When I was teaching nineteenth-century literature and social history, I told my students to remember at least one significant date: 1844, the vulcanization of rubber. Charles Goodyear’s invention of that process went on to bring effective contraception to Britain and the United States. But I didn’t know that it was also the origin of the rubber dildo. One of the many fascinating asides in Amy Werbel’s study of Anthony Comstock, the tireless crusader against pornography in late nineteenth-century New York, is an account of the modernization of this ancient sex toy. The first rubber condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps came on the market in 1869, quickly followed by dildos in many colours and shapes; one company sold twelve versions.Well, count me as surprised at the apparent number being sold.
Comstock – who was, on paper, a Postal Inspector like any other, charged with catching “crimes that may adversely affect or fraudulently use the US mail” – was astounded to find these “articles for self-pollution” widely advertised, as he described in his indignant and baffled report to Congress in 1872: “One concern was engaged almost wholly in this manufacture. Who were its customers?” Certainly not prostitutes or the married or the poor, he concluded; indeed the “white rubber Dildoe [sic]” was being sold for $6, a steep price in 1870, roughly equivalent to $116 today. The Grand Fancy Bijou Catalogue of the Sporting Man’s Emporium, which carried dozens of advertisements, called it a “happy and harmless” penis substitute for “reserved females”. By 1874, through his allies in the New York Police Department and the Post Office, Comstock had confiscated and destroyed thousands of dildos in a round-up of 60,300 “articles made of rubber for immoral purposes”. But, predictably, an ingenious sex industry made and marketed the products faster than he could condemn them, and writers and photographers quickly exploited their erotic, instructive and commercial possibilities.
I've always been a bit surprised that anyone would buy one, too. How has C20th understanding of sex changed this, I wonder? Did they used to be around from ancient times because it was assumed the male appendage in some form was essential for female pleasure? Has the sexual revolution meant that they are bought less now, even if more widely available?
Someone else can Google that for me, and let me know.