Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Related to the History of Sexuality

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An Overview

Collection Summary


This guide is an overview of Massachusetts Historical Society collections that contain information regarding the history of sexuality.

Collection Description

The materials listed in this guide represent collections at the MHS that may be of interest to people researching the history of sexuality. The scope is intentionally broad, and collections listed here may cover topics such as sexual desire and behavior, legal classifications and cases involving sex and sexuality (such as adultery, fornication, and sodomy), criminalization of sexuality, sexual and gender nonconformity, same-sex desires and relationships, gay rights, HIV/AIDS, sexual violence, sex work, sex education, pornography, religion and sexuality, birth control and abortion, and childbirth. The list includes some organizational and institutional records (such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts Records and the Register of Paupers at Danvers Alms House), papers of politicians and other public figures (such as the Endicott Peabody Papers and Photographs and the Gerry E. Studds Papers), and personal and family papers (such as the Blanding Family Papers and the Nathaniel T. Allen Papers). Therefore, these materials document social movements and legal developments involving sexuality, as well as the personal experiences of individuals.

This guide is a general overview and introduction only. The collections below contain substantive material related to the history of sexuality, but the list is not comprehensive. Material on the above topics may be found in many collections not specified here. For example, most family collections will contain papers discussing pregnancy and childbirth. This guide will continue to be revised as relevant material is discovered in MHS collections or acquired by the MHS.

The materials in this guide were identified through a variety of means, primarily through a combination of searches in ABIGAIL, searches in the online collection guides, and references in secondary sources. The "findability" of these materials as sources for sexuality research varies, as does the level of description of material relating to sex and sexuality in the collections.

Some collections, mostly those that have been cataloged in more recent years, have more detailed description and subject headings that provide good access points for the materials. An example is the James Thomas Robinson Diaries; its ABIGAIL record includes subject headings such as "Premarital sex," "Promiscuity," "Sexual attraction," and "Sexual intercourse."

Collections with online guides allow for keyword searching of more detailed description. Some collections, such as the Frank Irving Howe, Jr. Family Papers and the John W. Sears Papers, do not reference sexuality in their ABIGAIL records, but their collection guides include more details.

Other collections were identified using additional subject headings and keyword searches. A list of potentially relevant subject headings has been included in this guide.

Detailed Description of the Collection

Manuscript collections

Listed alphabetically.

Nathaniel T. Allen papers, 1813-1998

This collection of papers by and relating to the Allen family includes papers of educator Lucy Ellis Allen (1867-1943). The series of Lucy Ellis Allen papers also includes correspondence of Allen's longtime companion, Ruby Margaret Keefer (1887-1945).

American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts records, 1920-2005

This collection includes materials on gay rights (1970s-1980s, cartons 53 and 73), sex education (1970s, 1990s, cartons 54 and 93), sex offenders (cartons 88 and 90), abortion (1970s-1980s), the right wing on sex (carton 88), and midwifery (1980s, carton 88), as well as materials relating to homosexuality and the military, particularly CLUM's involvement in a 1975 case at Fort Devens in Massachusetts (carton 63).

The material on gay rights in carton 73 covers topics such as parenting, legal challenges to sodomy laws, anti-discrimination bills, and other gay rights legislation. People represented include Elaine Noble and Barney Frank. Organizations represented include the Homophile Union of Boston, the Massachusetts Caucus for Gay Legislation (ca. 1979), and the Massachusetts Gay Political Caucus (1980).

Barnstable County (Mass.) legal documents, 1702-1737

This collection of documents includes a 1702 Court of General Sessions of the Peace presentment, which lists two fornication accusations.

Blanding family papers, 1775-1862

This collection of papers of the Blanding family of Rehoboth, Mass. includes letters from Virgil Maxcy to William Blanding (1773-1857), 1 Jan. 1800 and undated, in which Maxcy describes his desires for women and intimate encounters with men.

The papers were cited in "Problems Encountered in Writing the History of Sexuality: Sources, Theory and Interpretation," by Estelle B. Freedman and John D'Emilio, in Same-Sex Cultures and Sexualities: An Anthropological Reader, edited by Jennifer Robertson (Blackwell Publishing, 2005), pp. 162-[174?] --- 166-167.

Alice Gilbert Smith Bourgoin papers, 1903-1998

Researchers looking for materials related to gender, sexuality, and the family will find Alice's extensive correspondence detailing her marital unhappiness to be of particular interest. Letters indicate that Alice was deeply ambivalent about her marriage, pregnancy, and motherhood, and that the lack of children was a lasting source of tension for the couple. Annotations on several documents in the collection by family historian Philip Chadwick Foster Smith, Alice's nephew, indicate that in March 1934, while in London, Alice may have had an abortion.

Bowditch-Codman-Balch family papers, 1840-2014

According to the biographical sketch of Katherine Putnam Bowditch Codman (1870-1961), she was a birth-control activist. However, it's unclear whether or not there are materials on the subject within her papers (series V, in boxes 16-19).

Abraham Browne volume of reminiscences, 1653-1668

This volume contains references to sodomy, according to an MHS researcher.

James Bruce papers, 1904-1927

Papers of Everett, Mass. police officer Lieut. James Bruce include a precinct arrest log, 1904-1924. The arrest log contains arrests in chronological order, followed by name of arrestee, nationality (some were immigrants), assisting officer, offense, and disposition, such as fine assessed or transferral to the state farm or Danvers Lunatic Hospital. Crimes include drunkenness, assault and battery, theft, non-support of dependents, gaming on Sundays, and "lewd and lascivious cohabitation."

Godfrey Lowell Cabot papers, 1870-1962

Godfrey Lowell Cabot (1861-1962) was a Boston businessman, inventor, and aviation pioneer. His papers include material relating to the New England Watch and Ward Society, 1913-1921. Topics within these papers include sexual assault and venereal disease.

Walter Channing papers, 1800-1872

The papers of physician Walter Channing (1786-1876) include material relating to women's health, midwifery, and childbirth.

Church family diaries, 1860-1878

The 1870 diary of Eliza Emma (Barber) Church describes her fears during her pregnancy, including the fear that she may die in childbirth.

Cummings-Clarke family papers, 1793-1949

This collection includes materials relating to the affiliations of Harvard sociology professor and minister Edward Cummings (1861-1926) with various organizations, including the Watch and Ward Society. Additionally, Cummings's diaries include material relating to sex work.

Jared Curtis notebooks, 1829-1831

These volumes of notebooks kept by Jared Curtis (1777-1862), Massachusetts State Prison chaplain at Charlestown, include material relating to adultery, bestiality, and sex work. The volumes were published as Buried from the World: Inside the Massachusetts State Prison, 1829-1831, edited by Philip F. Gura (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, distributed by Northeastern University Press, 2002).

Caroline Wells Healey Dall papers, 1811-1917

This collection of papers of reformer and essayist Caroline Wells Healey Dall (1822-1912) includes material relating to abortion (reels 29 and 41).

Register of paupers at Danvers Alms House (Peabody, Mass.), 1841-1859

Alleged sex workers are among the individuals recorded in the register, which was mainly kept by Superintendent Adino Page.

Dorchester Antiquarian and Historical Society records, 1641-1904

The receipt book of Samuel Proctor in this collection includes receipts for midwifery services at the Boston Almshouse between 1756 and 1761.

Charles Edward French diaries, 1851-1904

These diaries kept by Boston broker, hardware merchant, and drug merchant Charles Edward French (1837-1904) between 1851 and 1904 include material relating to sexual attraction. According to a researcher who has worked with the collection, the diaries include descriptions of intimate romantic relationships French had with men.

Frank Irving Howe, Jr. family papers, 1839-2016

The papers of Marion Elberta (Howe) Senechal (1916-2000) within this collection include material relating to sex education in 1930s Walpole, Mass. (carton 3, folder 12); diaries with entries relating to sexual desire and sexual experiences (carton 3); and letters about infidelity in the Senechal family correspondence (1955, carton 1).

Joseph Lee papers, 1845-1991

This collection of papers of Joseph Lee (1862-1937), a Boston and Brookline social worker and philanthropist, includes subject files on birth control, 1921-1932 (carton 19); eugenics, 1923-1928 (carton 28); love, undated (carton 30); marriage, 1926-1928 (carton 30); and the New England Watch and Ward Society, 1924-1933 (carton 31).

Electa N. Lincoln journal, 1848-1849

The journal kept by Electa N. Lincoln, a teacher at the State Normal School in West Newton, Mass., details her courtship with her future husband, George Walton: her feelings toward him and her family; and her views on the roles of men and women.

Newell family papers, 1838-1898

The diaries of Marion Furbur Newell in this collection describe Newell's affection for her intimate friends Bess and Mary Alice Warren.

New England Society for the Suppression of Vice record book, 1878-1888

The Society's first record book, 1878-1888, includes material relating to the Society's efforts against sex work and attempts to ban Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Harrison Gray Otis papers, 1660-1870

This collection of papers of lawyer and politician Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848) includes material relating to adultery, 1793 (reel 2).

Robert Treat Paine papers, 1659-1916

Robert Treat Paine (1731-1814) was a lawyer and politician who signed the Declaration of Independence. This collection includes intimate letters to Paine from other men and is referenced in American Sexual Histories, vol. 2, edited by Elizabeth Reis.

Park Plaza Development Project records, 1970-1977

This collection of records, kept by Stella Trafford of the Park Plaza Civic Advisory Committee, relates to a proposed urban renewal project in Boston in the 1970s and the response of the Park Plaza Civic Advisory Committee, a community organization. The collection includes material relating to the "Combat Zone," an adult entertainment district in Boston.

Endicott Peabody papers and photographs, 1952-1997

Endicott Peabody (1920-1997) served as governor of Massachusetts in the 1960s. This collection of professional papers includes materials relating to birth control and religion (carton 2).

John Percival papers, 1826-1841

John Percival (1779-1862) was a U.S. Navy captain. This collection includes material relating to a riot in 1826 or 1827 against anti-sex work legislation.

Perry-Clarke collection, 1861-1864

Lilian Freeman Clarke's 1864 diary includes intimate writings about and addressed to Emily Russell.

Samuel Phillips sermons, 1659-1678

This collection consists of sermons by 17th-century Rowley minster Samuel Phillips (1625-1696). Subjects include the prohibitions against adultery and theft.

James Thomas Robinson diaries, 1842-1953

These diaries document the experiences of James Thomas Robinson (1822-1894) as a student at Williams College, as well as Robinson's early career as a North Adams, Mass. attorney. The diaries include descriptions of Robinson's sexual activities.

Legal documents compiled by James Russell, 1692-1701

This collection of documents includes a chart outlining degrees of parentage and consanguinity.

Frederick Shelley Ryman diaries, 1880-1929

These diaries kept by Frederick Shelley Ryman between 1880 and 1929 include entries containing "sexually explicit and degrading" thoughts about women.

John W. Sears papers, 1952-2005

The papers of 20th-century Massachusetts politician John W. Sears (1930-2014) include materials relating to pornography (cartons 11 and 23), sex work (carton 11), abortion (carton 15), sex offenders (carton 24), and the "Combat Zone," an adult entertainment district in Boston (carton 27).

Douglass Shand-Tucci papers, 1976-2003

This collection includes materials relating to author Douglass Shand-Tucci's work on publications such as Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Architecture, The Art of Scandal, and the Crimson Letter (carton 2).

Henry Lee Shattuck papers, 1870-1971

This collection of papers of Henry Lee Shattuck (1879-1971), an attorney, philanthropist, and public official, includes material concerning book censorship (carton 1); motion-picture censorship (cartons 10, 13); theater censorship, 1930 (carton 16); and the Committee of Massachusetts Citizens Against Censorship (carton 24). It is unclear whether or not the materials relate directly to sexuality.

John Langdon Sibley collected papers, 1627-1850

This collection includes a summary of 33 years of midwifery practice written in 1831.

Stone-Jackson family papers, 1819-1954

This collection contains material relating to pre-marital sex within the Arthur (1874-1924) and Pauline (1874-1961) Jackson letters (Jackson family correspondence, carton 5). These letters are from the 1898-1902 period.

Horatio R. Storer papers, 1829-1943

This collection includes the personal papers of Boston gynecologist Horatio Robinson Storer (1830-1922). Storer was known for his anti-abortion activities.

Gerry E. Studds papers, 1949-2008

This collection consists of the papers of the first openly gay member of the U.S. Congress, Gerry E. Studds (1937-2006). The collection includes material relating to gay rights (including military service) and HIV/AIDS.

Robert G. Valentine family papers, 1805-1996

The Sophie French Valentine diaries within this collection include entries relating to the experiences of Sophie French Valentine (1867-ca. 1953) in the aftermath of pregnancy and childbirth. One topic she writes about is a post-partum surgery.

Additionally, the collection includes letters to Robert G. Valentine (1872-1916) and Sophie French Valentine from Bessie Seccombe, companion of poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925), as well as an unsent letter from Lowell to Sophie French Valentine about Seccombe.

Michael Wigglesworth diary, 1653-1657

This diary, kept by minister Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705) between 1653 and 1657, includes material describing his sexual desires and his struggles with those desires, including those for his male students while he served as a Harvard tutor.

A published transcription of the diary by Edmund S. Morgan is available at the MHS, in Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 35 (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1951).

Wright family papers, 1826-2003

This collection includes personal correspondence of Elizabeth Woodman Wright asking her female friends for advice about birth control.

Printed material

Listed alphabetically.

Adams-Campbell, Melissa M. New World Courtships: Transatlantic Alternatives to Companionate Marriage. Dartmouth College Press, 2015.

Andreas, Peter. Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Argersinger, Jana L., and Phyllis Cole, editors. Toward a Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism. University of Georgia Press, 2014.

Ben-Atar, Doron S., and Richard D. Brown. Taming Lust: Crimes Against Nature in the Early Republic. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

Benes, Peter, and Jane Montague Benes, editors. Wonders of the Invisible World, 1600-1900. Northeastern University Press, 1995.

Block, Sharon. Rape and Sexual Power in Early America. University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Cleves, Rachel Hope. Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. Oxford University Press, 2014.

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. Harper & Row, 1988.

Deutsch, Sarah. "The Politics of Sex and Race in Boston's NAACP, 1920-1940." Boston's Histories: Essays in Honor of Thomas H. O'Connor. Edited by James M. O'Toole and David Quigley, Northeastern University Press, 2004.

Dolin, Eric Jay. Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Elbert, Sarah, editor. Louisa May Alcott on Race, Sex, and Slavery. Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Foster, Gaines M. Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Foster, Lawrence. Religion and Sexuality: Three Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century.. Oxford University Press, 1981.

Foster, Thomas A. Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Foster, Thomas A. Sex and the Eighteenth Century Man. Beacon Press, 2006.

Gay, Peter. The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Oxford University Press, 1984-1986.

Ginzburg, Ralph. An Unhurried View of Erotica. Helmsman Press, 1958.

Gordon, Michael. The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective. St. Martin's Press, 1973.

Luskey, Brian P., and Wendy A. Woloson, editors. Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

McCall, Laura, and Donald Yacovone, editors. Shared Experience: Men, Women, and the History of Gender. New York University Press, 1998.

McDonald, Robert M. D. Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson's Image in His Own Time. University of Virginia Press, 2016.

Martin, Robert K., and Leland S. Person, editors. Roman Holidays: American Writers and Artists in Nineteenth-Century Italy. University of Iowa Press, 2002.

Miller, Neil. Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society's Crusade Against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil. Beacon Press, 2010.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America. W. W. Norton & Co. 2004.

Morgan, Edmund S. "The Puritans and Sex." New England Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 591-607.

Muncy, Raymond Lee. Sex and Marriage in Utopian Communities: 19th Century America. Indiana University Press, 1973.

Pasley, Jeffrey L., Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher, editors. Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Rotundo, E. Anthony. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. Basic Books, 1993.

Ryan, Kelly A. Regulating Passion: Sexuality and Patriarchal Rule in Massachusetts, 1700-1830. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Shand-Tucci, Douglass. The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture. St. Martin's Griffin, 2004.

Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson, editors. De/colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Taketani, Estuko. U.S. Women Writers and the Discourses of Colonialism, 1825-1861. University of Tennessee Press, 2003.

Thompson, Roger. "'Holy Wachfulness' and Communal Conformism: The Functions of Defamation in Early New England Communities." New England Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 4 (Dec. 1983), pp. 504-522.

Thompson, Roger. Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649-1699. University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Vester, Katharine. A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities. University of California Press, 2015.

Access Terms

For information about the collections and items described in this guide, consult ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Researchers interested in the history of human sexuality may wish to search for collections using the following subject headings:


Adultery--Great Britain.
Adultery in literature.
AIDS (Disease)--Law and legislation-–United States.
Bestiality (Law).
Bestiality-–United States-–Case studies.
Bestiality-–United States-–History-–18th century.
Bundling (Courtship).
Celibacy-–Case studies.
Celibacy-–Religious Aspects-–Shakers.
Childbirth-–United States--History.
Clergy-–Sexual behavior.
Combat Zone (Boston, Mass.).
Erotic poetry.
Female-to-male transsexuals--History.
Fornication-–Law and Legislation.
Free love.
Gay clergy-–Massachusetts-–Cambridge-–Biography.
Gay college students--United States.
Gay college teachers--United States.
Gay legislators-–United States-–Biography.
Gay men-–Massachusetts-–Boston--History.
Gay military personnel-–United States.
Gay rights--United States.
Gay rights movement--United States.
Gays--United States.
Gays--Education (Higher)--United States.
Gender identity.
Gender nonconformity--History.
Homosexuality and education--United States.
Incest--Massachusetts--Berkshire County--History--19th century--Case studies.
Incest-–Massachusetts-–Boston-–Case studies.
Kissing-–Religious aspects.
Love--Anecdotes, facetiae, satire, etc.
Love poetry.
Love songs.
Man-woman relationships.
Premarital sex.
Prostitutes--Conduct of life.
Same-sex marriage-–United States-–To 1865.
Sex crimes-–Massachusetts-–Boston.
Sex crimes-–United States-–History.
Sex customs--Europe--History--19th century.
Sex customs--United States--History--19th century.
Sex in marriage.
Sex-–Massachusetts-–History-–18th century.
Sex-–Massachusetts-–History-–19th century.
Sex-oriented businesses--Massachusett--Boston--History.
Sex (Psychology).
Sex role--United States--History.
Sex role in literature.
Sexual abstinence.
Sexual attraction.
Sexual ethics.
Sexual ethics--Massachusetts--History--18th century.
Sexual intercourse.
Sexually transmitted diseases.
Social work with prostitutes--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia.
Transgender men--History.
Trials (Adultery)-–Great Britain.
Trials (Adultery)-–Ireland.
Trials (Adultery)-–Massachusetts.
Trials (Adultery)-–Massachusetts-–Boston.
Trials (Adultery)-–Massachusetts-–Wareham.
Trials (Sex crimes).
Trials (Sex crimes)-–England.
Vice control--Massachusetts.
Vice control--United States.
Vice--Law and legislation--Massachusetts.
Vice--Societies, etc.
Women--Sexual behavior.
Young men-–Sexual behavior.