The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

Marion Learns About the Family: Sexuality Education in the 1930s (Part One)

Wearing my historian hat, I am interested in the ways in which twentieth-century Americans made sense of shifting sexual and gender practices. The mainstream media often figures conflict over sexual morality as fallout from the post-Sixties “culture wars,” feminist activism and backlash, and the rising visibility of queer citizens. In actuality, American anxiety over -- and enthusiasm for adopting -- modern family and relationship practices can be traced back to at least the Progressive Era.

These anxieties often manifested themselves, much as they do today, through adult debates over what youth should know about human sexuality and when they should know it. By 1929, adult fears about discussing sex with young people were familiar enough that satirists E.B. White and James Thurber devoted a whole chapter of their book Is Sex Necessary?: or, Why You Feel the Way You Feel to the question of “What Should Children Tell Their Parents?”:

If young folks lack the tact of intelligence requisite to enlightening their parents, the task should be intrusted to someone else. Yet it is hard to say to whom. A child should think twice before sending his father around to the public school to secure sex information ... women teachers, to borrow a phrase, are apt to be 'emotionally illiterate.'

Here in the Massachusetts Historical Society we can find evidence of the lessons teens have been taught throughout the past two centuries regarding sexual health and sexual relationships. Within the Frank Irving Howe, Jr. Family Papers, for example, we find course materials for a class on “The Family,” offered at Walpole (Mass.) High School during the 1934-1935 academic year -- a few years after Is Sex Necessary? went to print. The class was attended by high school senior Marion Howe, whose Thurber-like doodles offer visual commentary on the curriculum’s typescript pages.

“The Family” is perhaps best understood as a course on the sociology of family life. It is part premarital counseling, part anthropological study. Readings -- drawn from religious pamphlets, sociological writings, and popular journalism -- cover the various forms of marriage, divorce, religious views on family life, family planning, sexuality within and “without” marriage, homosexualty (“inversion”) and birth control. Absent from this 1930s “sex ed” curriculum is frank discussion of sexual hygiene, the mechanics of partnered sex, or discussion of sexual pleasure beyond such vague phrases as “the sex instinct” or “a sex experience.” Perhaps Thurber and White spoke from experience when they suggested youths should “think twice” before securing reliable information about human sexuality from public school teachers -- at least those in Walpole, Massachusetts!

Many of the social issues outlined by curriculum’s introduction have a familiar, if slightly fusty, ring to them. “The problems of sex and the family are more acute and more wide-spread today,” the anonymous author begins, observing an “increased desire for freedom without an accompanying sense of responsibility.” Shifts in social order, including the industrial revolution, “has made marriage an economic liability instead of an asset for the man … [and] no longer the only career open” to women. Prolonged education leads to postponed marriage, while contraception “eliminates the fear of offspring.” As in the twenty-first century, feminism is criticized for encouraging bad behavior among women: “Many women [today] are making the single standard the low one practiced by many men.”

 

In other sections, the rhetoric of 1935 stands in stark contrast to what would be socially acceptable to articulate in a mainstream sexuality textbook today. Consider the following passage on family planning: 

The question of the right of couples to remain childless involves the question of the desirability of race survival and the obligation of desirable potential parents to assume their share of the burden… With the rapid increase of undesirable human stock and the rapid depletion of desirable stock, an obligation certainly rests on those who have valuable biological and environmental contributions to make. The choice between single blessedness and a home with children cannot be settled altogether on a personal basis.

While such racialized fears and negative stereotypes about non-parenting couples still inform debates about family policy and morality today, the language of “undesirable human stock” and “the burden” of “race survival” used earnestly within a public school curriculum suggest how acceptable expression of anxieties change over time, even if the anxiety itself remains alive and well.

What did eighteen-year-old Marion Howe make of her education in “the family”? In part two of this story, we will endeavor to answer that question by cracking open her diary. Kept intermittently between 1934-1937, the volumes document her social activities and academic studies during her final year of school, as well as her first marriage (1936-1941) and the birth of her first child in 1937. Stay tuned!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 1:00 AM

The Mysteries of the Elisha W. Smith, Jr. Logbook, 1853-1857: Part I

Several questions burn brightly in my mind when I look through the Elisha W. Smith, Jr. logbook,1853-1857. If curiosity is a wildfire, this particular logbook sets me aflame in that it contains not one but two ship logs and a scrapbook. Elisha W. Smith, Jr., son of Elisha W. Smith and Ruth A. Smith of Wellfleet, Mass., served as a mariner and log keeper for the schooner Flying Dragon in 1853 and the schooner William Freeman in 1857. While these voyages are by no means uninteresting, the myriad mysteries surrounding the physical logbook and its various chroniclers captivate my attention. I will unveil three mysteries I uncovered within this logbook in a series of blog posts.

Inside cover of the Elisha W. Smith Jr. Logbook, 1853-1857

The inside cover of the logbook resembles a communal notebook. The cover contains not only the book plates of the MHS General Fund dated 21 July 1919 but also the book plate of nautical stationer Frederick W. Lincoln, Jr. There are several penciled accounting notes as well one fading inked note, but more interesting to me is this message in the top right corner written by a distinctly different hand: “Log book of the Flying Dragon kept by Elisha W. Smith Jr of Wellfleet, Mass. See Aug 11, 1853”.

Immediately I questioned the “see” note. What was important about this particular date in the logbook of the schooner Flying Dragon? The voyage of the Flying Dragon from Boston to San Francisco commenced on 22 July 1853. The log does not, however, confirm that the schooner found safe harbor in San Francisco. The last entry dated 29 September 1853 describes a “Hurricane” during the passage around Cape Horn. The log entry of 11 August 1853 reads:

Commences with light
winds & clear weather
2 P.M. tacked to the East-
ward 6 P.M. furled main
skysail 11 P.M. furled
Royals.
----------------------------------------

12 might tight
baffling winds, with
heavy rain squalls.
----------------------------------------

7 A.M. made all sail
This day ends with light
winds & cloudy weather
All draging sail set
by the wind
No Observation.
Elisha W. Smith jr

A brief glance through the pages of the log confirmed that this entry contains the first date on which the log keeper signed his name. The note on the inside cover refers to this entry by date as proof that the log belongs to Elisha W. Smith, Jr. The mystery of the cover note is solved!

However, I wonder who wrote this particular note. Did a member of the succeeding Smith family write it? Was it inscribed on the logbook by an MHS staff member in 1919? The logbook holds such a curious mix of ship logs, sketches, printed poems, engravings, and literary clippings. Here is a sketch of a ship on the back inside cover. In the next post in this series, I will discuss these sketches, poems, engravings, and literary clippings included within the log. Stay tuned!

Back cover of the Elisha W. Smith Jr. Logbook, 1853-1857

 


 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 18 August, 2014, 1:00 AM

The MHS as Time Machine

In my work as a manuscript processor here at the MHS, I often come across the diaries or letters of a person I wish I could meet face to face. It’s rarely the well-known movers and shakers of history, just someone with a unique and interesting voice. I’ve introduced you to some of these people (Eliza Cheever Davis & Moses Hill) in previous posts, but my latest discovery is Jacob Newman Knapp (1773-1868), teacher and occasional preacher of Walpole, N.H. I wrote about Jacob before, but I hope you’ll indulge me if I quote from him again. Here he is in a letter to his son Francis on 21 May 1850 (from the Knapp family correspondence):

We are all well and active. When I say active I speak more particularly for others, than for myself. My days of activity have either gone by, or not yet arrived….Well, it is said that it takes a variety to constitute a world! There is certainly a good variety of characters in the world. Life is undoubtedly a serious trust and must be seriously accounted for; but there is so much of the ludicrous, of the absurd extravagant and incomprehensible in the human character, that I feel inclined to cry and to laugh at the same time. What a display, at different times, in the same person, of saint and sinner, of philosopher and fool, of man and monkey, a perpetual, practical antithesis, a combination in one person of the two sons of Leda, mortal and immortal by turns.

His wit, eloquence, and philosophical attitude endeared Jacob to me immediately. Not to mention his obvious affection for his family:

We [Jacob and his wife Louisa (Bellows) Knapp] have many topics of interest for conversation; one never tiring, never exhausted subject is our sons. We follow them every where, and when facts are unknown, we reason upon the probable and the improbable, the possible and the impossible, and at times free the imagination from its cage of logic, and let it fly at large, at liberty to light anywhere, and to sing its wildest notes. We have no dull hours. We have occasionally some silent hours, but no vacant ones, for they are crowded full of reminiscences or compendiums and abstracts of future developments.

Jacob lived to be almost 95 years old. He was born 7 Nov. 1773 and died 27 July 1868. Imagine, a man born a few weeks before the Boston Tea Party, old enough to remember events of the Revolutionary War (he was almost 10 when the Treaty of Paris was signed), who lived to see the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 14th Amendment! No wonder his letters are full of so much wisdom. How fascinating he would be to talk to.

There’s only so much we can know about the people of the past from the writings they leave behind, but it’s hard not to feel that I have, in a way, “met” Jacob.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 6 August, 2014, 1:00 AM

Bragging Rights

The practice of attaching additional items (newspaper articles, photographs, etc.) to correspondence obviously is not a new custom. Attachments generally provide more detail about the subject matter discussed in the associated correspondence. However, I found an interesting letter in the S. Lothrop Thorndike papers in which the letter is meant for one individual and the attachments are intended for others.

The two articles enclosed with a letter from the Canton, China bound Samuel Lothrop Thorndike on 27 May 1852 tell fascinating stories about a wager on a ship race to Hong Kong and cyclonic gales encountered along the way in the Philippine Sea. The younger Thorndike clearly leaves mention of these events out of the letter, addressed to his father Albert Thorndike. He includes these grand adventure stories as attachments, intended for his college friends.

At 22 years of age, Samuel Lothrop Thorndike left Harvard College in the middle of his senior year to accompany fellow Harvard student William Sturgis Hooper on a voyage to China. These two young scholars obtained a faculty leave of absence to make the voyage, and traveled on the new ship Courser. Sturgis’s father, shipping merchant Samuel Hooper, dispatched the Courser from Boston to California then to China in January 1852.

The letter to Albert Thorndike contains little more than a greeting, a note that the son has not yet received mail, and reassurance of good health and love. Postscript directions from son to father request that the two enclosed attachments be given to young brother William “Bill” Thorndike, who will see that “the fellows in Cambridge” – Harvard classmates Joseph Hodges Choate and Peter Chardon Brooks – receive the articles.

The first newspaper article recounts a ship race from San Francisco to Hong Kong between the Courser and the Witchcraft. Seemingly unaware of the race, the clipper ship Invincible simply loses by nearly two weeks.

PASSAGES FROM SAN FRANCISCO TO CAN-
TON. – The ship Courser, Capt. Cole, of Boston,
sailed from San Francisco May 29 for Canton, where
she arrived July 11. The clipper ship Invincible,
Capt. Johnson, of New York, sailed from San Fran-
cisco May 16, and arrived at Canton July 11. The
clip ship Witchcraft, Capt. Rogers, of Salem,
sailed from San Francisco May 30, and arrived at
Canton July 19. We understand that bets were
made in San Francisco that the Witchcraft would
reach Hong Kong ten days before the Courser, but
the event proved that the C. which is not a clipper,
beat the Witchcraft full six days, and beat the In-
viscible thirteen days.

The second article briefly describes the cyclonic gales in the Philippine Sea that Thorndike and Hooper weathered during the Courser’s voyage.  

Very heavy cyclonic gales were experienced in the China
seas, from the 3d to the 7th of July. The Am ship Courser
encountered one on the 5th, in about lat 18 N, lon 128 E.
The Invincible on the 6th in lat 20 N, lon 119 E.

Thorndike does write to his father in reassurance, “I never was in better health and spirits in my life.” However, he does not mention the betting, race, or the gales. He essentially left all the fun and danger out of his letter to his father. But he dispatched the articles to his Harvard classmates as bragging rights.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 25 July, 2014, 1:00 AM

“For your mutual Happiness and...dedicated to the Public”: The Marriage of John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams

In the upcoming volume of Adams Family Correspondence we reach a pivotal moment in Adams family history—the marriage of Louisa Catherine Johnson to John Quincy Adams.

This partnership began quite simply on July 26, 1797. They were married before eleven o’clock in the morning at the Church of All Hallows, Barking, right by the Tower of London and immediately took a tour of country house near London, as JQA reported in his diary entry for the day. Louisa, who kept no diary at the time, wrote in her memoirs nearly thirty years later, and with the knowledge of what was coming quickly around the corner for the newlyweds—the embarrassment of her father’s financial failure—noted it simply, “On the Wednesday 26 of July 1797 I became a bride under as every body thought the happiest auspices—”

Two days after the wedding, the newlyweds sat down to compose a joint letter announcing their marriage to the distant John and Abigail Adams.

John Quincy opened the letter:

I have now the happiness of presenting to you another daughter.... My recommendation of her to your kindness and affection I know will be unnecessary. My sentiment of her merit, will not at this moment especially boast its impartiality, but if there be as I believe an inseparable chain of connection which binds together all the domestic virtues, I have the strongest pledge that she, who has in an amiable and respectable family, adorned the characters of a daughter and Sister, will prove an equal ornament to that of a wife.

Louisa, promising to always act worthily of their “esteem and tenderness,” concluded: “fulfillment of my duties either as wife or daughter, to be respected in these characters, and to meet the approbation of my Husband, and family, is the greatest wish of my heart— Stimulated by these motives (your affection the reward) will prove a sufficient incitement, never to sully the title of subscribing myself your, Dutiful Daughter.”

John Adams replied to the news of his eldest son’s marriage with his blessing: “I congratulate you and your Lady on this Event, which I hope will be for your mutual Happiness and..., for a long Course of years, dedicated to the Public— And may the Blessing of God Almighty be bestowed on this Marriage and all its Connections and Effects.” His blessing on this marriage, one that lasted over fifty years and combined the charm and sociability of Louisa to John Quincy’s dedicated and driven, if sometimes brusque demeanor, was more than fulfilled in the couple serving the public until John Quincy’s death in 1848.

 

 

**Image: JQA and LCA’s Marriage Certificate,  26 June 1797, Adams Family Papers.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 1:00 AM

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