How Does This Fit Into the Lost Cause?

Update from a Reliable Source: “One porn catalog mailed out to the Army of the Potomac advertised dildoes. A dildo was found in the wall of a house of a Nantucket captain’s widow. The first vibrator was marketed in 1870. The traveling device salesman sounds perfectly plausible.”

I Guess She Didn't Need Him After All

I just wrapped up a wonderful visit with a former student from Alabama that I have not seen in ten years.  It’s always nice to see how these kids turn out.  Anyway, this student comes from a fairly prominent Alabama family with its share of family stories.  One of those stories struck me as very interesting and I am curious if anyone can recommend further reading.

It turns out that this woman’s great grandfather supplied southern widows with adult novelties in the wake of the Civil War.  I know, I know…this is not something we want to acknowledge at least for those of us who harbor conservative views of women or images of Melanie Hamilton.  It turns out that this drastic change in profession eventually cost him his marriage.  The story has stayed within the confines of the family for the obvious reasons and I have no reason not to believe it, but I am curious if anyone has done serious research on this aspect of widowhood.  I am familiar with Thomas Lowry’s book, but I don’t believe he addresses this.

Given Victorian attitudes toward sex I assume that evidence of such a market would be hard to come by.  What do you think?

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12 comments… add one
  • Fraser Dec 31, 2010 @ 16:48

    Nathaniel Philbrick’s In The Heart of the Sea mentions the use of dildoes (aka the “he’s at home”) by Nantucket women while their husbands were away. Doesn’t say anything about traveling salesmen though, but he mentions something about a Nantucket wife who wrote about this in her biography.

  • Larry Cebula Dec 31, 2010 @ 10:16

    How come none of my ancestors did anything this interesting?

    There is certainly a literature, referenced above, about sexual devices from the 1880s until WW2. It seems like they were widely used and accepted, with the proviso that they were almost always marketed as health aids rather than as sex devices. There seems to be a smaller literature for the pre-electric part of the 19th century, I wonder if that is because the electric devices were patented and thus leave a larger paper trail for historians? (I don’t have time right now to rummage through Google Patent Search!) In any case the quick acceptance of the electrical devices is probably an argument that there was already a market for sex aids.

  • Suzanne Fischer Dec 31, 2010 @ 7:01

    This story seems extremely probable to me. I spent a great deal of time studying a different part of the sexual devices market, the folks who sold remedies for “diseases of men,” and they advertised widely in pamphlets, books and newspapers until state legislation started to be passed against their ads in the 1900s and 1910s. I don’t know much about the Southern context though. (And Shane has suggested some excellent sources.)

    • Kevin Levin Dec 31, 2010 @ 7:03

      Thanks Suzanne.

  • j anderson Dec 31, 2010 @ 4:50


    Perhaps the family memoy of the reaon for the end of great grandfather’s marriage is itself a polite way to avoid speaking candidly about sexual matters.
    Grandfather might have offered more personal services to those widows.
    At least that is a more interesting plot device for an “adult” moving that the pizza delivery man “ringing the doorbell.”

    j anderson

  • Shane Landrum Dec 30, 2010 @ 20:53

    Rachel Maines would argue that there were plenty of socially camouflaged sexual technologies in the 19th-century US. Though her work focuses on the marketing of the electric vibrator beginning in the 1880s, maybe the footnotes have something. Another place to look for leads might be in Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Rereading Sex, though I don’t remember anything specific. (Quick Amazon Read-Inside searches on “widow”, “veteran”, and “Civil War” didn’t turn up anything obviously relevant.)

    It might be worth reposting this query on H-HISTSEX and/or H-WOMEN; I suspect readers of those lists are likely to know more.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 31, 2010 @ 2:43

      Thanks Shane. This is incredibly helpful.

      • Shane Landrum Dec 31, 2010 @ 6:34

        Upon further reflection, the best option is Andrea Tone’s Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, which reveals that “rubber goods” was the period term for a wide range of sexual devices. From her introduction:

        Vulcanization technology invented by Charles Goodyear in 1839 gave rise to the domestic manufacture of condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes, [etc]… In the early 1870s, condoms, douching syringes and solutions, vaginal sponges, diaphragms, and cervical caps could be purchased from mail order houses, wholesale drug supply houses, pharmacies, and dry goods and rubber vendors.

        Not just in New York but in cities across the country, vendors of condoms and diaphragms also sold other rubber articles like dildos. The same printers who peddled guides on how to use a douching syringe for contraception sold photographs of naked men, women, and children. Inexpensive, sensationalist, and sporting publications of “questionable character” promoted impotence cures, pornography, and contraceptives simultaneously.

        Probably not specifically relevant to the great-grandfather in question, but Tone also shows that by the 1890s, African-American newspapers were advertising manufactured contraceptives and argues that if contraceptive vendors sold “sex devices” of other kinds, editors would not have printed ads for them. So it’s a problem of sources (as with so many things.)

        Following some of Tone’s quotes, it seems the newspaper search term one needs is “rubber goods” when it falls near “Women’s” or “ladies”. Chronicling America doesn’t contain lots of Southern newspapers, but it has some. A little toying around reveals a 1900 Houston Post ad about a store with a special “women’s department… Write to us for things you cannot get elsewhere.” Nothing conclusive, but Anthony Comstock’s big crusade was preventing the sale of obscene materials (especially contraceptive goods and information) through the mail, so no mail-order house would have been specific in their ads by 1900.

        The this search reveals an ad from the (Alexandria,) Louisiana Democrat, 1879 (column 4, just below the large TOBACCO) carries these words at the foot of an ad for Chicago doctor A.G. Olin’s book of marital advice:

        “Samples of Rubber Goods for Ladies and Gentlemen, with Circular of important information, 50 cents by Express. Reliable Female Pills [i.e. emmenagogues or abortifacients], $5 a box.”

        Considering the possibility that the “adult novelties” in your former student’s story were contraceptives, the story seems more likely to me. I can entirely see how Southern women in financial straits after the war might have wanted to limit their fertility, whether inside or outside marriage, but that’s pure conjecture.

        Given a fulltext newspaper database with the right geographical mix of papers, it should be easy enough to run this down further. I’d love to know what you find.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 31, 2010 @ 6:36


          You’ve really gone out of your way to help me with this and I greatly appreciate it. It’s much more helpful than a previous commenter, who suggested that I was going to hell for what I wrote. 🙂 I am hoping that my former student will follow up with her family and, if so, your references will definitely be useful. Happy New Year.

  • Allen Gathman Dec 30, 2010 @ 18:33

    It would have to have been word of mouth, I’d think. While the widows weren’t making their sexuality public, they certainly talked to each other.

  • Marc Ferguson Dec 30, 2010 @ 14:24

    Well, according to Peter Gay, we have the Victorians all wrong in viewing them as uptight prudes.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2010 @ 14:29

      Right, but that doesn’t imply that the postwar South was ready to publicize their sexuality. I found the story interesting for a number of reasons. I asked this individual to follow up with her family to see if there is any kind of documentation available from this business.

      It really is the perfect follow up to my black Confederate study. 🙂

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