In 1912, conservatives in New York declared war on “mashing”. Flirtatious and inappropriate behaviour towards women had reached plague proportions in the Big Apple, they claimed. Attractive females could not walk down a New York street without being wolf whistled, propositioned or subjected to a barrage of provocative remarks.
State assemblyman Richard F. Hearn carried out his own research into ‘mashing’ and declared it the leading cause of divorce in the United States. In early 1912 Hearn sponsored a bill that introduced prison terms for convicted “mashers”.
This crackdown produced several arrests over the next two years – though judges tended to be lenient, if not dismissive. This was not always the case, however, as revealed in this report from November 1913:
In June 1895, the Long Island Board of Education issued a stern directive to its female teachers: stop riding bicycles. A member of the board, William Sutter JP, explained this to the press:
“We as the trustees are responsible to the public for the conduct of the schools [and] the morals of the pupils. I consider that for our boys and girls to see their women teachers ride up to the school door every day and dismount from a bicycle is conducive to the creation of immoral thoughts…”
Another board member, Dr A. Reymer, added his support. Reymer suggested that if they continued to ride bicycles, women would eventually end up “wearing men’s trousers”. Long Island’s female teachers, many of whom relied on bicycles to get to and from school, were said to be “very indignant” about the order.
Alonzo Bertram See (1848-1941) was a prominent elevator manufacturer from New York City. Born in Yonkers, See started his own company in 1883 and began to ride the skyscraper boom to success and wealth. By the turn of the century, See was a millionaire several times over and his business – the quirkily named A. B. See Elevator Company – was the third largest manufacturer and installer of elevators in the United States.
New Yorkers rode in See’s elevators, and thus were familiar with his name, but knew little of him until the 1920s. In 1922, Adelphi College, a Brooklyn women’s college, started a fundraising drive and wrote to See seeking donations. He responded in the negative, explaining his views bluntly:
“Of all the fool things in the world, I think colleges for women are the worst… College girls are slangy, they swagger, smoke cigarettes, have bold and brazen manners, paint and powder their faces, use lipsticks, wear high heeled shoes and dress indecently… When they graduate from college they cannot write a legible hand; they know nothing about the English language; they cannot spell… All women’s colleges ought to be burned.”
See’s letter found its way into the hands of the press. Coming shortly after the passing of the 19th amendment, guaranteeing voting rights for women, See’s views unleashed a flood of protest from women’s rights campaigners. As the New York Times put it, many women “hit the ceiling faster than they ever ascended in one of See’s elevators”. See, however, remained steadfast. When a prominent suffragette challenged him to a debate, See publicly declined, saying that:
“I never discuss anything logical with women. They can talk straight for about five minutes and then they go off the handle. They haven’t got the reasoning power a man has, and I wouldn’t think of debating with any woman on any subject.”
Apparently enjoying the notoriety, Alonzo See became something of a social critic. His two favourite targets were women and education, both of which he seemed to regard as a waste of time.
When reformers sought legislation to outlaw child labour in 1924, See wrote agitated letters to the press, claiming that it was physically harmful to keep 13-year-old boys in school. Two years later, he penned a lengthy essay on education, arguing that school causes some children to go blind and others to physically “waste away”. “Children must be rescued from their mothers and from pedagogues,” See wrote, and “women must be rescued from themselves”.
The New York press published smirking references to See’s sexism for many years. In 1936, however, it was revealed that A. B. See had undergone an epiphany with regard to women and had “changed his mind on them altogether”.
Samuel Gregory (1813-1872) was an American physician who specialised in several areas, including obstetrics and women’s health. Born and raised in Vermont, Gregory obtained a medical degree at Yale, graduating in 1840. Eight years later he founded the New England Female Medical College, the first medical school for women in the United States, if not the world.
Despite these achievements, Gregory was no champion of gender equality or women’s rights. In short, he was a prude who considered it highly inappropriate for male doctors to be at the pointy end during childbirth. The business of delivering children and inspecting lady parts, Gregory argued, should be left to suitably trained women.
Like other wowsers of his day, Gregory was also obsessed with sex and masturbation. In 1857, he published a short but pointed diatribe titled Facts and Important Information for Young Women on the Self Indulgence of the Sexual Appetite. Gregory’s tract drew heavily on other anti-masturbation hysterics like Tissot.
The first half of Gregory’s book contained case studies of young women who, after becoming addicted to self pleasure, either wasted away or ended up “masturbating their way to a state of idiocy”. He followed this with his list of ‘dos and don’ts’ for avoiding temptation – and it was a long list. Foods that “stimulate the animal propensities” should be avoided, including tea, coffee, candies, meat, chocolate, spices and alcoholic drinks.
Certain behaviours in young girls also needed curtailing:
“Young persons should not be permitted to lie on [feather down] beds, nor to sit on soft chairs, to which rush or wooden-bottomed ones are greatly preferable. Neither should they be allowed to remain in bed longer than requisite, or to lie down needlessly on couches.”
Doctor Gregory also blamed literature and the creative arts, which had the capacity to stimulate unhealthy desires in young women:
“All books depicting exaggerated sentiments must be withheld… Even the study of the fine arts may render the imagination too active… Music, being the language of passion, is the most dangerous, especially music of the more impassioned and voluptuous nature… Fashionable music, especially the verses set to it, being mostly love sick songs, [are] all directly calculated to awaken these feelings.”
James Weir Jr. (1856-1906) was an American physician, naturalist and author. Born into a prominent Kentucky family, Weir obtained a medical degree before setting up a practice in his native Owensboro. The wider medical community came to know Weir through his prolific writings.
A student of Charles Darwin, Dr Weir wrote extensively about the distinctions between human beings and animals. He was particularly fascinated by regressive and animalistic behaviours in humans. Among the works published by Weir were Pygmies in the United States, Religion and Lust and Dawn of Reason, or Mental Traits in the Lower Animals. In an essay called “A Little Excursion into Savagery”, Weir confesses to taking a week off every June so he can romp around the Kentucky forest “living like a savage”, dwelling in a cave and eating roasted squirrel.
Weir was also willing to use his pseudo-scientific theories as a political device. In 1894 he penned an essay asserting that striking and rioting workers were “evidence of [evolutionary] degeneration”. The following year Weir went even further, claiming that female suffrage would create to generations of degenerate women with unhealthy masculine features. He cited historical examples of oversexed and overly masculine female leaders, including Messalina, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I (“she was more man than woman”) and Catherine the Great (“a dipsomaniac and a creature of unbounded and inordinate sensuality”).
If women were given the vote and access to political power, Weir claimed, over time they become “viragints”:
“Viraginity has many phases… The tom boy who abandons her dolls and female companions for the marbles and masculine sports of her boy acquaintances… The loud talking, long stepping, slang using young woman… The square shouldered, stolid, cold, unemotional, unfeminine android…”
According to Weir, those who promote female suffrage and equal rights – suffragettes and campaigners like Susan B. Anthony – are already viragints, “individuals who plainly show that they are physically abnormal”. Extending suffrage to women would cause a slow but inevitable and widespread shift toward viraginity:
“The simple right to vote carries with it no immediate danger. The danger comes afterward, probably many years after the establishment of female suffrage, when woman, owing to her atavistic tendencies, hurries ever backward toward the state of her barbarian ancestors. I see in the establishment of equal rights, the first step toward that abyss of immoral horrors…”
Weir died in agony of ‘abdominal dropsy’ while holidaying in Virginia Beach. He was 50 years old. Just 14 years after his death, an amendment to the United States Constitution gave American women full suffrage.
In 1814, the Boston Manufacturing Company dammed the Charles River at Waltham, around 10 miles west of Boston. The construction of the Waltham dam created a scenic network of waterways, popular with holidaymakers and day trippers.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Charles River lakes had become Boston’s own ‘Lover’s Lane’. Hundreds of young couples caught trains or streetcars to the riverside area of Newton, where they could hire canoes from numerous boathouses. Once on the water, it was not difficult to find seclusion in the many creeks, coves and wooded inlets.
Most used this solitude to court without the glaring oversight of parents. The more daring couples used their canoe time as an opportunity to sit close, kiss, pet and whatever else took their fancy.
As might be expected, the interest in canoeing exploded, particularly among young middle-class Bostonians. A state report from January 1903 said the number of canoes on the Charles had increased from 700 to 3,500 in just two years. On warm moonlight nights, there could be as many as 100 canoes still on the water, hours after dark.
What went on in these canoes became public knowledge back in Boston, where locals responded with a combination of humour and moral outrage. Wowsers condemned “canoe mania” as yet another example of the disintegration of moral values. Residents living along the river registered numerous complaints about what they had seen taking place in canoes.
According to the Boston Post, a local Baptist minister told his flock not to allow their children onto the lakes, warning that “if these canoes could speak, what awful tales they would tell!”. One park ranger told the press:
“It is not a very nice spectacle to see a couple of opposite sexes lying in the bottom of a boat with a blanket thrown over them.”
In August 1903, the state’s Metropolitan Parks Commission (MPC) moved to crack down on canoe canoodling. New regulations prohibited “any obscene or indecent act” in the confines of the Charles River reserve. In practice, this meant that couples of the opposite sex could not kiss, embrace, lay down in their canoe or conceal themselves or their actions.
Park rangers flooded the area in the summer of 1903 and a local man became the first to fall foul of the MPC’s prophylactic regulations:
“No longer will the young man with the white ducks and canvas shoes be permitted to hold the paddle with one hand and the waist of his best girl with the other… Recently the park commissioners decided that an arm around the waist, a kiss stolen on the sly or a parasol so held that those nearby could not see the faces of the occupants constituted an offence punishable by a fine… In the quiet shade of a giant tree, as their canoe skated slowly in the water, Matthew Petersen of Dorchester improved the occasion to plant a kiss upon the lips of Miss Flora Smith of New York, the couple was arrested.”
Mr Petersen was fined $20 and a handful of others were also arrested. These events sparked a month of protest by Charles River canoeists, who defied the “sit up straight” regulations by laying down in their boats whenever they spotted a park ranger. Despite these protests, the MPC’s crackdown on canoe fornication continued the following season. There were eight arrests for indecency in 1904 and seven in 1905, before arrests declined in subsequent years.
In 1899, German physician Dr F. Waetzold published a short essay claiming that playing the piano was contributing to an increase in mental disorders among teenage girls and young women.
According to Waetzold, his research had uncovered some alarming links between piano-playing and neurotic disorders. One condition prominent among young pianists was chlorosis or ‘green sickness’, an anaemic fatigue thought by many Victorian physicians to be a product of unfulfilled sexual excitement. Girls who studied the piano before the age of 12, wrote Waetzold, were six times more likely to contract chlorosis or neuroses than those who did not. His solution was simple:
“It is necessary to abandon the deadly habit of compelling young girls to hammer on the keyboard before they are 15 or 16… Even at this age, the exercise should be permitted only to those who are really talented and possessed of a robust temperament.”
Choosing another instrument was not necessarily an option, according to Waetzold, because “studying the violin appears to produce even more disastrous results”. It seems that Dr Waetzold was not a music fan – or perhaps he lived within earshot of some decidedly untalented young musicians.
Published in the 1830s, the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity was a vehicle for the ideas of New England dietary reformer and social puritan Sylvester Graham (1794-1851). Funded by Graham and his supporters, the journal’s articles emphasised healthy living, vegetarianism and the dangers of sexual excess and self-pleasure.
Evidence of the latter can be found in an ‘obituary’ for A. F. Kinney, a 35-year-old man who died near Boston the previous month. According to the report Mr Kinney had “enjoyed vigorous health” in his youth, reaching “the full size of manhood” by his 14th birthday. Then he discovered masturbation:
“In consequence of his rapid growth, excessive labor, errors in diet and that practice which is secretly sapping the constitutions of thousands of our youth… his robust frame shrunk under the action of disease. HIs spine and the bones of the chest became greatly distorted; his body was much deformed and his manly stature considerably diminished.”
Kinney’s onanistic hobby rendered him physically incapable of labouring on the family farm. As a consequence, he was forced to “turn his attention to study” and become a teacher of mathematics. Kinney persevered with teaching for 15 years, despite ongoing poor health, until “he was attacked last August with his old complaint [masturbation], attended with more than the usual symptoms of constitutional derangement”. His health continued to deteriorate and he was forced to abandon teaching.
Kinney died in October 1839 at the Massachusetts home of Dr Alcott, an associate of Sylvester Graham. Genealogical records confirm Kinney’s existence and death, though the real medical reasons for his demise are unknown. As for Graham, he continued his campaign against unhealthy sexual urges, championing clean living, bland diets and the cracker that bears his name.