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5 Ways to Guarantee a Baby Boy (100 Years Ago)

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If you were serious about producing a male heir around the turn of the 20th century, there was plenty of questionable advice to follow.

1. Science is for the Unimaginative

First, it’s important that we understand how human bodies select gender in reproduction. This is best accomplished through peer-reviewed scientific studies in a clinical environment. Or not. Sometimes you just know in your gut how reproductive microbiology works. Laura Davis, who wrote The Law of Sex Determination and Its Practical Application in 1916, didn’t need egghead science. She learned about ovaries and spermatozoa in the school of life:

The writer is not in a position to furnish absolute verification, through methods of anatomy or physiology, of her theory. She has no laboratories nor methods of precision by which her theory can be directly tested. But she is convinced of its truth from her own extensive experience in its practical application for a period of thirty years.

Argue with that, if you dare. It is through this extensive experience that Davis feels confident to share with you her secret. If you want a boy, it all depends on which ovary you decide to use.

2. Pick an Ovary

According to Davis, "Sex of the embryo in man and the higher animals is determined in the ovary from which the ovum in question is developed." She continued:

In the normal female the ovary of the right side yields ova which on fertilization develop as males, and the ovary of the left side yields ova which are potentially female. To this end the influence of gravitation can be utilized. In order that fertilizing spermatozoa shall reach the right or left ovary, it is necessary that gravity should carry them in the direction desired.

Therefore Davis would counsel women who wanted a boy to lie on their right sides. Percy John McElrath, who wrote The Key to Sex Control in 1911, also believed gravity was important to conception: 

After insemination she should lie for three or four hours on the side of the ovary which matured the ovum; if it is not known which ovary matured the ovum, she should choose the most comfortable side to lie on and remain on that side for five or six hours to assist by gravity the ovum to the fimbriae extremity of the Fallopian tube.

If society—or, say, his own personal sense of professionalism—had permitted Mr. McElrath to actually talk to a female in this era, he might have learned most women are hard-pressed to know “which ovary” they excreted an egg out of. Similarly, Mr. McElrath would be unlikely to know which of his testicles produced the most virile sperm. (Although he had a solution for that, as we shall soon see.)

3. Enfeeble Yourself

Henri Médile Gourrier, writing in 1886, didn’t think gravity or even ovaries mattered when it came to having a son. Gender was determined by whichever parent was the most feeble:

If marked symptoms of debility exist on the side of the sex that is desired, this sex will be produced naturally, without any effort being made.

Therefore, if a man wanted a boy, he must set about handicapping himself with what Gourrier called “The Debilitating Regimen”:

This is the most essential. The food should consist of thin soups, white meats, such as veal, chicken and lamb; mucilaginous articles of diet, such as corn starch and pastries; also vegetables and, in summer, fruits. For drink, in addition to water, weak tea may be taken with the meals. If a person desires to attain a still greater degree of debility, it is necessary to restrict the diet, to perform manual labor, and to bathe frequently in warm water.

So … in the 19th century one “debilitated” oneself by eating lean meats and vegetables, performing physical exercise, and taking warm baths. Somebody needs to tell all those people down at the gym the havoc they are wreaking on their bodies. If they continue that way, extensive bloodletting with an unwashed nail might be the only way for them to regain their health.

If the basic Debilitating Regimen did not result in a son, Gourrier permitted his readers to exercise even harder and then have some wine:

Then, finally, if this course does not suffice, aperient drinks should be taken, and the exercise of the body should be carried to fatigue.

Even better than the above methods was the Disease Method. The absolute best time to conceive a child of your own sex is on the immediate heels of any horrendous illness:

The period of convalescence from acute diseases. It is at such times that the senses and the generative organs, recovering from their somnolence, commence to shake off their inertia, and to come out of their inaptitude; that the fatigued body, that the depressed and enfeebled economy, finds itself in the most favorable condition for generation and for producing its own sex, both at the same time.

So, if you want a son, see if you can catch yourself a stout case of measles or any of the finer poxes. If you survive that, you and your wife are just one half-conscious encounter of life-sapping love away from a son.

4. Don't Blame Dad

Simon Newcomb, writing in 1904, made an earnest effort to reveal the mysteries of sex selection by using the most crafty of all deceits—statistics. His analysis of the birth records from 1900 yielded these conclusions:

Your Body Doesn’t Know What’s Going On, Either
The sex is not absolutely determined at any one moment or by any one act, but is the product of a series of accidental causes, some acting in one direction and some in another, until preponderance in one direction finally determines it. The statistics of twins and triplets seem to show very strongly that these accidents occur after conception, but throw no light upon the question of the time which they occupy.

Dad’s Got Almost Nothing to Do with It
The most natural inference from all the statistical data is that the functions of the father in generation are entirely asexual, the sex being determined wholly by the mother. If so, it cannot be said that one father is more likely than another to have children of either sex.

5. Orgasmic Ruptures!

Percy John McElrath may not have known much about women, but he was sure he knew how to get them produce a son. He believed sons resulted specifically from the intervention of the Graafian follicle in the ovary. You had to rupture it early to get a son, and the best way to do that was a well-timed orgasm.

Male-Production.—The spermatozoon must reach the ovum before it becomes old and female-producing. To do this it is necessary to inseminate at a time when orgasm of the female will rupture the Graafian follicle. Orgasm in the female will probably rupture a follicle from three to five days sooner than it would if allowed to burst of its own accord. It is better not to cohabit after the election date of insemination, inasmuch as orgasm of the female is liable to expel the fertilized ovum before it has become attached to the wall of the uterus.

McElrath’s theory was the opposite of Gourrier's. It was the robustness of a father, not his feebleness, which produced a son, so he gave special instructions to men on how to strengthen themselves. Key factors: potatoes, stay away from women, and flush those testicles daily!

To prepare the male for the production of a fine male child, he should go on a starch diet for two or three months prior to the anticipated insemination, work hard and constantly, remain secluded from the female, see that the clothing is loose about the testicles and that they are not subjected to any pressure just five or six days before the anticipated date of insemination. The semen should be ejected once each day for four or five days before insemination. This will insure the presence of the very best specimens of spermatozoa and at the same time require more activity on the part of the male to reach orgasm and will assist the female to orgasm.

To sum up Mr. McElrath’s approach to gender determination: Avoid women, both before and after conception. They are mythical creatures constantly trembling on the edge of orgasm, able to control their ovulatory system at will. Also, don't forget to masturbate. That way, if you’re lucky, you’ll only have to have sex once to ensure the propagation of the glory of manhood.

It’s important to remember that, for the most part, these people weren’t idiots. They were ambitious and tried to figure out something they didn’t understand with the little information they could collect. In 100 years, our great-great-grandchildren will no doubt be raising eyebrows at us, and how we had no clue most diseases are caused by a chemical secreted by house cats when they get their feelings hurt.

See Also:

7 Tips for Keeping Your Man (from the 1950s)
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100-Year-Old Wedding Night Advice for Newlyweds
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7 Bizarre Ways Kids Entertained Themselves Before Video Games

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Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library
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History
10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 11.27.46 AM.png

Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 10.46.05 AM.png

“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 10.48.04 AM.png

This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 11.46.47 AM.png

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 11.54.27 AM.png

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 12.47.23 PM.png

Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 2.18.01 PM.png

The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 3.13.18 PM.png

The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 3.14.37 PM.png

The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 3.15.15 PM.png

The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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