Where’s all the Sex in the Dark Lantern Tales books?
The simple answer is that these stories were directed at what we would now consider a prime time TV audience. There is a fair amount of good ol’ American violence drama, but nobody gets laid, at least not overtly. Buried in the stories are more than a few references to adult behaviors, and Albert W. Aiken also wrote stories that include at least a couple of Lesbian characters and also characters that might now be called transsexual. However, there is still not much that could be called erotic.
Some of the Beadle’s stories were first published in what were called story papers, and these were generally for the whole family. Story papers were weekly publications with overlapping serialized stories aimed at the varied interests of family members. A typical issue might contain a romantic story segment for Mother, a juvenile series for the youngsters, a bit of saccharin poetry, and a more robust story for Father and the older boys, also serialized. Story paper issues could be bought at newsstands and other retailers, but the goal was to engage the whole family and sell the papers by subscription.
Contrary to popular belief, though, erotic literature and images were not hard to find in the Victorian era. History is complex, and the private behaviors of modern people were similarly present in the past.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were American newspapers that carried carefully worded advertisements which noted when favorite professional ladies had taken up residence in a new house. There were also city directories that mentioned where one might find companionship for the evening on a commercial basis, or where “Houses of Assignation” could be found for a discrete visit with a special friend (the original “No-Tell Motel”). Prostitution was not deeply hidden in most US cities of the period, although relegated to certain areas of town for the most part. A good read on the subject is the engaging book about the Everleigh Sisters in Chicago, Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott (Random House).
Cameras had not been invented long before they were pointed at naked ladies, and the tiny Stanhope viewers could offer a bit of visual frisson in a watch chain charm. Examples of Victorian era photographs of both artistic and erotic intent can be found readily on the internet.
American soft-covered publications with erotic content are more difficult to locate, partly from the assertive censorship promoted by Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, beginning in the early 1870s. Also, relatives who discovered some racy material while going through the effects of a recently passed Granddad probably just discretely tossed it out. What material remains to be studied had to pass through several generations of real and de facto censorship.
There are some erotic novels that have survived, but most from the mid to late 1800s that I have found mentioned online are from overseas. In my own internet searches for this article, soft-covered erotic lit of the period online is mostly in British publications. These may well have been imported to the US, but for the mid to late nineteenth century American publications I have not found much. Of these, Fanny Hill has remained in print since the mid 1700s, and some scarce material marketed to soldiers in the Civil War is studied in Judith Geisberg’s Sex and the Civil War, University of North Carolina Press. I say “scarce” to describe those publications now, but at the time they were readily available.
Richard K. Fox bought a tired old publication, The National Police Gazette, and turned it into the seminal scandal rag, sports digest, and sensational illustrated magazine of the age. The Illustrated Police News offered a bit of competition in a similar publication, and both were staple reading for the pool hall, barber shop and saloon. The peccadilloes of the idle rich were salaciously reported, and an astonishing amount of wood engravings illustrated half the pages. Described with euphemisms, prostitutes are pictured in provocative situations, and plenty of show girls in scanty costumes decorate most issues.
If you search for British magazines like The Pearl, and The Oyster, you can find plenty of erotic writing from the 1870s and 1880s. Between the literature and the photos, it is clear that not much new in the way of sexual activity has been tried, even in our more enlightened times!
Recently I heard about ribald audio recordings of the 1890s released on CD by Archeophone Records. Of course, I ordered a copy immediately, just for research. Archeophone Records has earned two Grammy nominations for locating and reproducing early recordings of off-color jokes, stories, poems, ditties, etc. made when recordings were transcribed onto wax cylinders. These were all original recordings, made one at a time. Commercial players, each play typically costing a nickel, let listeners hear through a rubber tube to each ear. Players like that were in many public places, but when placed in the back of a bar or pool hall, the player could be loaded with one of these “adult humor” recordings. Anthony Comstock’s minions raided saloons, made arrests, and confiscated recordings, but they didn’t find them all. These recordings were rare at the time, and are now beyond scarce. This collection is very well packaged in a box with a very extensive set of notes in a booklet about the culture and the people who (probably) performed on the recordings. Archeophone Records mostly offers recordings of music from cylinder records, but the “Actionable Offenses” CD is something special and covers the later years from when the Dark Lantern Tales stories have been gathered.
I wish you good hunting if you choose to search for period erotic lit from the Victorian era on the internet. However, the Dark Lantern Tales titles will continue to be chosen from the popular literature for the broader, “prime time” audience.
Sin in the Second City:
Sex and the Civil War:
Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past:
“Actionable Offenses” CD from Archeophone Records:
National Police Gazette:
Erotic Art from the 17th to 20th Century:
The Pearl magazine: