When the dog days of summer come around, the prospect of relaxing and playing on beautiful beaches is highly anticipated. The laws of “Jim Crow” (the colloquial name for the dizzying array of prohibitions and restrictions placed on black and white interaction from roughly 1896 to 1954/1964) meant that African Americans were often barred from enjoying their summers in the same manner as European Americans. In a slightly ironic twist, before Jim Crow laws hardened race relations and created a permanent color line, according to Andrew W. Kahrl in The Land Was Ours, distinguished African Americans “purchased cottages and established close-knit summer colonies in many of the popular summer destinations in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, including, among others, Saratoga, New York; Cape May, New Jersey; and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.” 1 There was also a significant year-round population of African Americans at popular Gilded Age summer resorts, as evidenced by the Gilded Age Newport in Color website. From the 1890s to the 1960s, the resorts that sprang up along the coastlines of the United States provided a haven against racism and humiliation, created multi-generational memories, and tell a story of how landscapes and leisure can be used to combat oppression!
Highland Beach, Maryland
It was the sudden hardening of the color line that influenced Charles Douglass, youngest son of Frederick Douglass, to found Highland Beach in 1893. Charles and his wife Fannie were barred from vacationing on a Chesapeake Bay resort and as they walked along a shoreline, they came across a black-owned farm. The owner sold them forty acres and Douglass divided the land into lots, which he sold to friends. “Twin Oaks,” the Queen Anne house Douglass built for his father, who died before its completion, is now The Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center. Other nearby African American enclaves included the villages of Arundel-on-the-Bay and Oyster Harbor.
Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts)
The African American presence on Martha’s Vineyard stretches back to the mid-18th century, according to Jill Nelson in her family memoir/history book Finding Martha’s Vineyard. The area known as Oak Bluffs was originally a Methodist revival camp; by the turn-of-the-century, African American Yankees were a significant presence in this corner of the island, whether they were business-owners or pleasure-seekers. The official period of African American leisure began in 1903 when Charles Shearer, a teacher born enslaved in 1854, purchased a cottage near the Baptist church where he and his family worshiped. His wife Henrietta started a laundry to supplement the family’s income, which she ran until her death in 1917. The Shearer daughters converted the former laundry into a guest house and inn for African American vacationers–Shearer Cottage–which still operates today.
Sag Harbor, Long Island (New York)
As with Martha’s Vineyard, the African American presence on Long Island stretches back to the days of slavery. The Zion A.M.E. Church established in 1840 was even a stop on the Underground Railroad! They heyday of Sag Harbor began in the late 1920s, when prominent African American New Yorkers (re)discovered the comforts of the coast during the hot summer months. 2 The communities of Azurest, Sag Harbor, and Ninevah flourished between 1948 and 1955, when Maud Terry of Queens, NYC purchased property in Azurest and sold lots to friends. Other wealthy African Americans soon followed, and soon this became the hidden secret of the Hamptons!
Beautiful Idlewild. Black Eden. Those were some of the names bestowed upon this incredible summer resort in the wilds of Western Michigan. Founded in 1912 by white investors who sold lots to the black elite in Chicago and Detroit (and later from all parts of the United States), it quickly became the place to be for doctors, lawyers, and the brightest stars of the 20th century, from Cab Calloway to Dinah Washington during its heyday in the 1940s-60s. The average Idlewilders took advantage of the lush beach and the gorgeous forest, taking part in hunting and fishing, as well as athletics.
American Beach, Florida
As stated on the plaque marking American Beach as a registered historic site, this stretch of Florida coastline was established by Florida’s richest African American, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, a co-founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. He intended the beach to be a leisure spot for executives and employees of the life insurance company, and from the 1920s to the 1960s it was yet another hot spot for the 20th century’s famous and renown, from Zora Neale Hurston to Joe Louis. After its near destruction by a hurricane in 1964, Lewis’s great-granddaughter, MaVynee Betsch, returned to fight for recognition of the beach’s importance to Florida history and African American history.
Andrew W. Kahrl, The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press), 88. ↩
Jerry Komia Domatob, African Americans of Eastern Long Island (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001), 83 ↩
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Amidst the patriotic fervor whipped up by President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany was the continuing racial violence and racism against African Americans. At the beginning of July, a bloody riot in East St. Louis, Illinois left an entire black neighborhood decimated and countless residents murdered, maimed, and left homeless. In response to the lack of justice for this incident (as well as others in Memphis, TN and Waco, TX) the NAACP organized a silent march down Fifth Avenue.
10,000 African Americans gathered on July 28, 1917, dressed in white and carrying banners of protest or American flags, and marched down New York’s most famous thoroughfare.
See more rare photographs from Yale’s Beinecke Library, which staged an exhibit on the march to mark its 100th anniversary.
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:
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 will have a Gilded Age anatomy book 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 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!
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?↩