Though not the height of fashion, a white cotton shirtwaist was the unofficial uniform of schoolteachers in the Edwardian Philippines. Having used a chalkboard for a good part of my own teaching career, I can attest that having your sleeves already be white is extremely practical. Two of my previous heroines, Georgina and Allegra, thought so too.
According to the Indianapolis Journal on January 1, 1900: “The shirtwaist will be with us more than ever this summer. Women are wearing shirtwaists because they are comfortable, because they can be made to fit any form, and because they are mannish.” Fashion historian Catherine Gourley explains that “it was similar to a man’s shirt. It had a stiff, high-necked collar and buttons down the front. Women often wore one with a floppy bow or tie. Some pinned a brooch to the collar.”
In contrast, high fashion in the first decade of the 1900s was a structured Gibson Girl silhouette that looked a lot like that of the previous century, particularly the painfully small waist. The badly named “health” corset “pushed the bust forward and the hips back in an attempt to avoid pressure on the abdomen,” according to the timeline of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) of the State University of New York. The shape was top-heavy with dramatic sleeves, “enhanced with petticoats that had full backs and smooth fronts” (FIT).
Dresses did not loosen until around 1910 or so, but fortunately Sugar Communion is quite epic in scope so I can explore new fashion templates that look far more comfortable. I was surprised by how 1920s-esque they looked, and then I found that FIT agreed with me: “While changes in women’s fashion that manifested in the 1920s are often attributed to changes due to World War I, many of the popular styles of the twenties actually evolved from styles popular before the war and as early as the beginning of the decade.”
I paged through only a few of the plates at the Costume Institute Collections at The Met to get an idea of what I would like to see Liddy wear, when she gets the chance—when she is not tending to patients in a practical shirtwaist, that is.
I think the geometric patterns on the above skirt would appeal, though Liddy is not likely to be seen at entertainments like horse races, nor would she approve, probably.
See what I mean by the roaring twenties vibe? Ignore the hat on the right, which seems to be an inspiration for Dr. Seuss’s cat. Both of these dresses seem so elegant. The one on the left I can see Miss Fisher wearing while she solves a murder mystery.
I do not understand the knotted kerchief hanging off the belt on the right illustration above, but that blouse and skirt is otherwise very modern. Also, women began to dare to show some ankle—racy, I know!—though not bare skin. My heroine Liddy does not have the time nor inclination for hose, so socks and boots are her daily wear.
I think that back in the 1980s I had a blouse like the one above on the left. No feathered hats for me or Liddy, though.
These plates tell me that clothing was starting to become more comfortable, and even high fashion followers did not want to be dependent on a maid to dress them all the time.
Can you imagine having a ladies’ valet in 2020? “The yoga pants again, ma’am?”
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. (That’s a surprise, considering the general state of medicine until at least the 1880s.) Let’s investigate:
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:
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!
Fortunately, my heroine Allegra in Sugar Moon 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:
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.
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.
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.
Speaking of food, did you know that Corn Flakes were invented in 1898 to keep you from masturbating? For real.4
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 was not a lot of good medicine, especially at the beginning of the Gilded Age, but you had figured that out already, hadn’t you?)
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.)
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?↩
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.
I hope the posts are helpful in rounding out the historical context of the Sugar Sun series. They are certainly fun to write! Enjoy.
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 segregationist United States senator from Virginia claimed 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.” Senator Daniel thought this ludicrous racist drivel important enough to pass along in the middle of a government hearing—and he was what passed for an anti-imperialist back then.)
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.
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 if she was going to teach her students to read and write in English—and, admittedly, that is a colonial enterprise she did not question but we should—then she needed new books.
Fee 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 Filipiniana clothing. In other words, the book had a chance of making sense to the children who read it. In Sugar Moon, this textbook reboot will be put in the hands of a Filipino heroine, Allegra.
I used parts of 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.
In comparison to my careful researching of Mary Fee, I just 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, presumably with a damaged vestibular system. 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 my aspiring journalist, Della Berget, in Hotel Oriente. At a time when American senators were making up stories rather than seeing for themselves, Kent was jumping a steamer to circle the globe and visit schools for the deaf in China and Japan. The book is one of the most joyful travel memoirs I have 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. One of her first skeptical patients in the Philippines 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.
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 this 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.
Along with Parrish’s memoir, I have read the biographies and autobiographies of Dr. Susan Anderson, Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, Dr. Rosalie Slaughter Morton, and Dr. Maude Abbott to put together a picture of my next heroine, Dr. Elizabeth “Liddy” Shepherd—along with a dash of artistic license, of course. (For example, I excised eugenics right out of the record, even though it was a widespread “fashion” in medicine at the time. No, thank you!)
Maybe these Gibson girls—Mary Fee, Annabelle Kent, and Rebecca Parrish—did not go “wild” in the cheap, titillating kind of way, but by contemporary standards they were as brave as 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.
What did the Common App look like for Filipinos in 1905? Could you gain admission, let alone earn a scholarship?
While much of the American educational system in the Philippines was geared around a racist “industrial” model—in other words, teaching Filipinos the skills they needed to produce goods for American businesses—there was an advanced track to train the best and brightest for government work.
Here’s how it worked: young men and women aged 16-21 took an examination that included questions on grammar, geography, American history, math, and physiology. For example: “Give three differences between young rivers and old rivers.” Or “Name and describe three early and successful North American settlements.” Or “Divide 1003 3/4 by 847 4/5.” (Without a calculator, mind you. I could do it, but not happily. Multiply by the reciprocal, right? I’m already bored…)
Where did such smart kids come from? Everywhere, actually. Even, or especially, the provinces. Despite its flaws, the American Bureau of Education did set up a public, secular, and coeducational system throughout the Philippines. Higher education had been open to elites under the Spanish, but for barangay children this was a brand new opportunity. The whole point of education, according to the 1903 census, was to pacify the islands—to give parents a good reason to set down arms and take a chance with Yankee rule.
And in order to truly “benevolently assimilate” these future elites, the Americans would need to shape their minds and careers in the American heartland: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New York, and Minnesota mainly, with a few in California, of course. The first group of 100 boys of “good moral character” and “sound physical condition” were selected: 75 from public schools throughout the islands and 25 at large by executive committee. In succeeding years, much smaller numbers would be chosen, a dozen or two at a time, including women. Each student was required to take an oath of allegiance to the United States before enrolling in the program.
With $500 per year to cover expenses—two-thirds of an average American family’s income at the time—the Filipinos could live well in the smaller towns of the American Midwest. They went to football games, joined fraternities, and went out on dates. (More on that later.) Many did a year in an American high school first to polish their English, and then did three to four years of advanced study. Author Mario Orosa estimates that the Insular (colonial) Government spent the modern equivalent $50,000 or more educating his father in Cincinnati.
Students could study whatever subjects they wished, but they would have to put this knowledge to use: each year of study in the United States meant a year working (with a full salary) for the Insular Government in the fields of education, medicine, forestry, engineering, textiles, or finance.
In 1905, the highest scoring tester was a 12-year old girl named Felisberta Asturias. She may have been too young to go to the U.S., but the next highest scorer, Honoria Acosta from Dagupan, would become the first Filipino woman to graduate from an American university (Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania), and therefore the first Filipino female physician, as well as the founder of obstetrics and gynecology as a specialized field in the Philippines.
Winning the scholarship was only half the battle, though. While in the United States, these students encountered their fair share of racism, as Pacifico Laygo’s yearbook entry illustrates.
How tiring it is, this insistence of Lagyo’s that he not be called a racial slur! But he is a “pretty good scout, at that,” so it’s okay, right? That’s only patronizing, not explicitly racist. At Cornell, Apolinario Balthazar, one of those who would be responsible for rebuilding Manila after World War II, was told by one American bully that “no matter how much you wash your hands, you cannot change your color.” Southern states just outright refused to host the Filipino students.
Newspapers got into the act, too. According to Victor Román Mendoza, the Omaha Daily Bee downplayed the athletic achievements of the local Filipinos students, saying: “That Filipino students are showing well as runners in college athletic events is not surprising to those who remember the good races won by the followers of Aguinaldo during the insurrection.”
Maybe it wasn’t all bad, though. There were the romances, especially those between Filipino men (the majority of pensionados) and American women. James Charles Araneta—yes, those Aranetas—stayed two years with the Newell family in Berkeley, California, and when he left he took their sixteen-year old daughter, Lillian, with him. As the Aranetas were both wealthy and well-connected in the new American administration—Negrense sugar barons!—the news reports on the match were both breathless and lurid at the same time. It was national news, from the front page of the San Francisco Call to the Des Moines Register to the Pittsburgh Press.
If the groom was less flush, though, an otherwise respectable marriage might be kept secret from friends and family on both sides. That wasn’t enough to stop it from happening, though, so officials in Indiana tried (and failed) to pass a law against whites marrying anyone with more than one-eighth Filipino blood. They portrayed the pensionados not as scholars but as “slick” operators eager to “stain America’s future brown,” in the words of University of Michigan English professor Ruby C. Tapia. This was the world Javier and Georgina had to fight against, and I know the racism in the book was hard for some to read, but reality was far uglier.
Proving that you can never catch a break, returning home was not easy for the Filipinos, either. Generally, pensionados were given immediate supervisory positions over their countrymen, who in turn resented the “Amboys.” On the other hand, the Amboys were not American enough for the Americans in Manila, who refused to admit the pensionados to their private clubs, no matter how Midwestern their education, manners, or dress. Many of these men and women would be pioneers in their fields and are heroes to us now, but at the time they struggled to fit in anywhere.
Eventually, the pensionados would make their own place in society—and it was an exalted one. While only a small part of the population, these 700 men and women educated from 1903-1945 would shape the Philippine Commonwealth and Republic. They became cabinet members, department secretaries, university presidents, deans and professors, designers of national irrigation systems, builders of bridges, lawyers, justices, titans of industry, doctors, archbishops, and, unfortunately, martyrs to the Japanese occupation. Mario Orosa has an extensive list by name and short biography, and it is an impressive read.
The pensionado system will feature in two of my upcoming books, but only one character will pass the test and take the scholarship. Can you guess who? Maybe I shouldn’t tell you. It will spoil the surprise.