28 07 2010
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26 06 2011
Sunday Wrap-Up « Countenance Blog

[…] thing, until around some point in the Great Depression.  Four years before this picture was taken, a Federal health booklet, mainly a response to a syphilis/gonorrhea outbreak in the United States that American soldiers […]

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