Are You Prepared for…the Unthinkable? Part 19: Flashy Victorians

(This is the 19th installment of a series of blog entries. Be sure to start with Part 1.)

 If you’ve read a number of Victorian era novels—or seen the movies or TV shows based on them—such as Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Secret Garden, or maybe Little Lord Fauntleroy, you are familiar with the Victorian household and its various non-family members:

A maidservant or in current usage housemaid or maid is a female employed in domestic service. Although now restricted to only the most wealthy of households, in the Victorian era domestic service was the second largest category of employment in England and Wales, after agricultural work….Maids traditionally have a fixed position in the hierarchy of the large households, and although there is overlap between definitions (dependent on the size of the household) the positions themselves would typically be rigidly adhered to….Chamber maid — the chamber maids cleaned and maintained the bedrooms, ensured fires were lit in fireplaces, and supplied hot water. [Wiki: Maid]

These distinctions would have been true in the Victorian Era both in England and among the middle and upper classes in the United States. One of the jobs of the chamber maid would have been to apply the warming pan between the sheets of the beds on a cold winter’s night:

Before central heating was invented, houses were often cold and damp in the winter. The warming pan was used in beds not only to warm them, but also to try to get rid of some of the damp. The pan was filled with hot charcoal or ashes and then pushed into the bed. The long handle on the pan was used to move it around in order to get rid of as much cold and damp as possible. [Object Lessons: Bed Warmer]

Here’s an authentic warming pan from the Victorian Era.

Chamber maids, warming pans … it all seems innocent enough, eh? Especially among the prudish Victorians with the men in top hats and dress coats all the time and women in floor length dresses.

On April 9, 1842, The Whip, a weekly New York newspaper that pledged to “keep a watchful eye on all brothels and their frail inmates,” carried an article about chambermaids. Chambermaids were women of flesh and blood, according to the article, “with the same instinctive desires as their masters, and much of their time is necessarily passed alone, in remote apartments, which usually contain beds.” Accompanying the article was a drawing: a chambermaid gripped the long wooden handle of a warming pan that projected rudely from between a tailcoated gentleman’s legs. [New York Times book review: The Flash Press]

“Take care of [watch out for] the Warming pan, Sir.”

And therein lies a tale of the Flashy side of Victorian life.

When we use the term “flashy” today, it doesn’t have a particularly overly-negative connotation. It most often refers to clothing styles, and mostly just implies that an outfit is not conservative and drab. It is bright and colorful, exciting, maybe a bit outlandish. Here are some modern gents in flashy outfits.

And here is an older woman who obviously enjoys wearing fun, flashy clothes.

Although there is a vague connection between our use of the term and the way it was used in the early 1800s, there was a different slant and emphasis on it back then.

An 1859 New York “slang dictionary” defined a flash-man as “a fellow that has no visible means of living, yet goes dressed in fine clothes, exhibiting a profusion of jewelry about his person,” suggesting an income derived from pimping or thieving. [The Flash Press]

Sounds indeed like a pimp of today…or a few televangelists I’ve seen.

A British slang dictionary of 1874 elaborated on this:

Flash: showy, smart, knowing; a word with various meanings. A person is said to be dressed FLASH when his garb is showy, and after a fashion, but without taste. A person is said to be FLASH when he apes the appearance or manners of his betters, or when he is trying to be superior to his friends and relations. FLASH also means “fast,” roguish, and sometimes infers counterfeit or deceptive—and this, perhaps, is its general signification.

A word often connected to flashy men of the early Victorian period was “sporting male.” This did not indicate a man who liked to go hunting or fishing or to play various sports. It meant a man, usually unmarried, who was “preoccupied with the pursuit of pleasure and especially games of chance.” The “sporting life” was one long round of evenings and nights spent in saloons, gambling halls, bordellos… and sometimes even at sporting events such as bare-fisted boxing—if the sport could involve betting. Obviously, unless the fellow was so good at gambling that he could support himself on his winnings, this would require an independent source of income rather than blue-collar or white-collar work. Young men from wealthy families who had a generous “allowance” could indulge in the “sporting life” if not hindered by their fathers. Those not supported by a rich father, if attractive enough, might find a convenient role as a “fancy man” for a high-end prostitute, and could live on her income. (A fancy man might function as a pimp, or sometimes as just a “kept man” if the woman had a steady income, perhaps as a regular in an elegant bordello.)

We wouldn’t know much about the sexual escapades of Civil War soldiers if it weren’t for the ferreting out of “ephemera” by collectors and historians, in such sources as diaries, letters, court records, and newspaper reports of the time. The same is true of the life of the “sporting man” of the Victorian era. This was an aspect of Victorian society that has been much overlooked in history books until recent times because of the lack of source material. But in 1985, an anonymous collector offered to the American Antiquarian Society a collection, in very good shape, of over 100 issues of four ephemeral “newspapers” from the 1840s. The Rake, the Flash, the Whip, and the Libertine had been published in New York City from 1841 to 1843.

These publications offered an amazing glimpse into a facet of Victorian society that the history books had ignored.

Before this, there had been hints among other ephemera that the straight-laced public face of the Era might hide a significant amount of hanky panky. Even the usually decidedly Unflashy, “respectable” New York printing house of Currier and Ives played around the edges of naughtiness with some of its engravings designed to be framed and displayed in Victorian homes. Such as this one, titled “Kiss me quick” …

The caption reads: “Children, this is the third time within an hour that I have placed your hats properly on your heads. — There!!”

Notice where the gent’s right hand is … this isn’t a married couple and their offspring. It is an older sister or nanny with the children.

But the sexual innuendo is just that, quite subtle and limited to a fleeting kiss.

The Rake, Whip, Flash, and Libertine were anything but subtle. And had almost no limits.

The Flash, the Whip, the Rake, and the Libertine: such titles might evoke images of pamphlets handed out on the Las Vegas strip or of contemporary “lad” magazines, but they were actually four short-lived weekly newspapers produced in New York City in the early 1840s. For the last two decades, historians Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz have mined these papers for evidence of public discourse on sexuality and crime in nineteenth-century New York City. Now they have collaborated on The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York, a book that offers both analysis of and extensive excerpts from these largely forgotten publications. [Book review]

Sex has always sold well. Most of us just assumed it took the likes of Larry Flynt, Al Goldstein, and the rest of that merry band of porn purveyors to finally get it openly on the newsstands. But now comes news that more than a century before them, an earlier breed of devilish publishers delighted readers with similar publications right here in New York.

… the publishers chose titles that got right to the point: The Whip, The Rake, The Libertine, The Flash, and others with even shorter publishing lives. One of these, The New York Sporting Whip, offered a kind of mission statement: “Man is endowed by nature with passions that must be gratified,” the newspaper asserted, “and no blame can be attached to him, who for that purpose occasionally seeks the woman of pleasure.” [Village Voice book review]

…The papers were an immediate hit. Newsboys hawked them for six cents apiece at ferry landings and oyster bars. Paid circulation averaged 10,000 to 12,000 per issue. Among the surefire circulation-building devices were in-depth reviews of the city’s hundreds of brothels. “Princess Julia’s Palace of Love,” a story in the June 6, 1841, edition of a weekly called Dixon’s Polyanthos, depicted a popular brothel run by a fashionable madam named Julia Brown: “On ascending the second story, up the splendid steps, you fall in, with apartment No. 1. This room is occupied by Lady Ellen, and a glorious lady she is, with the dark flashing orbs, and full of feeling—so full of intellect that one might stand and gaze, and gaze . . .”

Such prostitution should be legal, the weeklies openly advocated. Brothels, wrote The Rake, “are as essential to the well-being of society as churches.” Equally shocking, some publications were “matter-of-factly pro-abortion,” the authors state.

But they were often less high-minded. Publishers accepted payoffs to plug brothels, while blackmailing sex-parlor owners and customers alike. Addressing a prominent New Yorker as “J.R.L.,” The Whip threatened to publish “a list of the houses he lets to frail women for the purpose of carrying on the sinful trade of prostitution” if he failed to pay $50. He paid. [New York Times book review]

Don’t assume this was only a “big city” phenomenon, peculiar to the Big Apple.

This flash community soon took on regional and even national dimensions, thanks to a system of agents who contracted to sell the papers in far-flung places. Letters and articles submitted by correspondents to the Flash, the Whip, and the Rake reveal that tendrils extended out from the city, to other larger cities and small villages all over the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states and even to the South, where one communication line stretched deep into Georgia. [The Flash Press]

And in addition to the New York papers with their regional correspondents, there were numerous “flash-like” papers from the 1830s to the 1850s published in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston also.

What was a typical Flash paper like?

For starters, there were the engraved illustrations. (Photography wasn’t available yet for publications.) They seldom had more than fleeting partial nudity, but were heavy on innuendo. Check out this sample of “voyeurism.”

Looks modest enough to modern eyes. (Well, except for the low-cut top on the dress!) What’s the big deal that the guy got to see a pile of petticoats and bloomers?  What’s missing in our minds is the Rest of the Story. You see, Victorian ladies’ styles were so complicated to take off to use the restroom facilities that their undergarments had a gaping hole that could be used for convenience. Thus the startled fellow is getting a real eyeful.

Which also explains the big deal in this similar picture, of a gent positioning himself under a grating where a young lady has stopped to adjust her shoelace.

When I saw the pic, it immediately reminded me of a more modern pic involving a grating.

As for the written content of the flash press papers, the front page often had a story about a specific local person or a generic “type” … such as a servant girl or hat-maker. An engraved illustration either depicted the character, or was just a “stock picture” that would show someone in a “humorously compromising position.”

The Flash titled the feature the “Gallery of Rascalities and Notorieties” and focused on locally well-known men connected to newspapers, theaters, brothels, or crime, whose exploits and weaknesses—for sex, for drink—were scathingly ridiculed.

…Other profiles under the rubric “Lives of the Nymphs” or “Nymphs by Daylight” featured individual “frail” young women giving sympathetic and compelling stories of their descent into prostitution. (“Frail “was not a flash word but a common code word used by the dominant culture to describe a woman of compromised sexual virtue, whose fall thus indicated moral weakness on her part.) Some papers might run on page one a scandalous “crim. con.” article (“criminal conversation” in English law, meaning a charge of adulterous sex), regaling readers with some sexual entanglement, purportedly of real people; other front pages featured short fictional pieces involving seduction or adultery. [ibid]

The second page had editorials, where editors “castigated their opponents, puffed their favorites, or commented on events of the week.” This was accompanied by short bits of news about the “comings and goings of prostitutes, fancy men, pimps, and dandies.”

There were weekly “tours” of local brothels, describing in detail the most charming of the inmates, along with details of fancy dress balls featuring the same charming ladies. To match the “sporting” word sometimes included in the mastheads of the papers, they actually did at times report on boxing matches, dog and horse racing, cockfights, and even gentlemen’s “pedestrian competitions.” The latter was all the rage at the time…literal “walking races.” (I guess it was difficult for dandies to run in top hats …)

In the twentieth and twenty-first century, we’ve been familiar with publications that tattle on the doings of famous people. They are in your face at the checkout counter of every grocery store these days.

But imagine a situation in which not just Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise and Monica Lewinsky are targets of the gossip mongers. What if the shop keeper in your neighborhood, the lawyer living a few blocks away…or even you were subject to finding your own dirty little secrets published for all to see? That was the reality of the flash press.

After the reports on the pedestrian competitions and the cockfights, in the standard flash press edition, came the page with the “Wants Ads” section. No, not “want ads.” These weren’t ads for items that someone wanted to purchase. They were paid “Wants to know” ads. Someone “wants to know” the sleazy details of gossip about some person. Actually, although presented as “wants to know” they usually included enough information, including initials of names, to indicate that the person already knew the details and was merely presenting them in a titillating way. For instance, one entry noted someone “Wants to know…

“…what old lecher from Bond Street went with a little girl [no doubt a phrase implying a teenager] to a house of assignation [place where “sexual appointments” were kept…] in Elm Street on Tuesday evening. Look out old sinner…

Another paid ad indicated someone “wanted to know…”

…what C.J. was at [what was he doing] in the dark box at Vauxhall [local theater] with the girl in the blue bonnet. Her draperies [clothing] seemed to hang rather odd. Be more careful next time, Charley.”

And the “wants” ads weren’t just for New York. Once there were “correspondents” in place all over broad sections of the country, the undercover shenanigans of the residents of the smallest of towns might end up exposed in the latest edition of the Flash or Whip.

The Whip’s correspondent from Poughkeepsie [NY] once reported that he staked out the front porch of the main hotel in that Hudson River town to observe the rush of readers buying copies of the flash paper fresh off the steamboat from New York City. The purchasers immediately turned to the “wants” column, he claimed, to check out “their own exposure; some squatting on stoops, others on the packing boxes in front of their stores; here a few lawyers, there a dry goods merchant with his clerks looking over his shoulder; further on several gathered about a grocery store—some with consternation visible on their countenances, others with compressed lips and lowering brow; others again with smiles on their faces but terror in their hearts.” Their sins? Lying, slander, and fornication, “which is carried on to a great extent in this community,” according to the correspondent. [ibid]

For all the gossip and salacious details of seduction, on the surface the writing style of the papers was always prissy enough that it would sound to modern ears as if written by a schoolmarm. Here is a taste of the writing style, a sample from an 1841 edition of the paper, in which the editor of the Rake is defending the “honor” of his paper as being of great value to the community. Why, the material in the Rake is no different from the stories in lofty literature about the pagan gods of yore, which make up much of the literature that is taught in schools. (A point, actually, that I would not quibble with myself …)

We are charged with misleading the minds of the youth. The fault is not with us; it is in the nature of man itself. The seeds of his intemperance are broadly scattered over its surface; pregnant with soft desires, they covet a genial growth and force themselves upward. Go to the mythology of the ancients, the religion that held possession of the world for so many ages. What is it but a tissue of intrigues and jealousies. The great occupation of their divinities seems to have been the gratification of their immortal lust. They saw the daughters of earth, that they were fair, and the great Thunderer himself did not hesitate to stoop from his high Olympus, and throwing aside the dreadful bolt, cheat our terrestrial beauties into an embrace. Even the halls of heaven itself were not free from the pollution; and crim. cons., adulteries, lewdness, drunkenness, and other debaucheries, were as rife in the courts of Jove, as in our sinful world at this time. Themes like these have engaged the loftiest intellects, and have been sung in strains the most melodious and divine, that ever enraptured or soothed the ear; or ministered to the prurient impulses of our nature. And these are the productions which are put into our almost infant hands—with good cause—for what intellectual and accomplished or virtuous and pious parent would forbid to his child an acquaintance with those literary treasures with which their authors have enriched the store house of human learning.

But of course, the average reader of these newspapers wasn’t really looking for a Classical Fix in the copy he bought from the newsboy outside the local saloon. He just wanted a liberal dose of smut and gossip.

The weekly [The Flash]— sold for six cents by vocal newsboys and carrying advertisements for the Grotto and the Climax eating houses, cheap dress coats, midwifery and antisyphilitic nostrums like Hunter’s Red Drop — was an immediate success, and almost immediately it got into trouble. In the issue of Oct. 17, 1841, appeared one in a series of articles called “Lives of the Nymphs.” The article told the story of a rich, successful courtesan, Amanda Green — the tall, full-formed daughter of a dressmaker, who was abducted by a man in a coach and plied with Champagne. “At the crowing of the cock she was no more a maid,” said the article. Abandoned by her gentleman abuser, she took up with a German piano tuner — after which there was no recourse but a life of open shame. “May those who have not yet sinned, take warning by her example,” the Flash reporter piously wrote. “She is very handsome. She resides at Mrs. Shannon’s, No. 74 West Broadway.”

The burst of published indecorum reached its peak in the summer of 1842 …By that summer, there were two more flash rags, The Rake and The Libertine, and a printer and cartoonist named Robinson was busy selling dirty drawings with titles like “Do You Like This Sort of Thing?” [The Way the World Works]

I suppose those who “liked that sort of thing” were particularly happy when nude photos became available before too long, and the “home grown” erotic novel market got started a few years later, in 1849, with a book titled Madge Bufford: A Lively Letter to a Lonely Lover. What Uncle Bob taught her; and how she profited by his instruction with men and women black and white, with diversions among the quadrupeds. Showing that Yankee gals, grope, gape, gallop and take the salacious sweet as sensually as their smutty sisters over the sea. It contained, as one website put it, “prurient descriptions of intercourse, sodomy, voyeurism, and miscegenation [inter-racial sex].

Up until then, Americans wanting written erotica had been limited to boot-leg copies of European classics such as Fanny Hill, a 1748 British novel that was the “first English prose pornography and the first pornography to use the novel form” (Wiki: Fanny Hill). Fanny Hill pulled no punches … it included extremely explicit descriptions of a wide variety of sexual activity, so much so that it was STILL officially banned in the US until the ban was lifted by the US Supreme Court in 1966. (This doesn’t, of course, mean that it wasn’t widely available “under the counter.” Both in the 1850s and the 1950s. It was.) Once American authors got geared up to meet the growing demand, they regularly cranked out fodder for the booksellers, including, in 1864 a classy book titled The Life and Amours of the Beautiful, Gay and Dashing Kate Percival, The Belle of the Delaware, Written by Herself, Voluptuous, Exciting, Amorous and Delighting.

It’s obvious that American Victorian book authors wanted to make sure that prospective purchasers had enough information in the title to decide if the book was for them!

It would seem that Victorian life was all not “as advertised” in the past hundred and more years in history books and popular culture, such as in the Christmasy Currier and Ives-style artwork. As The Flash Press book put it—

The flash papers describe on their own terms and in their own flippant way an underworld that formed a larger part of antebellum [“before the Civil War”] American culture than hitherto acknowledged, a world that drew in a surprising range of participants and offered a challenge to what has often been seen as a monolithic Victorian sexual regime emphasizing suppression if not outright denial of sexual urges. The papers illuminate an erotic universe with models of masculine and feminine behavior differing from those of the dominant culture. With humor and sarcasm, the editors challenged the ethos of sexual purity that constituted the official story about respectable sexual morality.

So we’ve come once again to the question…have we found in the early Victorian Era the Golden Age of American sexual purity, that so impressed God that He smiled down and began showering the nation with bountiful blessings as His favored nation? Two hundred years later, have we “sunk so low” from this high point that God is now disgusted with the alleged Sodom and Gomorrah our current generation has become? Should we have “returned” to that glorious yesteryear, those “Good Old Days” of yore? And can we thus assume that “Jesus MUST be coming soon” because our children and our grandchildren’s generations are hopeless?

As readers of this series should know by now, I am convinced ALL of that reasoning is horribly flawed. I have provided documentation for “reality” throughout the history of this nation that refutes the assumption system it is based on. Yes, there have been many GOOD things we can point to in the history of this nation. We can be proud of the accomplishments of many of our forefathers … and foremothers. There have been many examples of people of high morals and ethics and humanitarian caring in all eras of America’s past. But the society as a whole has never been the “shining light on a hill” that all nations could look to and want to emulate, whether in sexual morality or many other aspects of society.

We’ve just about reached back to the founding of the nation. In the next installment, we’ll do a quick check of that era to see if maybe the Good Old Days could have been the Colonial Era and the decade or two or three surrounding the Declaration of Independence and the signing of the Constitution. Continue on to Colonial Hanky-Panky.

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