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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Sex Myths of the 1800s - Part 2

Updated: May 7, 2023

With Freud’s book on the sexual disfunction of women, the psycho-social “ailment” took center stage; the medical community pronounced that as many as a quarter of the female population suffered from hysteria. But luckily, feverish medical research also developed quick solutions.

The Victorians believed that hysteria in women could be relieved by massage—manual or mechanical—to the point of “paroxysm,” (#4) sexual stimulation to cause climax, and therefore, relief. Relief could be achieved in the doctor’s office (#3) or at home with self-curing products (#1 & #2). (For a little tame fun, watch the 2011 British movie, Hysteria, a comedic take on this theory and the invention of the vibrator!)

The Pulsocon (#1) was a hand-cranking vibrator developed in 1885 by Dr. Gerald Macaura, who turned out not to be a doctor at all. Nevertheless, his invention enjoyed brusque sales and was available in the Sears and Roebuck Catalog!

The steam-powered Manipulator (#2) was a heavy-duty (basically a phallus hooked to a train engine!) vibrator developed by American Dr. George Taylor in 1869. A man ahead of his time, Taylor invented The Manipulator before electricity. But, because of all the noise and shaking of the steam engine, it was installed behind a wall or encased in a box so as not to wreck the mood.

Advertisements at the back of men’s and ladies’ magazines touted every remedy imaginable and unimaginable! (#5-#9). Victorians were obsessed with vibration as a remedy for many emotional and physical ailments. Vibration could be delivered through ingenious means: pulsating belts, harnesses, corsets, girdles, vibrators, and even furniture!

Vibration to ailments in the “mid-quarters” was especially beneficial, as one ad claimed (#6). Butler’s Electro-Massage Machine (#5) was guaranteed to cure diseases at home and bring “glad tidings.” Pulsating belts (#7) for men cured sexual “debility,” for women, “hysteria.”

The Climax Couch (#9) and the Horse Exercise Chair (#8) were the rage. (The Horse Exercise Chair had an added use. Doctors consoled their female patients that riding a trotting horse briskly or using the Horse Exercise Chair after sex would prevent pregnancy.

The 1800s also gave rise (pun not intended) to a popular movement claiming that diet could control sexual urges. One leader in this movement was the Presbyterian minister, Sylvester Graham, who developed a cracker to relieve the sins of sexuality: the Graham cracker! (#10) Ironic that, today, Graham crackers are used for S’mores (with aphrodisiac chocolate!). But in the mid-1800s, they were intended “for less.”

A Michigan physician, John Kellogg, took Graham’s theory to a spectacular extreme. The co-founder of Kellogg Cereal Company, he believed sex was a source of vexation to the body and spirit and swore off any sex with his wife. They had separate rooms throughout their marriage and adopted all their children.

Kellogg wrote: “If illicit commerce of the sexes is a heinous sin, self-pollution (masturbation) is a crime double abominable.” To combat sexual passion and especially masturbation, he partnered with the Battle Creek Sanitarium to create Corn Flakes (#11). But they got in an argument over if the flakes should have sugar or not. Kellogg was adamant against such a frivolity, so he marketed the cereal under his family name.

It turns out the bland corn flakes were an uncharacteristically reserved solution to sexual passion compared to his other ideas: for boys he recommended threading a silver wire through their foreskin to prevent erections, for girls, rubbing carbolic acid on their private parts!

In 1874, Dr. Dio Lewis wrote in his seminal book, Chastity, or Our Secret Sin, (#12) that anything that “inflames the appetite is likely to arouse [sexual passion]. Pepper, mustard, ketchup, and Worcestshire sauce—shun them all! Even salt, in any but the smallest quantity, is objectionable and will goad toward carnalism (promiscuity).”

Not to be outdone, Harvard doctor Edward Clarke in his 1873 treatise, Sex in Education, or A Fair Chance for Girls, (#13) maintained that education, too, ran the risk of promoting carnalism in women and diminished their desire for reproduction. He warned that education depleted women of their vital reproductive energies and that education would endanger their “female apparatus” (their lady parts).

After nearly twenty years of teaching at Harvard’s Medical College, Clarke had completed his book at a time when women were entering public school and universities, working, and marching for the right to vote. He maintained that women studying in a “boy’s way,” would cause atrophy of the uterus and ovaries, insanity and even death. He viewed coeducation as impractical since women’s constitutions could not sustain more than four hours of intellectual rigor per day, and he strongly believed they should not study at all during their monthlies. His book was a runaway bestseller and years after his death went through 17 printings.

This era in American marked the lowest marriage rate in the nation’s history (except for the era we are presently in), partly fueled by the widely held [male] belief promoted by Clarke and others that educated and working women made poor wives.

See related post:

-Sex Myths of the 1800s-Part 1

"Sex Myths of the 1880s: Part 2" was originally posted July 14, 2019 on Facebook and

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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