One of the things I always warn people about before their first archival trip is just how boring historical research can be. We sit for days in silent archives, flipping through folders of papers, hoping to find little tidbits that we can build into a cohesive narrative about the past. (Thank goodness for the invention of the mp3, because without podcasts and music I would have gone mad on these trips.) In my case, researching the history of sex education at the turn of the twentieth century meant reading dozens and dozens of books and pamphlets that essentially gave the exact same birds and the bees talk to children — with some variations. And both the repetition and the variation are important; the repetition showed me the information that sex educators thought most vital to their reform project, and the variation is often a flag raised to show me how writers put their stamp on the genre.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t boring to spend literally years wading through these texts. How many ways can you describe the insemination of fish eggs, the effects of menstruation, the deadly threat from masturbation? Let me tell you, not enough to make it interesting when you’re buried in this research.
But then, sometimes, you find that one source — the document that makes you stop in your tracks, that reminds you that there is a reason you are putting in these hours. For me, one such moment actually happened here at home in Virginia. I had obtained a copy of a little sex education manual called Almost Fourteen through interlibrary loan, but the lending library required that I only be allowed to access it in our Special Collections center.1 This was a massive pain, but I dutifully carried my laptop and phone and headphones to Swem Library to take a look. I assumed that this would be a sex ed manual like all the others — but I found myself pleasantly and thrillingly surprised that day. In short, this book is bonkers.
Mortimer A. Warren was a teacher who published Almost Fourteen in 1892. He meant it to be a resource for boys and girls alike; on the title page he called it “A Book Designed as a Gift from Parents to Their Sons and Daughters, After those sons and daughters have passed the age of seven, and before they reach the age of fourteen.”2 This was a common age group for sex education in this time period, when books would aim to teach readers about the basics of reproductive biology. Books for single sex readers of this age would continue onward to describe the signs of puberty and how to handle changing bodies and psychology. If a book was aimed at both genders, it would stop with the basic biological info.
And this is where Warren’s book made me practically gasp while reading in Special Collections. Rather than keeping to the basic reproductive biology, he went into detail about puberty in both boys and girls. He described menstruation and seminal emissions (wet dreams); he warned both sexes against masturbation; and he even revealed exactly how the sperm meets the egg. And man, is it titillating:
Okay, so it’s not the hottest description of sex for a reader in 2017. But this goes much further than nearly any other sex education manual that I’ve read written for children in this period. Usually, an author acknowledges that making a baby takes both sperm and an egg, but never quite lets on how that sperm meets that egg — especially not in books aimed at the younger set. He also discusses topics like unwed mothers, rape, adultery, and infanticide — again, topics that might arise delicately in a book aimed at teenage readers, but almost never a book for pre-pubescent boys and girls.
Reading this source was a big moment for me. But when I got my hands on Warren’s second edition of Almost Fourteen, published eight years later in 1900, I knew I really had found something special. The second edition took everything that made Almost Fourteen unique and wiped it away. Warren openly admitted in a new preface that the first book led to some pushback from readers. He wrote, “Friends whose sincerity and ability as critics I cannot for an instant doubt, have assured me that this book as first published contained too much of physiological and illustrative detail. Thanking them heartily for their kindly criticism, I have reviewed the work, excising and adding as seemed desirable, and herewith offer a revised edition to the calm and candid judgment of these friends and of all fathers and mothers.”4 Clearly someone besides me noticed the weirdness of his first attempt!
The drastic changes between these two editions tell me something important. In the intervening years between 1892 and 1900, Warren was not the only author writing in the genre. He was joined by many others who began dipping their toes into sex education. It became clear exactly what kinds of books would be successful. The bestselling “Self and Sex” series is the perfect example — eight books divided up by age and gender, that looked to help readers through life stages from puberty through middle-age. Reading those books and many others from the period showed me a clear tightening of standards for what could be put in a sex ed book — or, presumably, what would sell and make it a success. Warren learned that his first attempt was far outside the bounds of what parents wanted to provide for their kids; he cleaned it up, made it fall more into line with other authors of the period, and reissued the book.
These kind of archival finds can be such a rush. In this project, I spent months, even years, reading essentially the same formulaic book over and over. Finding Almost Fourteen underscored just how formulaic the genre was — Warren helped me to see how and when the genre solidified into the usual format. By standing out from the pack, Warren helped to clarify his contemporaries’ reform mission for me.
And who doesn’t love reading a scandalous book from any era?
- A huge and thankful shoutout to the interlibrary loan staff at the College of William & Mary. They made it so I didn’t have to travel to complete my entire MA thesis, and continued to be indispensible to the dissertation project. Return to text.
- Mortimer A. Warren, Almost Fourteen (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1892), title page. Return to text.
- Ibid 118. Return to text.
- Mortimer A. Warren, Almost Fourteen, rev. ed. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1900), n.p. Return to text.