Nineteenth-Century Gender Roles: Collections

The nineteenth century is sometimes perceived as an era in which there was a reduction in the expression and exploration of gender and sexuality, as this clashed with prevailing religious and social views, ideology and notions of morality. Indeed, the Private Case from the British Library was created around the time the British Parliament passed the Obscene Publications Act in 1857 which made the dissemination and sale of obscene materials a statutory offence. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the study and exploration of gender and sexuality was suppressed across society. In fact, the forbidden book trade, as an outlet, flourished in the overtly moral climate. The New York Academy of Medicine was also established in 1847 and contributed greatly to the ongoing study of gender and sexuality in the nineteenth century.
  • The Private Case from the British Library

    Established in the 1850s, the Private Case contains material that was segregated from the main British Museum Library collection on grounds of obscenity. Its name derives from being kept in lockable bookcases in the Keeper’s room; items were only issued to readers with his written permission. This prevented the British Museum from violating obscenity laws and deterred theft of rare and collectable items. Today, the Private Case contains approximately 2500 volumes but it has held many more in the past – books were moved in and out of the collection as the definition of obscenity evolved in society. The collection was transferred from the British Museum to the British Library in 1973.

    The Private Case consists mostly of erotic printed fiction and poetry, with some social science material, dating from the late seventeenth century through to the twentieth century. The collection also contains some typescript, microfilm and photographic material. It perhaps goes without saying that almost all the Private Case erotica was produced by men for men. The Private Case includes collections from the Spencer-Ashbee bequest, Eric Arthur Wildman, H. Pinkus and Charles Reginald Dawes. The content is in a number of languages, with a large proportion in French.

    The Private Case allows researchers to examine the forbidden book trade, trace social and institutional attitudes towards obscenity, expose moral strictures and better understand the history of human sexuality as a whole.

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  • Sexual History and Sexology Books from the New York Academy of Medicine

    The New York Academy of Medicine was established in 1847 as an independent organization interested in regulating and improving the profession of medicine in New York City and in promoting the health of the public. Initially conceived of as a collection of contemporary materials for the use of the Fellows, the collection expanded as many of the early Fellows had an interest in the history of medicine.

    The Academy Library traditionally collected in all areas of medicine and its allied fields, and consequently accumulated extensive holdings in many subjects, including women’s medicine, gynecology, and obstetrics, the skills of a midwife and a wide range of materials about sex and sexuality. Found in the collection are advice books for parents and children;; marriage manuals about expected male and female traits and characteristics; gender roles and responsibilities within the public and domestic spheres; birth control books; books advising parents on how to share information about sex with their children, many of them written by women; and cautionary works about the dangers of self-gratification. Whilst many of these texts reinforce patriarchal ideas and the notion of separate spheres, we can also see nascent feminism, particularly in female-authored texts, and evolving perceptions of womanhood.

    This collection includes more than 1,500 scientific and literary texts from the Academy library in numerous languages, including large numbers in English, French, and German. Bridging the history of medicine, the humanities and the arts, these texts provide insight into the medical thinking in which contemporary medical practice is rooted, and demonstrate our attempts to understand our bodies, minds, and health across time and culture.

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  • Kinsey Institute Special Subject Units from ‘Sex Research: Early Literature from Statistics to Erotica’

    Dr. Alfred Charles Kinsey (1894–1956) was an American biologist, professor of entomology and zoology, and sexologist. Known as the “father of the sexual revolution,” Dr. Kinsey's work has influenced social and cultural values in the United States and around the world. Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his research team founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University on April 8, 1947. The Institute had two primary goals: to continue the team's research on human sexual behavior and to administer research resources including a library, case histories, and other related research materials.

    The books in the collection offer a view into the materials Dr. Kinsey acquired in order to continue his research into sexuality. They cover the topic of human sexuality as it was treated in the writings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are also books from the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, as well as some books that were reprints of older texts from previous centuries. These sources help modern readers assess how much of contemporary life reflects a real ‘sexual revolution,’ and how much is really rooted in the past.

    Human sexual behavior as a subject and factor in human existence appears in works from almost every field of knowledge, therefore the items in this collection span subject categories as diverse as medicine, law, anthropology and erotic literature. It is the variety of titles and subjects in this collection that make the research opportunities intriguing.

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