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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.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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