The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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

This Week @ MHS

And here we are again for the weekly round-up of events to come. Keeping with the pattern established in previous weeks, we have two Brown Bag lunch talks on offer this week, as well as a free tour. 

First up, on Monday, 18 August, drop by the Society at noon for "Operating Outside of Empire: Trade and Citizenship in the Atlantic World, 1756-1812." In this Brown Bag talk, Mark Dragoni of Syracuse University talks about his examination of merchants operating at the edge of empire and the competing discourses on trade, cosmopolitanism, and neutrality that statesmen, philosophers, and merchants mobilized. Specifically, this project looks at the participation of Samuel Cabot and John & Jonathan Amory in an often illicit, yet highly profitable transatlantic trade during the foundational period for modern citizenship and increasing state regulation. This talk is free and open to the public.

Then, on Friday, 22 August, come in again at noon for "Ten Years of Winter: The Cold Decade and Environmental Consciousness in the Early 19th Century." Come listen as Sean Munger, University of Oregon, discusses his research which attempts to understand ohow people in the English-speaking world understood and evaluated anomolies in global weather ad climate, and what their reactions tell us about the state of scientifid thinking, environmental consciousness, and how their worlds - both global and local - were constructed. This Brown Bag talk is free and open to the public. 

On Saturday, 23 August, stop by the Society for a free tour, The History and Collections of the MHS. This 90-minute docent-led tour explores all of the public spaces in the Society's home at 1154 Boylston Street, touching on the art, architecture, history, and collections of the MHS. The tour begins at 10:00AM and is free and open to the public. No reservations necessary for individuals or small groups. For parties of eight or more, please contact the MHS in advance. For more information, please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org

Finally, remember to come by and see our current exhibition "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in World War I." Exhibit is on display Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM, free of charge. 

*Please note that the Society is closed 30 August - 1 September in observance of Labor Day.*

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 12:00 PM

Indiana Limestone? At the MHS?

Some mornings, before researchers (and much of the staff) arrive at the MHS, I enjoy sitting out front with a cup of coffee and a book. It’s a good way to keep up on whatever I am reading and to cool down after my morning bicycle commute. A few weeks ago, as I approached my perch, I noticed a letter B located on one of the large stone blocks circling the base of the building. The letter is circled and is raised as if in bas relief. Even though I am now well into my third year of work at the MHS this little feature is something that I never noticed. Carve me intrigued! Sorry, that was a (bad) quarrying joke.

To find out more about this little letter, I first spoke with the MHS’ operations manager to see what he knew. As I learned, a mark such as this is sometimes used to indicate the quarry from which the stone was cut. Next, I went into the MHS’ institutional archives to see what records the Society holds regarding the construction of the building in the late 1890s. As I read through copies of contracts and building specifications, I came across a couple paragraphs about the foundation and stonework. I read mentions of Milton granite, Rockport granite, and Amherst stone. I assumed that the marked block in question must be one of these types of local stone. But in talking with our building manager again, I learned the block was limestone.

So, back to the records I went and, sure enough, what I missed on my first read-through was the statement “All stone-work so indicated on drawings to be of first quality Indiana limestone...all to be hand-tooled…” I took to the mighty Google machine to see what I could find about Indiana limestone quarries and was not disappointed to find several listed that are still operating. But the most potentially useful tidbit came from the Wikipedia entry on the stone which referred to it as Bedford limestone because it is primarily quarried in a section of Indiana that sits between the towns of Bloomington and Bedford.

Is that what the mysterious “B” stands for? I feel like I am almost at the answer but I still want confirmation. I called the Indiana Limestone Institute of America and the Lawrence County Museum of History to see if anyone could help me out. So far, I stumped the gentlemen I spoke with at each institution but I am hopeful that I will get an answer soon. Stay tuned to find out more! 

 

comments: 3 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 8:03 AM

This Week @ MHS

There is rain on the horizon as we start this week at the MHS. Why not duck into the Society to get out of the rain and take part in some of our public programs?

On Wednesday of this week, 13 August, we have a Brown Bag lunch talk beginning at noon. This time around, Serena Zabin of Carleton College presents "Military Wives in Eighteenth-Century Boston." When British troops came to Boston in 1768, hundreds of army wives and children came with them. At the time, Boston newspapers exclaimed in horror at the arrival of these army women, referring to them as the “dregs and refuse of all nations.” Yet tantalizing hints in the diaries of Massachusetts militia and provincial soldiers suggest that during the campaigns in 1745 to Louisburg and throughout the Seven Years War, women may have occasionally also accompanied Massachusetts troops. If so, some Boston women may themselves have once been military wives, a possibility that no historian has ever considered, and one that might explain some of the relationships that came to develop between British regulars and Boston civilians in the months preceding the Boston Massacre. This talk is free and open to the public.

And on Friday there is another Brown Bag talk, again at noon. Bring a lunch and listen to Brenton Grom of Case Western Reserve University as he discusses "The Death and Transfiguration of New England Psalmody, ca.1790-1860." The robust culture of psalm- and hymn-singing that flourished in Revolutionary New England became subject to Europeanizing reforms after the turn of the nineteenth century. Introducing these reform efforts as instances of political and theological ideology operating within a larger discourse of refinement, this presentation focuses on their surprisingly variable reception as revealed in copybooks and marginalia. It furthermore considers Victorian values of home, sentiment, and historical memory as masks for the retention of outmoded musical styles in later years.

Also going on this week is the third in a series of two-day teacher workshops, this time taking place in Falmouth, Mass. on Wednesday and Thursday, 13-14 August. Learn more about "Old Towns/New Country: The First Years of a New Nation" on our website, including information about the final session which will take place in Framingham, Mass. on 26-27 September.

Finally, do not forget about our ongoing exhibition, "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in World War I," on view Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM. And come in for "The History and Collections of the MHS," a free tour of the Society's building on Saturday, 16 August. 

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 11 August, 2014, 12:00 AM

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