100-Year-Old Wedding Night Advice for Newlyweds

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Imagine yourself as a young person during an era when there was no sex ed in high school. Sure, pornography exists, but you're more likely to get your hands on the smallpox virus than a properly illicit "French Postcard." The only depictions of sexuality you'll regularly encounter in your young life are the disturbing interactions of farm animals. And yet your wedding night approaches. How do you prepare yourself?

Well, you'll read any number of delicately worded advice books, written by people of apparent high moral standing and (usually vague) medical credentials. Here's a sampling.

What a girl should know

First, the most important thing, as imparted to us by Emma Frances Angell Drake in 1902's What a Young Wife Ought to Know: "From the wedding day, the young matron should shape her life to the probable and desired contingency of conception and maternity. Otherwise she has no right or title to wifehood."

Now that your purpose as a woman has been made clear, how do you achieve it? It was assumed that all men approaching marriage had a rudimentary understanding of what was going to happen. But women of quality would not have been so exposed to rude talk, rumors, and basic knowledge of their own body. She might not even know the names and function of her own reproductive organs. This ignorance, says Walter Gallichan in 1918's The Psychology of Marriage, can be fatal:

It is necessary that the virgin should not enter the married state without even theoretical knowledge of sex. Those who counsel such unenlightenment are unconsciously guilty of cruelty. Many young wives have considered themselves the subjects of outrage on the bridal night. There have been cases of sudden disappearance and flight on the eve of wedding. Now and then one reads a painful report of suicide at this crisis in a girl's life. [The Psychology of Marriage]

But how much should a girl know to keep her from running screaming into the night or driving her to suicide? It depends on which expert you ask, but according to Maurice Bigelow in 1916's Sex-education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Knowledge of Sex in Its Relation to Human Life, not so much as to make her too curious:

She should know the scientific names of her organs, not because there are many vulgar names as in the case of boys, but because dignified names help attitude. Ovaries, uterus (womb), vagina, Fallopian tubes, and vulva will be sufficient. Detailed description of the external organs (vulva) might arouse curiosity that leads to exploration and irritation. [Sex-education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Knowledge of Sex in Its Relation to Human Life]

Bigelow asserts that a girl should only be taught that she has a vulva, not the parts that make up a vulva, lest she want to see or touch those parts of herself. Curiosity can lead to exploration, which can lead to…irritation.

Also, knowing too much is unbecoming in a bride. Men adore the fact you're ashamed of yourself, as Karl Heinzen explains in 1891'sThe Rights of Women and Their Sexual Relations:

There is, indeed, another kind of shame. It is that delicate shyness which the virgin feels when she is to step beyond the boundary of virginity, as well as that feminine reserve which strives to hide or to guard her charms. This "shame" is…a natural consequence of an emotional affection upon entering a new life…it has nothing to do with the consciousness or the fear of seeing something improper disclosed, is an ornament to every woman, and its absence is a proof of dullness and coarseness. [The Rights of Women and Their Sexual Relations]

It's so adorable that you feel icky and confused, darling.

Make sure he knows you're going to want to maintain your human rights beforehand.

Bernarr Macfadden was not afraid to take on the controversial new idea that women have rights over their own bodies in his 1918 Womanhood and Marriage. He's willing to allow that women might be embracing this new fad. But it is of greatest importance that she tells her husband she feels this way before a wedding date is set:

With the development of the idea of personal freedom has come the feeling, on the part of many women, that they should have the right of ownership of their own bodies — in other words, that they should have the privilege of choosing whether or not they will acquiesce in their husband's desire for entering into the physical relationship of marriage.

Since, however, it has been for so long a time an accepted idea that the husband's right over the wife's body was inherent, it is advisable for any young woman who takes the other point of view to make her attitude thoroughly understood by her future husband before she definitely takes upon herself the obligations of the marriage state. [Womanhood and Marriage]

The fact that a cow is a temperamental milker is not the sort of thing you spring on a poor guy after he's already bought her. Full disclosure makes for good business.

The consummation

Before the actual consummation occurs, a few things should be considered. First, there is the physical condition of virginity. Nearly all 19th-century marital advice shuns the Biblical idea of blood proof of virginity. One Dr. Napheys says to know if your wife is truly a virgin, pay attention to her outer purity, not her inner membranes:

The presence or absence of the hymen is no test. There is, in fact, no sign whatever which allows even an expert positively to say that a woman has or has not suffered the approaches of one of the opposite sex. The one true and only test which any man should look for is modesty in demeanor before marriage, absence of both assumed ignorance and a disagreeable familiarity, and a pure and religious frame of mind. When these are present, he need not doubt that he has a faithful and chaste wife.

But if such a membrane is present, tender care should be taken. William Josephus Robinson, author of 1920's Sex Knowledge for Men, says that a truly loving husband will proceed with the deflowering of his wife very slowly, sometimes taking up to a week of gentle introductions before a full connection is made.

Sylvanus Stall, who writes in 1899's What a Young Husband Ought to Know, is not as generous in his timeline, but insists that if a wife is still hurting weeks after the wedding night, she should probably see a doctor:

It is important for young husbands to know that when a serious inconvenience is experienced in the consummation of marriage, if the hymen is not easily removed by care and consideration, but remains an impediment or a pain for a period of days, or a couple of weeks, medical advice and assistance should by all means be sought. [What a Young Husband Ought to Know]

Don't be in such a hurry to consummate, anyway. That fruit is going to taste pretty bland once it's no longer forbidden, according to Mrs. E.B. Duffey in her book The Relations of the Sexes: "Do not be in too great haste to brush the bloom from the fruit you covet. It will lose half its attractions at once."

No sex or bad sex makes women crazy

Robinson gets straight to the point when he says, "The bridal night is the most important turning point in a woman's entire life." Not just because this night will determine the success of the entire marriage (more on that later), but because, according to Gallichan, married sex is the only way a woman can keep her health. It's the only way to channel her anabolic energy:

Every intelligent physician knows that conjugal life is the salvation of many women. Every specialist in the nervous and psychic disorders of women is aware that a healthy vita sexualis is the remedy for many troubles of the brain. Many women have conflicts and longings which they attribute to any other source than enforced single life, disharmonious marriage, or unfulfilled maternal processes. The anabolic energy of woman may be said to desire avidly the catabolic force of man as the completion of being. No argument, no evasion, can destroy this fact of human life. [Sex Knowledge for Men]

Any woman who does not enjoy her sex life is at risk for insanity and illness—an interesting proposition that might still find a good many female supporters today.

Husband or beast?

Now let us revisit the subject of a husband coveting the forbidden fruit of his bride's love bud. New husbands are often driven mad by their desire to obtain this treasure. But be warned, one night of binging can wreck an entire life, says Mrs. Duffey:

This bud of passion cannot be forced rudely open. Its development must be the work of time. If the young wife is met with violence, if she finds that her husband regards the gratification of his own desires more than her feelings — and if she be worn and wearied with excesses in the early days of her married life, the bud will be blighted. The husband will have only himself to blame if he is bound all his life to an apathetic, irresponsive wife. It is easy to imagine the unsatisfactory conjugal relations which are brought about in punishment of the husband's early impetuosity and ignorance. He finds an unreciprocal wife, doubts her affection for him, because, with his masculine nature, he cannot conceive of a love unblended with passion. [The Relations of the Sexes]

Stall describes how an over-ambitious husband will ruin both his and his wife's life:

Many otherwise kind men have become possessed with the thought that every right is theirs immediately; and in their inconsiderate, rapacious passion, in the speedy consummation of marriage, at whatever cost of pain or wounded feeling on the part of her whom they have taken to love and honor, they well-nigh wreck the after happiness of both in the first days of their united lives.

Husband beware of the wrong of committing a veritable outrage upon the person of her whom God has given you as your companion, and suffering ever after the stings of remorse, that she never again can feel the same respect and love for you that she could, had you been more considerate of her feelings and desires.

It will be difficult for her to be persuaded that the animal nature does not control and dominate your love for her, rather than the higher instincts of the soul. [What a Young Husband Ought to Know]

For all your innocent bride knows, you made up this weird thing you want to do to her. A certain amount of patience will show her that you care more about her person than her privates. Forget this, and you have personally created a woman who will hate you the rest of her life.

But then again, if a woman does not enjoy sex, her husband will begin to hate her:

The woman who turns with aversion from a perfunctory performance of "conjugal duty" inspires an ardent and affectionate husband with the deepest suspicion of her love. His devotion must be strong indeed if he can preserve love and esteem for his wife after repeated suggestion of apathy, or manifestations of open repugnance or shameful compliance. [What a Young Husband Ought to Know]

The importance of restraint

Even if you are a gentle husband and lover, and even if your wife is enjoying herself, restraint is imperative. Says Robinson:

It will be seen that the husband who wishes to keep and retain the regard, affection, and gratitude of his wife, will be moderate and circumspect during the first few weeks of married life. Unless, of course, the wife herself is of a passionate nature and demands frequent satisfaction. In such cases the husband will comply with his wife's wishes as far as he can without injuring his health. [Sex Knowledge for Men]

Yes, the husband's health is at risk from over-indulgence. Even if a new wife is fond of the conjugal act, she must learn to restrain herself for her husband's sake, lest she drain him of his vital fluids. Macfadden explains:

Wives must understand that the life-giving fluid called the semen, which is produced in the creative organs of the man, is of great value in the upbuilding of his own body. It is only within comparatively recent times that the marvelous power of this creative fluid in building up and making over the body of the individual has been thoroughly understood. [Womanhood and Marriage]

Furthermore, it is of the utmost importance that if a couple is to have copious amounts of sex, that the woman be joyful and satisfied in the act. Otherwise, magnetic energy is not exchanged and you end up draining him like a sexual vampire:

In sexual intimacies, there is a discharge of this creative fluid from the body of the man, but where there is a full response on the part of the wife, there seems to be an exchange of magnetism or energy which makes up for the loss. If, however, his desire alone is active and she is simply fulfilling a supposed wifely duty, she gives nothing to him, and he, therefore, suffers a definite loss in vitality. It is claimed by some that such one-sided intimacies are almost as harmful to the man as masturbation. [Womanhood and Marriage]

As quaint as they seem to us, and as misinformed as they are, these books were trying to help. They were lights, however dim, in the fog of Victorian sexual confusion. They encouraged people to replace ignorance with education, selfishness with compassion. They didn't have the knowledge or values we have now, but the core ethic of trying to clear up rumor and confusion was still there, and is still admirable.

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

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Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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