Screw upon a Screw: Sex Education in the Gilded Age

Part of my tagline is “serious sex,” and this post has it. Explicit discussion and illustrations follow.

When I started writing historical romance set in the Gilded Age, I needed to know what level of sexual ignorance I was dealing with.

  • Did doctors of the day believe in “virginity tests”?
  • Did they understand a woman’s body and how to bring it pleasure?
  • Did they think that sex should be pleasurable for women in the first place?
  • Finally, how did they feel about masturbation, or self-pleasure?

In my unscientific, random sampling of (cishet) primary sources, the Gilded Age scored 2.5 out of 4, which was a little better than I anticipated. Let’s investigate:

“Virginity tests”:

historical sex advice for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

The hymen does not start whole—a perforation is needed to allow menstrual fluid to escape, after all—but a woman can easily tear and rub away the rest through an active lifestyle. Horseback riding, yes. Sneezing? Eh, probably not. But it was nice that Dr. Foote erred in her favor. It is also nice that he acknowledged that the hymen test was “cruel and unusual.”

However, it is depressing to also note that, due to “popular prejudice,” even the best physicians concealed the whole hymen truth. This led some fearful young women to try to “tighten” their vagina with alum, something I found discussed in a magazine of 1880 erotica (written by and for men). The alum suggestion wasn’t new—women had been encouraged to try this since medieval times—but it didn’t work then, and it still doesn’t. It just dries you out. There is no virginity test other than asking a person.

a woman’s body:

historical sex advice for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

This may be the Gilded Age quote that surprised me the most. I had thought for sure that today’s popular culture would be more knowledgeable than 150 years ago, especially regarding the clitoris, but no! In fact, did you know that even in the eighteenth century, the most widely printed medical book in Europe and America informed men about the clitoris? Yay, cliteracy!

anatomy of female generation textbook in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
A complete drawing from the 5th edition (1914) of Human Anatomy: A Complete Systematic Treatise by Henry Morris. This textbook, first published in 1893, was used by the American teachers in the Philippines in the early 1900s.

Fortunately, my heroine Allegra will have a Gilded Age anatomy book (the one above) to guide her explorations. Every virgin should have one! Her hero, Ben, will appreciate her sharing her new knowledge with him, too. This is why I love writing romance, a genre that prioritizes the needs, strengths, and happiness of women. Real romance doesn’t ignore the clitoris! I’m going to cross-stitch that on a pillow someday.

A woman’s pleasure:

historical sex advice for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Pleasure and procreation may coincide, but one is not required for the other—for women. Herein lies a problem with how we teach (or don’t teach) women about their bodies. Even today, students may be taught reproductive biology, but that curriculum illustrates a prudish bias: a woman’s anatomy is described like plumbing, with pipes only used for pumping out children. In this narrative, only the male’s sexual pleasure is required for procreation, leaving the impression that men are the only ones who experience desire (or who should experience it).1

How sex-positive were Gilded Age experts? Did they think women should receive pleasure from the act? Dr. Foote, author of the above quote about the clitoris, believed that all aspects of sexual interaction—from friendly conversation to full, pleasurable intercourse—were absolutely necessary for good health: “I place sexual starvation among the principal causes of derangements of the nervous and vascular systems,” he said.

Now let’s check in with a woman, “sexual outlaw” Ida Craddock, who was sent to jail for sending “obscene” sexual education materials through the mail (to subscribers).2 Craddock’s description of a woman taking an active part in intercourse, even to the point of describing specific motions, is refreshing. She also claims that these motions will improve a woman’s sexual passion, which is encouraging. But—and this is a big BUT—Craddock believes the woman’s passion is irrelevant. A fortunate by-product, yes, but unnecessary. Bummer.

In fact, Craddock believed so strongly that sex was for procreation that her vision of contraception was coitus without orgasm—for both partners—for the entire duration of pregnancy and two years following. She thought this sexual brinksmanship would make both partners stronger. Three years of deliberate sexual arousal without release? No wonder Anthony Comstock, self-appointed male protector of American postal virtue, had her thrown her in jail.3

Overall, I’ll give the Gilded Age half a point here, and that’s being generous.

self-pleasure:

historical sex advice for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Your own pleasure starts with you:

Rosa did not have a lot of experience—none very good, at least—but neither did Jonas, it seemed. And Rosa knew something he did not. She knew what she liked.

“Look,” she said. She parted her lower lips to reveal the ridge that gave her the most pleasure when she was alone.

Or was this too much? To admit such a dirty secret, especially to a man—had she not learned her lesson? When she had tried to show Archie, he had lectured her about sin and a woman’s shame. Now she risked her husband’s disapproval, too.

Jonas looked up. “Show me what you want,” he said.

Tempting Hymn

If Rosa could do it, so could anyone in the Gilded Age, right? Well, maybe not. Masturbation has long been considered a sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition, ever since Onan spilled his seed on the ground (rather than give his brother’s widow an heir) and God smote him (Genesis 38:9-10). In many traditional sources, the act is called Onanism. Thus, we are back to the idea that sex is only for procreation, a mission that made sense for the small, struggling band of Hebrews trying to survive the rough-and-tumble world of the ancient Near East.

A more recent concern by the Catholic Church about masturbation is the idea that it draws away from the sexual relationship—a withholding of yourself from what should be the most intimate aspect of marriage. It is considered “radically self-centered.” While, yes, an addiction to masturbation may be unhealthy, the knowledge of one’s own body cannot help but lead to a better shared experience. A shocking idea, I know.

And it was shocking in the Gilded Age. Edwardian prophets took the above warnings and turned them into near paranoia. The same level-headed, seemingly enlightened Dr. Foote who criticized the hymen test, described the importance of the clitoris, and said sex was healthy—well, he had only dire warnings about masturbation in 1887: “Many a promising young man has lost his mind and wrecked his hopes by self-induced pleasures.” Another author agreed: “That solitary vice is one of the most common causes of insanity, is a fact too well established to need demonstration here.” (That logic is convenient: it’s so true that I don’t need to prove it. Hmm…)

Dr. Jeffries (1985) listed more terrible symptoms of this vice: a slimy discharge from the urethra, a “wasting away” of the testicles, ringing in the ears, heat flashes, large spots under the eyes, nervous headache, giddiness, solitariness, gloominess, and the inability to look the doctor in the eye. Others added cancer (!), acne (yep, that old hogwash), and a craving for salt, pepper, spices, cinnamon, cloves, vinegar, mustard, and horseradish. That last one is a head-scratcher. So if you wanted to eat anything with flavor at all, that was a giveaway? I’m in trouble.

Masturbation effect on semen by Jeffries Gilded Age doctor for author Jennifer Hallock and Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Dr. Jeffries’s unexplained (and unverified) diagram of what happens to semen after masturbation. Are you wondering how he obtained the first sample without masturbation? Me, too.

Speaking of food, did you know that Corn Flakes were invented in 1898 to keep you from masturbating? For real.4

Diet to prevent masturbation by Jeffries Gilded Age doctor for author Jennifer Hallock and Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.The John Harvey Kellogg quoted above is the Kellogg of breakfast cereal fame. His obsession with sexual purity was so extreme that he never consummated his own marriage. He and his wife slept in separate bedrooms and adopted their children. By the way, who did Kellogg believe were the worst masturbatory offenders? Foreigners, of course. Russians especially. Add eye roll here.

The cure? Clean living! Rising early in the morning, eating the recommended bland breakfast, abstaining from smoke and drink, keeping busy, avoiding solitude, and circumcision. This is why the procedure became routine in American hospitals in the twentieth century and still predominates today. It is not good medicine but good morals. Or so they said.

There is still a bit of taboo in talking about masturbation today—well, maybe more than a bit. In 1994 President Bill Clinton forced his Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders to resign because she said that masturbation should be taught in schools as a preventative for teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. Still, I think we are a far cry from saying it causes cancer. And we’ve sweetened breakfast cereals beyond recognition, so there, John Harvey Kellogg! More and more parents are questioning routine circumcision for non-religious reasons, though the procedure has traction because it is what people in the US are used to.

All this brings me to an interesting realization: if you asked me which parts of my books would have most shocked real Gilded Age readers, it would have been the openness most of my characters have toward masturbation. And, guess what? I’m not going to stop writing it, historical accuracy be damned. Long live romance!

(Featured photograph is a close up of a Fallopian tube and ovarian ligaments in Henry Morris’s Human Anatomy: A Complete Systematic Treatise by English and American Authors, 5th edition, 1914, p. 1270.)

Footnotes:

1. What follows is a whole domino chain of bad decisions, including a teenage “hook up” culture that emphasizes sexual trophy hunting (most often by boys), rather than two people finding mutual pleasure in a mature relationship built on respect and trust.

2. The law against this distribution of “obscene” materials, the Comstock Law, is still on the books in a modified form. It no longer covers sexual education or contraception, the latter of which became a legally protected right—to married couples, originally—under the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v Connecticut, also known as the Birth Control Revolution. Good thing, too, because this post would have gotten me jailed.

3. And she was not the only sexual rights crusader to have disturbing ideas. Marie Stopes believed in eugenics and forcible sterilization for those “unfit” to carry on their genes. She even “disinherit[ed] her son when he married a woman who had poor eyesight.” Yikes. And Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger dabbled in eugenics, too, by the way. We need to question everything from this period because racism, classism, and ableism were pervasive.

4. The original purity food was the graham cracker, which was nothing like your s’mores building block of today. It was made of unrefined flour with no sugars or spices—deliberately bland. Because that contained sexual desire, didn’t you know?

Sugar Sun glossary terms in alphabetical order

At long last, an alphabetical listing of the Sugar Sun glossary terms! Simply click on the graphic of your choice to open the annotated post in a new window. This list will be updated to include new terms as their posts are written.

Ah Tay bed glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

aswang glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

babaylanes glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

bahay kubo glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

bahay na bato glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

banca boat outrigger cockroach language glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

barong tagalog dress shirt glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

bodbod budbud rice dessert glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

boondocks backwoods wilderness mountain language glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

calamansi kalamansi glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

calesa carriage glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

capiz oyster shell window glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

carabao boat glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

casco boat glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

daigon Christmas pageant glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

goo-goo racial racism slur American soldiers glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

hacendero haciendero sugar farmer glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

ilustrado Filipino elite education Spain mestizo glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

insular colony colonial Philippines glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

insurrecto Philippine insurrection war revolutionary glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

kristo cockfight cockfighting bet gambling glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

lechon roasted suckling pig glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

pandesal bread sweet food glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

parol Christmas holiday festival light glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

pensionado education university scholarship glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

quartermaster army supply scandal Manila Hotel Oriente glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

sillon butaka planter chair furniture glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

Sinulog Santo Niño Spanish Magellan Catholicism saint glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

sipa hacky sack jianzi shuttlecock sport glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

card gambling sungka mancala panguingue glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

Thomasite education teacher school glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

tsokolate Spanish hot chocolate glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

water cure torture Philippine American war soldier glossary term in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious fun. Happily ever after.

I hope the posts are helpful in rounding out the historical context of the Sugar Sun series. They are certainly fun to write! Enjoy.

Sugar Sun series glossary term #30: babaylan

Taking their name from the Visayan words for “woman” and “spirit,” the babaylans were “mystical women who wielded social and spiritual power in pre-colonial Philippine society,” according to Marianita “Girlie” Villariba. Because the Spanish viewed these women as a threat to the spread of Catholicism and patriarchy, the friars discredited the babaylans by spreading rumors that they were really vampire-like mythical creatures, or aswangs.

But babaylans did not have to be women. You could be a man—or you could be a man living under an adopted female identity, part of the long proto-transgender tradition in Southeast Asia. (By the way, the Philippines just elected their first transgender congresswoman.) Anyone who had a lifetime’s track record of helping the community—through both bandages (healers) or swords (warriors)—could be selected. This range of duties will be important to the way the identity of babaylans will evolve, especially at the turn of the twentieth century.

A dancer in Bago City’s 2015 Babaylan Festival.
A dancer in Bago City’s 2015 Babaylan Festival.

The babaylan’s unique blend of nationalism and traditionalism pushed them to challenge both Americans and hacenderos at the same time. Babaylans spoke to God in their native language, and God told them to oppose the changes hitting their island. They believed that God inhabited all of nature, so the destruction of nature—particularly by industrial machines—was against the will of the universe. Men joined the movement in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly “discontented marginalized peasants,” according to Violeta Lopez-Gonzaga. This made the babaylans “a peasant protest movement with messianic, revivalistic, and nativistic overtones.”

The largest of these revolts was led by Dionisio Sigobela, also known as Papa (Pope) Isio. As historian Renato Constantino wrote, the situation in the early 1900s was particularly tenuous. War and revolution had closed ports and destroyed farmland. Natural disasters like drought, locusts, and rinderpest made the situation worse.  Laborers were rapidly being replaced by machines, though both were in short supply. According to Constantino, only one-fifth of 1898’s arable land was planted four years later, in 1902.

Papa Isio might be dismayed to know that his anti-mercantile legacy has been turned into commercial gold. He is now given credit for a new, posh brand of Don Papa rum.
Papa Isio might be dismayed to know that his anti-mercantile legacy has been turned into commercial gold. He is now given credit for a new, posh brand of Don Papa Rum.

Times were tough, as Javier Altarejos will tell you in my upcoming novella, Tempting Hymn. In this scene, Javier reveals the babaylan ties of one of his former employees, Peping Ramos, whom you may remember as the disgruntled cane slasher who shot a young boy in Under the Sugar Sun. Javier is speaking to the hero of Tempting Hymn, an American named Jonas Vanderburg. Jonas is curious about the babaylans because he is falling in love with Peping’s daughter, Rosa Ramos.

“When I took over the hacienda, Peping was sure he could manage me.” Javier took a sip of his drink. “He was wrong.”

“So he ran off to join the madmen in the mountains?”

“They’re not all madmen—though they do attract every troublemaker on the island. The babaylan are more like the trade unionists you have in America.”

“But their popes and special charms—”

“Give them credibility.”

That credibility came from the traditional role of babaylans as priest(ess), sage, and seer. People admired the babaylans, and they would not stop admiring them just because the Americans said so. In fact, the Yanks were not able to put down Papa Isio’s insurrection until 1907—a tough reality for Americans to stomach since they had made such a big deal of declaring peace in 1902.

A Samareño Pulahan amulet jacket from the 1890s, along with a rare photo of Pulahans on the attack.
A Samareño pulahan amulet jacket from the 1890s, along with a rare photo of pulahans on the attack.

The declaration fooled no one because Samar was rising up again, too. In fact, Samar had a very similar movement to the babaylans, complete with its own popes and sacred amulets: the pulahans (or “red pants”). The pulahans will be an important theme in my upcoming novel, Sugar Moon. Both the pulahans and the babaylans believed that:

  1. an apocalyptic clash was coming;
  2. they alone would survive; and
  3. a new independent world order would be built upon the ashes of imperialism and industrialism.

If this sounds familiar, take a look at the Boxer Rebellion in China—same time, same motives, and same ideology. It’s not a coincidence. As a teacher of world history, imperialism, and comparative religions, movements like the babaylans and the pulahans represent the intersection of everything that interests me. And, of course, I like to work these complicated trends into kissing books. Enjoy!

Featured image includes three babaylan mandalas, created by artist Perla Daly.

New Year’s 1900: Y1.9K

Do you remember when New Year’s Eve 1999 was dominated by Y2K fears? (I know, it seems so naive and innocent, in retrospect.) Was there a similar Y1.9K crisis? What were Edwardian era fears? Thanks to the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America catalog of historical American newspapers from 1690 to the present, I was able to take a peak into the past. Through a search of front pages on New Year’s Eve 1899 and New Year’s Day 1900, I found both more and less than I expected.

In terms of hard news, the concerns were much as any other day, and any other year: war, terrorism, natural disasters, fires, religion, disease, health care, and politics. I did not keep track, but the most prevalent story seemed to be the Boer War in South Africa. And, no, the Americans were not a party to this conflict, but that did not mean Americans did not have opinions. (Do Americans ever not have opinions?) The war was a part of Britain’s attempt to annex two gold- and diamond-producing Boer Republics, where descendants of Dutch colonists lived. They wanted to stitch them into a British-federated South Africa—and they would eventually be successful. But, at the end of 1899, the Boers were winning. The Boers had besieged three cities and won several significant battles against the underprepared and undermanned British. In the United States, sentiment was generally unfavorable to British—especially in areas of large Germanic or Dutch settlement in the American Midwest, where newspapers depicted the British as mired in a “densely stupid policy.” According to the New York Sun, the American Irish also gave widespread support for Boers, based upon their hatred for British. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And so it goes.

The Boer War was a guerrilla insurgency similar to the Philippine-American War—which was happening at the exact same time—and generally the papers who were critical of British efforts to “pacify” the Boers were maybe a little more honest about the difficulty of “pacifying” the Filipinos, too. One way they could do this was to cover an attempt by Filipino partisans to launch an assault on the funeral of General Henry Ware Lawton, the only American general to be killed in action during the conflict. The Americans caught wind of the plan and found a stash of four bombs meant to be dropped from the rooftops, along with five hundred rounds of ammunition and a few firearms. Other papers, interestingly enough, did not mention the “diabolical plot” at all. Instead they gave detailed coverage of the people at the funeral and the new cabinet planned by Governor Leonard Wood.

In Hawaii, the Pacific Advertiser welcomed the new year with an illustration of sugar cane, banana trees, and palm trees.
In Hawaii, the Pacific Advertiser welcomed the new year with an illustration of sugar cane, banana trees, and palm trees.

Some papers were admiringly local in their coverage. Both Hawaii papers (The Hawaiian Star and The Evening Bulletin) were devoted to either island news or, at their most global, Pacific Rim events. One such story was the Black Plague outbreak in China. The Tombstone Epitaph reported on local weather and wedding announcements on the front page. Both Richmond (VA) papers were darned near full of advertisements—for the city itself. The Richmond Dispatch reported on “A Year of Great Prosperity” and that the “Future [Would Be] a Brilliant One.” The Times (of Richmond) proudly proclaimed that “Everywhere in Virginia People Busy and Happy.” How nice. The Brownsville (TX) Daily Herald was an odd little paper.Their front page was devoted to vignettes and humorous stories collected from other papers. One revealing piece applauded how the people of Leadville, Texas, ran two law-abiding Chinese (“celestials”) out of town.

“M’Coy Won in Five Rounds” because “Maher was outclassed.” Even in 1900, sports dominated some papers. From the New York Evening World.
“M’Coy Won in Five Rounds” because “Maher was outclassed.” Even in 1900, sports dominated some papers. From the New York Evening World.

And, of course, some papers did not cover hard news at all. The New York Evening World’s front page was dedicated to the results of the McCoy-Maher boxing bout. Pugilism mattered to the readers of the Daily Inter Mountain of Butte, Montana, as well.

The Ocala (FL) Evening Star and the Morning Appeal of Carson City, Nevada were all advertisements. One product featured in the Carson City paper was one of the biggest patent medicines of the turn of the century: “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription for the relief of the many weaknesses and complaints particular to females.” This gave a “fountain of health for weak and nervous women.” The nostrum was a botanical mix of many relaxants designed mostly to help with menstrual pain—though no one would say such a thing, of course. It was just a “weakness” or “complaint.”

An advertisement and bottle of Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription. Images courtesy of the Library of Congress and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
An advertisement and bottle of Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription. Images courtesy of the Library of Congress and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Y1.9K did have some technological fears, especially centered around the newest invention of the day: the horseless carriage, or the automobile. There were no alarmist articles about how motorized transport would lead to lazier Americans, more fractured and transient communities, suburbs, and eventually mechanized weapons. Nope, the sentiment was more subtle, as captured in a political cartoon of Father Time saying: “They want me to try that. Guess I’ll stick to wings.”

Cartoon from the St. Paul Globe.
Cartoon from the St. Paul Globe.

I am not sure what I expected when I began this search, but I think I wanted the papers to seem a little silly. A little quaint. (And Dr. Pierce’s medicine was both of those.) In the end, the biggest surprise may have been the optimism of some of the papers. At first I snickered, but now I realize that this positivity is the very reason I write romance. After being the cynical, hard-headed history teacher all day long, I love the idea that love can triumph over all. Maybe not “everywhere,” but at least somewhere people can be “busy and happy”—even if in my mind. May your New Year be full of happily-ever-afters.

New Year’s wishes from the Houston Daily Post.
New Year’s wishes from the Houston Daily Post.

Featured image banner is from the Richmond (VA) Dispatch.

Gibson Girls Gone Wild!

In February I will be boarding a plane for Manila. It will take me 24 hours airport to airport, and that will feel like a long time. I will probably complain about how tired I am, or how small airline seats have become. Both will be true.

But my Edwardian sisters—known as “Gibson girls” after popular illustrator Charles Dana Gibson—would be shocked by how spoiled I am. For them, a trip from Boston to the Philippines would have taken seven weeks. And they thought themselves lucky, since the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal had cut the trip in half. Their bargain ticket would have cost $120 in 1900—the equivalent of almost $3500 today. My ticket cost around $800.

I also have another advantage: knowledge. I know what the Philippines are like. Things may have changed in the last five years, as things do, but generally I know what I will find. But my three Gibson girls featured here—Mary Fee, Annabelle Kent, and Rebecca Parrish, M.D.—did not. These women either had no information or bad information about the Philippines. For example, a United States senator, John W. Daniel, from Virginia explained that “there are spotted people there, and, what I have never heard of in any other country, there are striped people there with zebra signs upon them.” To you or me such drivel is beyond racist to the point of being ludicrously stupid, but Senator Daniel thought this information important enough to pass along in the middle of a government hearing.

If travel to the Philippines was long, expensive, and potentially dangerous, why did women like Fee, Kent, and Parrish do it? Their reasons probably varied. Fee, a teacher, may have gone for the good salary; Kent wanted to prove that she could travel the globe alone; and Parrish was a medical missionary whose faith led her to the islands. But there is one thing all three women had in common: they were more adventurous than the average man of their day. And they were probably more intrepid than me.

From left to right: the cover of Mary H. Fee’s memoir (from the New York Society Library); a portrait of Annabelle Kent in China (from her book Round the World in Silence); the legacy of Rebecca Parish as seen through a nurses’ basketball team for the Mary Johnston Hospital in 1909 (print for sale on eBay); and the classic Gibson girl image on a music score (courtesy of the Library of Congress).
From left to right: the cover of Mary H. Fee’s memoir (from the New York Society Library); a portrait of Annabelle Kent in China (from her book Round the World in Silence); the legacy of Rebecca Parish as seen through a nurses’ basketball team for the Mary Johnston Hospital in 1909 (print for sale on eBay); and the classic Gibson girl image on a music score (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Let’s start with Mary Fee, principal of the Philippine School of Arts and Trades in Roxas City. Fee was one of the first teachers sent by the U.S. Government to establish a secular, coeducational, public school system throughout the Philippines. The Thomasites, as they were called, were sent all over the islands with their Baldwin Primers to read lessons on snow, apples, and George Washington—and none of the students knew what the heck they were talking about. Mary Fee realized that the point was to teach her students to read and write in English, not to have a comprehensive understanding of American meteorology. Soon she was one of four authors (including another woman) of a new Philippine Education series. The First Year Book had lessons about Ramon and Adela, not Jack and Jill. They learned about carabao, not cows. Stories included the American flag, but it was small and in black-and-white, not a full-page color spread. The women went to market for fish and mangoes, and they wore traditional clothing. In other words, the book made sense to the children who read it.

Two pages from The Baldwin Primer and two from The First Year Book, showing the differences in content for the Philippine audience.
Two pages from The Baldwin Primer and two from The First Year Book, showing the differences in content for the Philippine audience.

I relied upon Fee’s memoir, A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines, for help in creating my character Georgina Potter in Under the Sugar Sun. I exercised artistic license, of course: Fee’s faithful description of the Christmas Eve pageant, for example, was turned into a courtship opportunity for my hero, Javier Altarejos. Though Fee would eventually return to the United States—not marry a Filipino sugar baron—I am happy to say that her spirit lives on.

In comparison to my careful researching of Mary Fee, I stumbled upon Annabelle Kent’s raucous description of arriving in Manila by ship. While everyone else had horrible seasickness, Kent thought the bumpy ride a blast. The ship bucked like a bronco, and she reveled in it. As I read more, though, I found Kent’s explanation for her sturdy sea-legs: she was deaf. She traveled the globe by herself without an ASL interpreter, and that took guts. It seemed to have started on a type of dare. Kent wrote:

A deaf young lady made the remark to me once that it was a waste of time and money for a deaf person to go to Europe, as she could get so little benefit from the trip. I told her that as long as one could see there was a great deal one could absorb and enjoy.

I knew right then that Annabelle Kent would be my model for a new character, Della Berget, in Hotel Oriente. At a time when American senators were postulating about people striped like zebras, Kent was getting a steamer and seeing everything for herself, including schools for the deaf in China and Japan. The book is the most joyful travel memoir I have ever read.

My final Gibson girl, Rebecca Parrish, was used to being a trendsetter. She was a doctor at a time when medicine was a possible career choice for a woman, but not a common one. And, in the Philippines, it was unheard of. One of her first skeptical patients asked, “Can a woman know enough to be a doctor?” Parrish had to prove herself a million times, by her own account, but she did.

Philippines stamp commemorating the centennial of Parrish’s creation, the Mary Johnson Hospital. Image courtesy of Colnect stamp catalog.
Philippines stamp commemorating the centennial of Parrish’s creation, the Mary Johnson Hospital. Image courtesy of Colnect stamp catalog. The hospital on the left was Parrish’s original, which was destroyed in World War II. It was rebuilt larger, as pictured on the right.

Parrish built a 55-bed hospital in Tondo, the Mary Johnston Hospital, that operated on the principle that no one could be turned away. The hospital began its working life fighting a cholera epidemic but transitioned into a maternity clinic with a milk feeding station. Today, it is a teaching hospital specializing in internal medicine, obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics. Parrish also opened a training institute for nurses. If the doctor seems like a busy woman, you are correct. She wrote: “Hundreds of days—thousands of days, I worked twenty hours of the twenty-four among the sick, doing all that was in my power to do my part, and hoping the best that could be had for all.” I get tired just thinking about it.

Maybe these Gibson girls—Mary Fee, Annabelle Kent, and Rebecca Parrish—did not go “wild” in the cheap DVD series kind of way, but by contemporary standards they were braver than Indiana Jones. My trip to Manila will be tame by comparison, but I will try to honor the memory of those who came before me…and pick the in-flight movie they would want me to see.

Featured image is “Girls Will Be Girls” by Charles Dana Gibson, found at Blog of an Art Admirer.