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S•x Education

June 2024
17min read

“Your body is a temple,” our ancestors told their pubescent youngsters. ‘Now go take a cold bath”

Standards of propriety were lofty indeed

Something called delicacy overtook Americans soon after our successful Revolution. Like an incoming tide, it flowed all over the nineteenth century, reaching its high-water mark about a hundred years ago. From that point it slowly receded, leaving behind rock pools of what came to be identified as prudery. Today, with the tide at a record ebb, the word “delicacy” usually connotes either fragility or a choice food and certainly not “aversion to what is considered morally distasteful or injurious,” which is what it chiefly meant to our ancestors.


The Puritans subscribed to moral strictness but not to delicacy in the nineteenth-century sense of the word. They called a spade a spade. A colonial lady or gentleman had no hesitation about using such words as “legs” and “belly” to describe those parts of the body; but their children and grandchildren preferred “nether limbs” and “lower portion.” Perhaps one reason why this came about was that many families were rising into higher social spheres and felt insecure about how to behave there. They were, in fact, unwittingly fashioning the great American middle class, which was to become the arbiter and dictator of our manners and morals, replacing both church and monarchy. In colonial days most people had tried to behave in a blameless manner for fear of an avenging God. Fear of Mrs. Grundy had also been a factor, but now, in more worldly times, that lady assumed a little more importance and an outraged deity a little less. As for the monarchy, which had been represented in the colonies by the royal governor and his circle, the citizens of the new Republic were eager to show that they despised it. Intensely patriotic, they were out to prove that the United States was the noblest, purest land on earth. Standards of propriety must therefore be lofty indeed, and the men relied on their wives to set these standards and to bring up the children in accordance with them. A squeamish female became the ideal, and girls grew up with the conviction that if they were properly squeamish, they would be thought refined.

Delicacy also governed falling in love

One book that spelled out how delicacy could be achieved was A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters . Originally published in England, it was often reprinted in America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The author, a clergyman named John Gregory, cautioned his readers not to be afraid of being thought prudish. “When a girl ceases to blush, she has lost the most powerful charm of beauty,” he assured them. Young girls, he said, would be better off if they remained “rather silent” in company. “Wit is the most dangerous talent you can possess.” As for humor, it is “often a great enemy to delicacy …” and so is learning (“if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men …”). Apparently American girls took this advice to heart, for foreign visitors often complained of great difficulty in trying to engage them in ordinary conversation; and John Qjiincy Adams, as a young man around Boston, wished that “our young ladies were as distinguished for the beauties of their minds as they are for the charms of their persons. But alas! too many of them are like a beautiful apple that is insipid to the taste.”


Considerations of delicacy also governed falling in love. ”… Love is not to begin on your part” was the decree of Dr. Gregory. “[It] is entirely to be the consequence of our attachment to you. … As … nature has not given you that unlimited range in your choice which we enjoy, she has wisely and benevolently assigned to you a greater flexibility of taste on this subject. … If you love him, let me advise you never to discover to him the full extent of your love; no, not although you marry him; that sufficiently shows your preference, which is all he is entitled to know.” Dr. Gregory further informs his audience that “violent love” (delicacy prevents him from clarifying this term) will lead to “satiety and disgust” and that it is a woman’s job to avoid it.

Bundling, that cozy custom, was out

To instill and foster delicacy in children became an increasingly vital element in their rearing. A child displaying indelicacy was sure to be barred from other children’s houses by watchful parents. Table manners, dress, conversation, even the food one preferred involved questions of delicacy. A properly delicate girl, for instance, asked for a helping of white meat of chicken (never breast) and declined—at least in public—such robust items as corned beef or blood pudding. There were debates as to whether it was indelicate for girls to attend public lectures. Lydia Child, in 1833, defied majority opinion by writing that skating, hoop rolling, and other boyish sports were suitable for little girls, but only “provided they can be pursued within the inclosure of a garden, or court; in the street, they would of course be highly improper. It is true, such games are rather violent, and sometimes noisy; but they tend to form a vigorous constitution; and girls who are habitually ladylike will never allow themselves to be rude and vulgar, even in play.”


But the most crucial questions of delicacy revolved around “the natural functions” (excretion), “lying in” (childbirth), and that other activity for which not even a euphemism was possible. Old people left over from a coarser age were likely to distress their descendants by speaking of childbirth as if it were something that happened in a bed, not in heaven, or by guffawing and winking when the conversation turned to newlyweds. Bundling, that cozy custom of the colonials, was out. The very memory of it was shocking. From the lygo’s on, every family strove to possess a parlor sofa, but even though it was narrow, upright, and covered in slippery horsehair, it could prove a trouble spot if one had teen-age daughters in the house. The European institution of the chaperon was scarcely known in this country until after the middle of the century. Young ladies were supposed to guard their own virtue. In the i84o’s Dr. William Alcott, a cousin of Bronson Alcott, advised boys to watch for the slightest hint of “loose conduct” in girls and flee immediately if anything like it appeared.

Children were thought sexless, like cherubs

Mrs. Lydia Sigourney, known as the Sweet Singer of Hartford, was full of advice for parents. She assured her readers that children are by nature delicate (in the moral sense) “unless contaminated by evil example. … Let this feeling be respected where it exists and implanted where it does not.” And as an example of childish delicacy she told of a little boy who had chosen “of his own accord the most delicate manner of revealing a common pain” by announcing, “I am tired under my apron.”


Mrs. Sigourney believed that children are born modest and “shrink from exposure of their persons.” Perhaps that was the case in Hartford, but at about the same period in Cambridge, Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne were giving their small boy and girl “air baths,” which meant having them run about naked in a fire-heated room before bedtime. Since Mrs. Hawthorne was a rigid prude who edited her husband’s work for words like “belly,” we must surmise that she subscribed to a prevalent theory that children are entirely sexless, like cherubs, and if kept uncontaminated will remain so at least until puberty and, with luck, until they are married.

To pretend that sex did not exist seems to have been a common Victorian practice. Writing of his i88o’s boyhood, the noted educator Henry Noble MacCracken recalls that on Sunday mornings the three MacCracken boys—aged about ten, twelve, and fifteen—and their eighteen-year-old sister all got into bed with their parents. He and his brothers snuggled close to Mamma, “who was warm and soft and comfortable all over,” while their sister, a Bryn Mawr sophomore, was cuddled by Papa. And in this surprising tableau they all remained until time for church.

If children asked about sex, their indelicacy was attributed either to an evil influence—a servant or naughty playmate—or to “bad blood” (but, of course, that could hardly be the case with one’s own children). The bad influence must be removed at once and the question responded to in a stern tone with “You are too young to understand” or “You must never talk about such things.” In Hints for the Nursery (1863) Mrs. C. A. Hopkinson had an ingenious suggestion: A child early asks questions of his mother in relation to his own existence, which cannot be answered except by referring the subject in general terms to God. … It will be necessary for you to show him, using unintelligible terms, that you are quite right in saying he is too young to understand. … Say: “If you remember, the animal kingdom is divided into several parts. Of these parts, the mammalian do not, like the oviperous portion, perpetuate the race by the deposition of…” By this time, the little face shows great mystification.

Between-meal snacks fed the lower instincts

As the nineteenth century wore on, Americans devised ever more ways of being delicate. The Bazar Book of Decorum (1870) decreed that delicacy forbade the announcement of a birth in the newspaper, as was the custom in crass old Europe. Male friends of the new parents might call on the father but must not see the mother for four or five weeks. If possible, older children in the family should be sent for a visit with Grandma, returning to find that angels have brought them a tiny sister or brother. A baby shower would have been unthinkable—that is, before the birth—for when a woman was enceinte (it sounded more respectable in French), she did not speak of it, and neither did her friends.

Mother’s Help and Child’s Best Friend , by Carrica Le Favre (1890), suggested that one way of stamping out “lower instincts” in children was to forbid betweenmeal snacks; eating brings blood to the stomach, “thereby developing abnormally the lower instincts.” Kite flying and a little club swinging before an open window would develop the higher instincts, which reside in the head and heart. On the other hand, marble playing would animalize children (“all back and no chest”). Kissing was sure to degrade both health and morals.

For parents of too inquisitive youngsters a handy bit of scripture was “Know ye not that ye are the temples of the living God?” (and therefore ye must keep these temples pure, clean, and wholesome and not corrupt them with impure musings on the subject of sex). Nevertheless, toward the end of the century, there was a rising murmur of voices saying that if parents failed to impart a few concrete facts about sex, children would listen to pernicious and incorrect information. In the nineties a few timidly worded books and pamphlets appeared, most of them written by doctors or clergymen, that parents might obtain in a plain wrapper. They spoke lyrically of plants, oysters, and songbirds but seldom of higher forms of life, such as people. “Flowers,” wrote Dr. Lyman Beecher Sperry (1893), “are but the reproductive organs of plants.” And if these lovely things, which are picked by innocent little children and arranged in vases by irreproachably virtuous mothers, are reproductive organs, why “surely there is nothing inherently or necessarily indelicate or unclean” about sex. Mild as this news seems, it was not intended for children (“who have no practical use for information on these subjects”) but for young people old enough for courting. He warned girls against hand holding and kissing, because an honorable and cautious young man, though he might enjoy this sort of thing, will eventually “seek other young ladies for a better companionship. Be the sort of girl of whom it may be said, ’ I know her; the worst thought she entertains / Is whiter than her pretty hand .’”

Instruction books came in a plain wrapper

The most successful what-to-tell-them books were What a Young Boy Ought to Know and What a Young Girl Ought to Know , by Sylvanus Stall, a minister. They first appeared in the mid nineties and were still being reprinted as late as 1936.

“If you have tried to deceive your child,” says Stall, “it is probable that your child is now following your example and is trying to deceive you.” If the child is forthright and puts the question “Where do babies come from?” Stall provides the parent with the following run-around:

My dear child, the question you have asked is one that every man and woman, every intelligent boy or girl and even many very young children have asked themselves or others—whence and how they came to be in the world. If you were to ask where the locomotive and the steamship or the telegraph and the telephone came from, it would be wisest, in order that we might have the most satisfactory answer that we should go back to the beginning of these things, and consider what was done by George Stephenson and Robert Fulton, by Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Morse, by Graham Bell and Thomas Edison toward developing and perfecting these useful inventions.

Thus, Dr. Stall continues, to understand where babies come from we must go back to Genesis and consider the mysterious manner in which God created Cain and Abel and their descendants. From Genesis, Stall suddenly changes the subject to cornstalks and their clever and attractive way of reproducing: the tassels are the fathers, and the newly forming ears are the mothers, and no hanky-panky. Stall then describes how Mama and Papa Shad get little shad and then passes to birds, a subject on which he is more vague. “In the case of the birds, you may have noticed that there were two parent birds, the father bird and the mother bird.” And after a while there are eggs, “which the mother produces in various ways.” The high point of the story is reached when Stall reveals that in the case of mammals the egg is retained in the body “after being suitably fertilized.”


After unloosing this blockbuster Stall turns to “Know ye not that ye are the temples of the living God?” and ends with a sermon.

Stall’s bold pamphlets proved so successful that their author gave up the ministry and went into the publishing business. In a manual prepared for his force of door-to-door salesmen Stall told how to cope with every possible type of sales resistance. Apparently the most common objection of mothers was “I don’t believe in telling children such things,” to which the proper parry was a story of a girl of the streets who cried in anguish, “Ah, why did not my mother tell me?” Other objections were: “I’ve got a doctor book” (but not like this one, Ma’am); “I must ask my husband” (you are the one to impart information); “forty cents is too expensive” (it’s worth its weight in gold); “children know too much already” (yes—too much misinformation); “I got along without such knowledge and my children can, too” (times have changed); “my child is too young” (but he will soon be older); and “the crops are a failure” (make a successful crop of your children).

Stall and his competitors in the sexmanual field dwelt at length on the horrors that must result from both masturbation and “sowing wild oats.” There was nothing new, of course, in denouncing them. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they had to be denounced in a whisper, whereas the colonials had denounced them in shouts from the pulpit or in the public press. Here, for example, is part of a front-page editorial in the Falmouth, Maine, Gazette for January 8, 1785, directed to adolescent boys: You have violent passions implanted in you by nature for the accomplishment of her purposes. But do not conclude, as many have done to their ruin, that because they are violent, they are irresistible. … Pray for divine assistance. Avoid solitude the first moment a loose thought insinuates itself and hasten to the company of those whom you respect. Never converse on subjects which lead to impure ideas. Have courage to decline reading immoral books, even when they fall into your hands. If you form a strong attachment to a virtuous woman, dare to marry early. It is better to be poor than wicked. … Thus shall you avoid the perpetual torment of unruly affections, the most loathsome of diseases, and the thousand penalties of selfish celibacy.

A generation later delicacy forbade such frank language in a family newspaper; and by 1840, when Dr. William Alcott wrote a book called A Young Man’s Guide , the young men who owned it were cautioned to keep it away from junior members of their families. Of “solitary licentiousness” Dr. Alcott said, “It is the lowest—I may say most destructive of practices,” and went on to tell of a man in Pennsylvania whose wretched habits of this kind had rendered him, at thirty-five, tottering, wrinkled, and hoary. Alcott quoted Galen, Celsus, and Hippocrates, all of whom had agreed that “solitary vice” would bring feeble constitutions to generations yet unborn. The hospitals, he went on, were full of persons whom it had driven insane. Other consequences were St. Vitus’ dance, epilepsy, palsy, blindness, apoplexy, hypochondria, consumption, and “a sensation of ants crawling from the head down along the spine. … And unless the abominable practice which produced all the mischief is abandoned, death follows.”


Dr. Alcott’s views on masturbation were all but universal at the time. A baby or small child who was observed to take an interest in its “parts” struck terror into the heart of its mother—especially if the baby was a girl, for this meant an unnatural sex appetite that would have to be ruthlessly curbed, perhaps by pills or even surgery. For Victorian young ladies a natural sex appetite was absolutely none at all. Sometimes, wrote Dr. Emma Drake in What a Young Wife Ought to Know (1901), a woman during pregnancy might be “troubled” with passion. “This … is due to some unnatural condition and should be considered a disease.” Under normal conditions a wife will automatically preserve “the womanly modesty which characterized her girlhood,” preferably in a separate bedroom, where it will be easier for her to avoid “a freedom which degenerates into license.” As for the husband, conserving his seminal fluid “lifts him to a higher plane of being,” and he ought to be grateful.

Apparently a good many children showed “evil propensities,” for there were various restraining devices on the market, including tiny handcuffs and something called a thigh spreader. Indeed, doctors often prescribed them. Children were warned that it was easy to tell secret self-abusers just by looking at them. One physician wrote, “When I see a little girl or young lady, wasted and weak, listless, with great hollow eyes and a sort of sallow tint on the haggard face, with the red hue of the lips faded, the ears white like marble and the face covered with pimples, I know that they have committed the sin which, if not abandoned will lead them down to death.” A handbook for boys published in 1913 by the American Medical Association stated that some boys, instead of growing “into hard-muscled, fiery-eyed, resourceful young men,” turned into “sissy young men and then into narrow-chested, flabby-muscled mollycoddles.” This authoritative and prestigious book went on to say that “spermin” (a substance present in semen) is carried to the heart by the blood and then through the arteries “in a thrilling, throbbing stream” to the muscles. Also “this same wonderful substance” reaches the brain, where it contributes to clear reason and sound judgment, high ambitions and strong will. Masturbation (the word is not used) naturally interferes with all this.

Looking back from the 1970’s we may well wonder how attitudes toward the unmentionable, from breasts of chicken on, could have changed so drastically. How did we arrive at our present unfettered state? Freud is widely held responsible, but in fact, although his teachings first reached this country in 1906, they had little effect in the average nursery until at least the 1930’s. As far as child rearing is concerned, parents have always preferred the tried and true, and new theories take hold slowly. And certainly, for parents reared in Victorian days, it was easier to think of children as sexless cherubs than as victims of such alarming afflictions as Oedipus complexes and penis envy.

But long before Freud other forces for change were at work. Medical advances of the middle and late nineteenth century had produced a new interest in health and hygiene and therefore a more matter-of-fact attitude toward the human body. Exercise—in the form of either calisthenics or sports—came to be appreciated as healthy, and therefore wholesome, even for girls who might have to sacrifice some of their delicacy in the interests of good muscle tone. As early as the 1850’s an English visitor, Lady Emmeline Wortley, was amazed to observe at a New England beach young females not only bouncing up and down in the gentle summer waves but sharing them with the opposite sex. Heterosexual public skating became decent only a few years later. “Health is coming into fashion,” remarked the Atlantic Monthly for June, 1862. “A mercantile parent lately told me that already in his town if a girl could vault a five-barred gate, her prospects for a husband were considered to be improved ten per cent. …” When lawn tennis was invented in the seventies, girls insisted on being included even though it put them into an unladylike sweat (“glow,” however, was the preferred term). In the nineties they bicycled; and at last—although not until about 1910—they achieved the major breakthrough of riding horseback astride.


Some responsibility for these developments surely rests upon Louisa May Alcott, whose books were standard fare for American girls from the late i86o’s on. Her young heroines were robust and sensible—even, as in the case of Jo March, tomboyish. They came from country villages and gave themselves no airs. They coasted, ran, climbed, and romped with the boys, and they had robust and boyish appetites. In one Alcott story a group of girls consume a meal of corned beef and cabbage, baked beans and brown bread, beefsteak, potatoes, Indian pudding, and pumpkin pie “with appetites that would have destroyed their reputation as delicate young ladies if they had been seen.”

Says Rose, the heroine of Eight Cousins , to her Uncle Alec, who is a doctor, “I’m too old for running, Uncle … Miss Power said it was not ladylike for girls in their teens.”

“I take the liberty of differing from Madame Prunes and Prisms and, as your physician, I order you to run. Off with you!” says Uncle Alec, adding that Rose ought to bathe in cold water each morning, throw away her tight belt, and learn to skate and swim with her boy cousins. Eight Cousins (1886) sets forth the ideal code of behavior for ordinary American middle-class adolescents of the period. In free and guileless camaraderie boys and girls went about in groups. They played games, pulled taffy, and even went on overnight hikes. Boys were expected to behave chivalrously and girls modestly; and they usually did so, for the penalty was ostracism. Flirting was frowned on, and a girl who permitted “liberties,” such as hand holding, lost caste. Consequently a boy who wanted to hold hands or more—and there were no such boys in Miss Alcott’s books—had to look for a partner in dance halls or amusement parks.

Wealthy parents could maintain a steady surveillance of their children with the help of nursemaids, governesses, and chaperons, but for most Americans this became increasingly difficult. With the rise of industrialization working-class children often had jobs that took them away from home for ten or twelve hours a day. Children who did not need to work went to public school, where they were thrown into daily contact with what the Puritans used to call “all sorts.” And by 1900 it was a usual thing for girls to stay in high school until they graduated, along with the boys. Parents were warned to screen their children’s friends. “Constant vigilance is the price parents must pay if they would keep their children pure,” admonished one child-care book; and another, pointing out that any parent would be alarmed if his children were exposed to scarlet fever, asked, “Is there equal anxiety when a certain boy or girl in the community is thought to be a source of moral contamination?” Companions “of poor tone” must be driven away. “Run away, Henry Jones,” Mother ought to say. “I won’t have you play with my children in this yard.”

Parents who imparted the story of cornstalks and shad were often dismayed to find their children ostracized as sources of contamination by other, less daring parents. But as time went on and the young ranged farther and farther from parental surveillance, there was increasing agitation in favor of some form of sex education. Not that it was called that. The gingerly term devised in the early i goo’s was “social hygiene.” The message that usually got through was that this is a sacred and solemn subject and your bodies are temples; but we aren’t going to tell you much about it, and you must put it right out of your mind because it isn’t nice. Says the author of The Renewal of Life (1906), “Very reverently explain that the mother cat has ovaries,” but she stops short of even the most reverent discussion of tomcats. (The same author, however, dares to suggest that “desire is not abnormal in a girl.”) Another adviser recommended that parental talks on sex should emphasize the pain of childbirth in order to “remove any tendency toward lascivious thought which the child might have otherwise.” One little boy wept for hours when told of the agony he had caused his dear mama in being born. The author of Childhood (1905) warned that information must be imparted “as delicately as possible.” With girls “it seems to me a mistake to make unnecessary disclosures, which, however sacredly we may regard them, are more than apt to shock the sensibilities of the immature mind.”


However delicately, sacredly, or frighteningly sex was presented to the young of the early 1900’s, no method seems to have been a resounding success. And when that rising generation grew up and, in the 1930’s, faced the problem of what to tell their children, they were nearly as perplexed as their parents had been. By that time a lot of taboos had been relaxed, and even the most delicate sensibilities had got used to short skirts, lipstick, one-piece bathing suits, the tango and the Charleston, and adolescents driving about by twos in automobiles. “None of our old ways prepare youth,” commented one child-care writer. The experts were now advising parents to give children the facts and not confuse them with tales of the birds and bees. Sex in Childhood (1933) scolded parents for the “sacred but not nice” message. “Don’t panic and shame the child for sexual offenses. Correct and divert him, in the same manner that you might say ‘Keep out of that jar of raspberry jam, you rascal, you!’”

Few parents in the 1930’s were able to equate sex with raspberry jam- which is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that today, after so many years of public discussion of sex and so much public exorcism of prudery, there still appear to be many parents who avoid the subject. Dr. Haim G. Ginott, in his best seller Between Parent and Teenager (1969), quotes a father who said, “Sex may have gone as public as AT&T but I want no share in it.” Masturbation still causes anxiety and concern despite at least fifty years of reassurance that it won’t cause insanity or even pimples. The young still complain (again, according to Dr. Ginott), “I can’t ask my mother anything about sex.”

Can it be possible? Or is it that the tables are turned and it’s the children, not the parents, who won’t communicate? After all, what do Mom and Dad know compared to Dr. Reuben or Masters and Johnson or Jacqueline Susann—all available at the corner drugstore for the price of a few icecream cones?

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