A bit about the facts of life, circa 1812…

Yes, that’s right, boys and girls, it’s time to talk about sex.  Are you all sitting comfortably?  Good. 

(Actually, I don’t care if you are.) 

The purpose of sex in the early 19th century was, guess what?  To have fun?  Well, yes, possibly…but really, it was about procreation.  Lots of it.  Babies.  Lots of them. 

 They considered the ideal number of children for a family to be eleven.  (George III had fifteen…)

Why eleven?  Who knows?  But it may very well have to do with the high rates of infant mortality in the period. 

There are even sex manuals from the period and slightly earlier detailing how to ensure conception.  (Yes, indeed there are.  No, you can’t see them.)

This they believed was furthered by the man giving the woman a good time.  The greater her enjoyment, the greater the chances of conception.

They also had firm ideas about how to get boys–we learn this from the invaluable scribblings of Captain Grose in the late 18th century.  It was called riding rantipole or the dragon riding St. George–the lady on top, as it were.  And this was said to get a bishop (a boy).

(I implore you, do not ask me if this works…I have no evidence one way or the other, I assure you.  I’m just telling you what they thought.)

Because children were essential to a family’s business, to inheritance, to property.  Children were effectively your pension plan and your retirement carers. 

Remember too that the high infant mortality rates do not belong exclusively to one class more than another.  Within the memories of many of their grandparents–so just over 100 years–Queen Anne had seventeen pregnancies and births and not one of her children lived to adolescence.   

And no, there wasn’t really any such thing as birth control.  Well, yes and no… 

Again, according to Grose, there were prophylactics called cundums, named after the individual who thought of the idea.  We know Casanova had one of sheep’s gut that he tied in place with a pink ribbon.  But as it will have been used and washed and used and, er, washed or not, as the case may be, I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions about its effectiveness.

But birth control in those days was more generally spelled, ‘having a mistress’.  And that will have been how many men dealt with it.

Now, before we go passing a great deal of judgement from our hindsight position of 21st century medical care and physical well-being, it’s vital to remember that at the best of times, childbirth in the early 19th century was a chancy business. 

Women’s internal organs will have often been severely malformed due to the corsets they wore from childhood…and if the doctor told you that one more pregnancy would most certainly kill your wife, you might approach the situation somewhat differently.  Abstinence was not generally seen as a realistic option, nor was masturbation, so they’re not considering it as adultery or as wrong

(Ian Kelly’s fine biography of Beau Brummell talks about how the boys at Eton were weekly lectured about the evils of masturbation.  Besides hellfire, which is always a useful deterrent, they believed it led to physical deformities, excessive drooling and blindness, and told the boys so.) 

London was at the time the sex capital of Europe.  And the gentleman’s world of London, the world of White’s and Brooks’ and Boodle’s, had a strong measure of sexual indulgence about it.

King Street, which was most famous for its high class brothels, abuts onto St. James’s Street where those clubs are located…it was just a stroll away for the men of Mayfair and St. James’s. 

The house of the possibly most famous courtesan of the era, Harriet Wilson, where she entertained Brummell, Wellington, et al. was there, but hers wasn’t the only one by any means. 

Nor was this, in any way, a society ignorant about sex or sheltered from the realities of it. 

 The early 19th century is still an essentially rural society–despite the beginnings of industrialisation in the north.  On a farm, horses, bulls, dogs are all in possession of their crown jewels and procreation is happening all around.  So the women and men of whatever class would have been fully conversant with the facts of life.   It’s hard not to be in those circumstances.

In the shops and journals, caricatures of the Prince Regent and his brothers were generally of a sexual nature, or perhaps I should say, an explicitly sexual nature.

Their clothes too were designed to heighten nature’s endowments and they added what they could to this.  Women were known to wear nothing but a buff coloured silk chemise under their pale muslins, which when dampened, clung most faithfully to the wearer’s body and especially to her thighs, thus making it appear as if she wore nothing at all underneath her gown.

The men’s breeches, again tight, were cut with one thigh slightly roomier to accomodate the crown jewels.  If one were wearing buckskin breeches, one generally had them cut tightly, then for the first wearing, soaked them so that they dried as a second skin. 

Nor were they particularly strict about marriage being a necessary prelude to sexual relations.  In the 1780’s, it’s recorded that 58% of first births occurred within less than nine months of the marriage. 

By 1800, 40% of women getting married were already pregnant.  So by the early 19th century, although the general attitude toward promiscuity outside of wedlock is changing, it’s changing slowly, and that mostly due to the grassroots popularity of Methodism.

This isn’t to say they thought of nothing but sex.  For this is also the era where a collective social conscience first appears–in 1812 the pillory for women was finally abolished, debtors and their families were at last separated from felons in prison, and in response to the abuse of children in the industrial north, the 1598 Apprenticeship Acts were reformed. 

So there you are.  They weren’t ignorant, they weren’t Victorians, and they weren’t prudes.  And though they never reached nor aspired to the levels of sexual indulgence of 18th century France, still, they were pretty dashed sexy. 

And they knew it.


13 comments on “A bit about the facts of life, circa 1812…

  1. My basset hounds are physically deformed and they drool. What might this mean, I wonder? 😀

  2. Toby Neal says:

    hee hee! heee hee hee! hee hee. I liked this one. Good job MM me darling.

    I think I would have died young in childbed back then, on the first of eleven children since I needed serious medical help just to produce the two I have.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      It was a problem. And they knew it. If you ever saw the Emma Thompson version of Sense & Sensibility, the house which they used as Colonel Brandon’s house–which is a real house called Saltram…well, that house was actually owned by a man who was MP for Devon named John Parker–a very wealthy man, who had the best of everything. His first wife died when they were on honeymoon in Italy. His second wife, Theresa, bore him two children, but died when the youngest was about four. So he remarried again, because the children needed a mother. And this kind of story is not uncommon.

  3. You should’ve called this entry (so to speak): “Historical Friction.”

    And with a comment like this, did I really have to leave my name?

  4. cavalrytales says:

    Good Lord!
    To say I was shocked would be…well – lying, actually.
    Must admit though that I’d thought sexual shenanagins had much else in the way of recreation apart from liver-rotting beverages – or the very wealthy. This tended to be confined to the very poor – they never has opened my eyes.
    Very wide.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The fondness for sexual shenanigans was, from about 1750 onwards, at least in London, becoming more and more the provenance of the very wealthy or the very poor. Two reasons for this–the rise of syphilis, which made those who couldn’t afford a private mistress or a better grade of bordello, think it a very high price to pay. And the rise of Methodism which was a powerful movement, particularly among the artisan and merchant classes.

      This is not to say that once Britain had soldiers in Spain, possibly encountering prostitutes who would have been previously with Frenchmen, that said British troops wouldn’t have picked it up and brought it home. Beau Brummell certainly had contracted it, in London, probably in 1812, probably in one or other of the houses on King Street…by 1814, it was so advanced that he was showing the signs of the ‘cure’–which was mercury.

      • cavalrytales says:

        I’ve read it was the French who were responsible for spreading it so widely throughout Europe, though where they originally picked it up is anybody’s guess. And they call it the ‘Italian Disease’!
        I surmise massive troop movements right across the continent from medieval times onwards turned a fairly innocuous little spirochaete into a major killer…or was that the cure?

      • M M Bennetts says:

        I believe it was originally brought to Europe by the Spanish, who picked it up from the natives in the Americas–an even exchange for the smallpox the Conquistidors gave them? But whereas it was relatively benign in the American population, to the Europeans, it was lethal. So…it’s spreading from the ports in the 15th and 16th centuries.

        Then, by the 18th century, it’s a full-fledged pan-European disease, well-known in every city. Hogarth was illustrating the ravages in the 1740s. Venice’s population was decimated by it.

        However, it’s the French armies, sweeping across Europe with Napoleon which bring it to every hamlet and town. In the mass graves they’ve discovered in Lithuania and the Ukraine, which have proved to be full of French soldiers on their way to Russia in 1812, they’ve found that 80% or more of the skulls show signs of advanced syphilis. So, given the French armies methods of interacting with the local populations (gang rape being a favourite) yes, you would have to say they were responsible for spreading it.

        And given how the disease worked, it may not have killed immediately, but it would have rendered the children of the women who contracted it sterile.

        The population of France and of Europe in general did not recover the 1789 levels of population until at least 1889, following the Napoleonic wars. If that helps…Which also explains the slowness in industrialisation coming to parts of the Continent–while Britain, quite literally, steamed ahead.

  5. cavalrytales says:

    And if you can decipher what WordPress did to my post – YOU ARE MYDDLETON!

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