Monday, October 15, 2012

The First American Sex Manual

by Stephen J. Gertz

First American edition, London [Boston]: 1766.

It's not a Kama Sutra for the Colonies;  coital postures are nowhere to be found nor Vedic wisdom on "sucking a mango fruit."  Nor is it The Joy of Early American Sex by Proctor Alex Comfort, though the joy of connubial relations within the conjugal bed is not ignored. And, for the record, an ancient Greek philosopher had nothing to do with it.

Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece was, nonetheless, the first guide to sexual relations, pregnancy, and childbirth published in America - in Boston, yet, that hotbed of Colonial steam and agitation - in 1766 by Zechariah Feeling, i,e. Zechariah Fowle, with whom famed early American printer Isaiah Thomas apprenticed and, later, partnered. Three years after The Seven Years War ended, Americans were ready and anxious to read about the facts of life. But, beyond basic  (if somewhat inaccurate) sexual anatomy, there weren't many facts. Folklore, superstition, and old wive's tales form the basis of instruction.

Part I, Chapter 1: A particular description of the parts or instruments of generation, both in men and women.

"The organ of generation in man, nature has placed obvious to the sight, and it is called the Yard, and because hanging without the belly, is called the Penis a Pendendo...

"The next thing is the Clytoris, which is a sinewy and hard part of the womb, replete with spongy and black matter wihin, in the same manner as the side ligaments of the yard: and indeed resembles it in form, suffers erection and falling in the same manner, and it both stirs up lust, and gives delight in copulation: for without this, the fair sex neither desire mutual embraces, nor have pleasure in them. nor conceive by them: and according to the greatness or smallness of this part, they are more or less fond of men's embraces; so that it may properly be stiled the seat of lust."

Chapter II: Of the restriction laid upon men in the use of carnal copulation, by the institution of marriage; with the advantage it brings to mankind; and the proper time for it.

"...the holy Jesus has told us, That in the beginning it was so; the marriage of one man to one woman: so that as these conjugal delights cannot be enjoyed but in a married state...And it is in the breaking of this order that has filled the world wiith confusion and debauchery, has brought diseases on the body, consumptions on estates, and eternal ruin to the soul, if not repented of. Let therefore either sex, that have a desire to enjoy the delights of mutual embraces, take care that they do it in a married state with their own wives or husbands, or else it will become a curse to them instead of a blessing...

"The inclinations of virgins to marriage, is to be known by divers symtoms; for when they arrive to ripe-age, which is about fourteen of fifteen, their natural purgations begin to flow, and then the blood...does, by its abundance, stir up their minds to venery; to which external causes may excite them; for their spirits are brisk and inflamed when they arrive at this age, and their bodies are often more heated by their eating sharp and salt things, and by spices, by which their desire of venereal embraces becomes very great, at some critical junctures almost insuperable. And the use of those so much desired enjoyments being denied to virgins, it is often followed by very dangerous, and sometimes dismal consequences, precipitating them into those follies that may bring an indelible stain upon their families, or else it brings upon them the greensickness or other diseases. But when they are married, and those desires satisfied by their husbands, thise distempers vanish...And this strong inclination of theirs may be known by their eager gazing at men, and affecting their company, which sufficiently demonstrates that nature prompts them to desire coition. Nor is this the case of virgins only, but the same may be observed in young brisk widows, who cannot be satisfied without due benevolence paid them."

Chapter III: Of virginity, what it is, how it may be known, by what means it may be lost, and how a person may know that it is so.

"Virginity untouched and taintless, is the boast and pride of the fair sex, but they generally commend  to put it off; for as good as it is, they care not how soon they are honestly rid of it. And I think they are right; for if they keep it too long, it grows useless, or at least loses much of its value, a stale virgin (if such a thing there be) being looked upon like an old almanack out of date."

Part II, Chapter I:  What conception is; what is pre-requisite thereto; how a woman may know whether she has conceived, and whether a boy or girl.

Here Aristotle describes how, in order to conceive, the minds of of men and women should be free of care and business and bad thoughts: "All such things are enemies of Venus. And let their animal and vital spirits be powerfully exhilirated by some brisk  and generous restoratives; and let them to invigorate their fancies, survey the lovely beauties of each other, and bear the bright ideas of them in their minds: and if it happens, that instead of beauty, there is any thing that looks like imperfection or deformity (for nature is not alike bountiful to all) let them be covered over with a veil of oblivion."

The consequences of bearing bad thoughts or gazing upon anything less than pleasing to the eye during coitus are dire: this is how children are conceived as physical monsters and born grossly deformed, as illustrated by the woodcuts of such and the stories of these misbegotten children.

Men are advised not to abruptly end the festivities. "When the bridegroom has done what nature has promted him to do he ought to take heed of withdrawing too suddenly out of the field of love lest he should, by so doing, make way for cold to strike into the womb."

As far as determining the sex of the unborn, if a woman feels the child on the right side, it is a boy; on the left, a girl.

Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece is an old warhorse. Published in various versions in England and America, with roots dating back to 1507, it was so popular that the last recorded edition appeared as late as 1883.

"The 'medical' work most frequently reprinted in America during the eighteenth and and early nineteenth centuries, Aristotle's work was also the first popular sex manual in the English language and for advice relied upon occult and folk traditions. Austin records twenty-seven editions published in this country before 1821" (American Antiquarian Society, A Society's Chief Joy [1969]).

Though openly published, Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece was not openly sold nor were its publishers anxious to be transparently associated with it.

"It is not at all surprising that our first popular treatise on gynecology and obstetrics should have led a shy and furtive existence, In spite of the fact that such topics were as interesting then as now, the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Americans frowned on the popular dissemination of information regarding the facts of life...There was, however, one group of treatises which had considerable popularity for a century and a quarter but which little is known and seldom met with today...Almost none of its early publishers had the hardihood to print their names on the title pages and some of them used an entirely fictitious imprint...The most popular of these early tracts was 'Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece'...illustrated with crude woodcuts, informative but with little anatomical accuracy.. The text is an amusing mixture of sensible advice, pious admonition, ribald verse, popular superstition and very little medical knowledge. That they were both interesting and useful in their day, we cannot doubt, that they played an important part in the development of our growing country, we may be sure" (Vail, What a Young Puritan Ought To Know, American Antiquarian Society Librarian's Report, 1939, pp. 22-29).

Major variations in text, content, and arrangement exist amongst the many English and American editions (OCLC records 176); publishers appear to have added material, edited, or rewritten text at their whim. An early London edition, for instance, includes a section titled, A Private Looking-Glass for the Female Sex. This part was excised in later editions and replaced with A Treasure of Health or The Family Physician. I suspect the reason being that by mating the sex manual with an instructional on home health and remedies for common maladies the book would be considered more a medical text and thus  acceptable.

Who wrote it? It appears that William Salmon (1644-1713), the English quack and self-styled "Professor of Physik" is responsible for the seventeenth century editions upon which all subsequent ones were based.

This, the [Boston] 1766 edition is extremely scarce, with only three extant copies recorded: at the American Antiquarian Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and one that recently blew into the marketplace offered by Howard S. Mott Inc of Sheffield, Massachusetts - and immediately flew out. It sold for $12,500.

Yet the first American edition of Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece is priceless, if not in commercial value, then certainly as the  earliest book on sexuality published in pre-Revolutionary America, for its insight into contemporary attitudes, and as the most popular tract on the subject in America for 100 years afterward.

"The Effigies of a Maid all Hairy, and an Infant that was Black,
by the Imagination of their Parents."

The book was, in its way, hot stuff, "sold under the counter or by peddlers...the illustrations were prurient, and in fact demonstrate how images cause abnormal sexual arousal. They show monsters conceived while their parents were looking at pictures - in the case of the hairy woman...By the same token the sight of a naked woman inspires Aristotle to write, and since this was the only illustration of a naked woman printed in colonial America [see above], grotesque as it is, it surely aroused many a young man" (Green and Wilson, From the Bottom Up: Popular Reading and Writing in the Michael Zinman Collection of Early American Imprints. Library Company of Philadelphia, 2004, p. 18).

Here, then, is evidence of the first  nude centerfold in an American publication, 187 years before Hugh Hefner presented Marilyn Monroe as Miss December, 1953, in Playboy #1:

Likes: Natural Philosophy, Botany, Politiks, Musik, good Bookes.
Favorite Pastimes: Long walks on the beach at sunset with my companion, Fanny, and drives up the Pacific Coast Highway by coach with my father.
Education: I'm studying sewing, cooking, and domestic management at Miss Fowlmouth's Finishing School for Young Ladies.
Favorite Quote: "The ruling passion, be it what it will. The ruling passion conquers reason still" (Mr. Pope). 
Heart's Desire: A good manse with stately yard.

[SALMON, William, et al]. Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece, in three parts; displaying the secrets of nature in the generation of Man. Regularly digested into chapters and sections...To which is added, A Treasure of Heath, of  the Family Physician: being choice and approved Remedies for all the several Distempers incident to Human Bodies. The Thirteenth edition. London [i.e. Boston]: Printed and Sold for Zechariah Feeling [Zechariah Fowle], 1766. Octavo. viii, [9]-140 pp.

All images reproduced by license from the American Antiquarian Society, with our thanks.A special thank you to the AAS staff for their assistance.


  1. "and according to the greatness or smallness of this part, they are more or less fond of men's embraces"

    So here's confirmation that all 18th Century women were size queens.

  2. But it's in reference to the engorged Clytoris!

  3. This shall surely give the GOP evangelicals in the USA backup material

  4. The Joy of Early American Sex. I'd buy their album.


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