The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Excellent US history from Million Book Project

The good people at MBP have created a sort of Dickensian secondhand bookshop, filled with a deal of books of dubious or esoteric interest, many odd volumes, little rhyme or reason in stock selection - but hiding one or two gems well worth having. (Especially since they come gratis!)

One such is The Big Change (1952) by Frederick Lewis Allen [1], author of the excellent journalistic history of America in the 1920s, Only Yesterday. I've only dipped into TBC but first signs are promising. It's anecdotal and unfootnoted - no pretence at an academic history - but full of the sort of incidental detail that brings history alive (and stirs subconscious memories of the Hollywood version of the history of the period from a lifetime of TV viewing.)

For instance, on p11/23, Allen remarks that, whilst in the big cities, girls of good family (at least, I don't think he's talking about The Other Half) would not be allowed out in the evening without a chaperone,
In the smaller places, especially west of the Alleghenies, and among city people vacationing in the country, the rules were greatly relaxed.

He quotes Henry Seidel Canby as recalling
a free association of boys and girls in their teens and early twenties that perhaps never has existed on the same plane elsewhere in the history of the modern world....All through the Adirondack woods we climbed together in summer, sleeping in cabins, girls on one side, boys on the other...falling in and out of love with never a crude pang of sex, though in a continual amorous excitement which was sublimated from the grosser elements of love.

On the face of it, it looks like the cover story provided to the parents of said girls!

However, it seems that the youth of America at the time operated the handkerchief system with their girls: one for show, one for blow. Canby says
The boys sought elsewhere for what they did not get in friendship and the respectful amorousness of equals. They raided the amusement parks or the evening streets in search of girls that could be frankly pursued for their physical charms. 'Chippies' was the cant name.

And Allen comments
...the boys preferred to think of "nice" girls of their own class in other terms, and under the code which they followed a kiss was virtually tantamount to a proposal of marriage.

I suspect that later research may have tempered this G-rated explanation a little.

A (fairly contemporary) comparison comes with George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (written around 1910, from memory, and performed first in 1912 on the continent); the dustman, Doolittle, is self-confessedly part of the undeserving poor. He is evidently subject to no sort of social sanction for living in sin with his the current inamorata. Only when raised to the middle-class by the indirect and involuntary beneficence of Henry Higgins does society demand that he marry the woman.

Colonel Pickering is surprised that he should be nervous, this being his second wedding. It isn't. Pickering says that he naturally assumed that he had married Eliza's mother. Doolittle replies (in the play)
No: that aint the natural way, Colonel: it's only the middle class way.

Earlier, under the apprehension that Higgins' interest in Eliza is carnal, Doolittle is quite happy to relinquish all claims in her for five pounds.

The fact that Shaw clearly sides with the Doolittles against the convention-bound, insipid, cardboard cut-out middle-class Eynsford-Hills is not exactly the equivalent of a well-planned sociological survey [2]. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, bastardy levels in England were pretty low (4% of live births in 1905) - and this was well before Marie Stopes' Married Love or other manifestations of the birth-control movement were first seen in the UK. The implication would seem to be that Doolittle's free and easy ways were not widely shared by his compatriots.

Ignorance, hypocrisy, the primitive methods of birth control (including abortion) then available make evaluating the Doris Day-like claims of Allen and Canby more than tricky. (This was also the heyday of Comstockery, of course.) Good fun, though.

  1. The DjVu file (much like Acrobat) is 37MB. Broadband or patience...

  2. No contemporary surveys that I'm aware of! Much academic literature since, though - with which I am deeply unfamiliar.


The usual electronic flotsam thrown up. Some URLs worth keeping: H-Women discussion of 1930s birth control in the US (feature Judge Learned Hand's 1936 classic 2nd Circuit United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries); brief notes on 20th century sex; the same, from the same source, on 19th century birth control; history of the condom; a short paper (PDF) on birth control and courtship in England from 1930 to 1950, based on oral histories.


More or less contemporary with the Allen/Canby scene is that noted force on the subject, Elinor Glyn, who inspired the well-known rhyme:
Would you rather sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?

This ditty is based on Glyn's 1907 novel Three Weeks, which, to judge from the first few pages, is something of a dog's breakfast:

Our Hero, in parting from his first love - utterly suitable, except for her social station - on a European tour designed by his mother to make him forget the m├ęsalliance [1], shares the following exchange with his girl:
Paul was six foot two, and Isabella quite six foot, and broad in proportion. They were dressed almost alike, and at a little distance, but for the lady's scanty petticoat, it would have been difficult to distinguish her sex.

"Good-bye, old chap," she said, "We have been real pals, and I'll not forget you!"

But Paul, who was feeling sentimental, put it differently.

"Good-bye, darling," he whispered with a suspicion of tremble in his charming voice. "I shall never love any woman but you--never, never in my life."

Cuckoo! screamed the bird in the tree.

Broad in proportion. Bitch! Clearly, there is to be no tiger-skin action for young Isabel...

  1. Recalling Flanders and Swann's essay on love and class in their tale of the Honeysuckle and the Bindweed.

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