Tuesday, August 24, 2004

A Traditional Sex Ed Program, Victorian Style

The Village Voice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Everything Is Funnier With Monkeys. If J. Fred Muggs, Lancelot Link, or zoo-house fecal tossing have taught us anything, it is that every human endeavor is enriched by the addition of a screaming, leg-humping, ass-biting primate. Even, say, sex education. I beg your pardon? you might ask. Clearly you're not acquainted with the strangest children's book of the 19th century-- Sammy Tubbs, the Boy Doctor, and Sponsie, the Troublesome Monkey (1874). Written by health crusader and mail-order magnate Dr. Edward Bliss Foote (1829-1906), it's the five-volume Manhattan saga of the 12-year-old son of freed slaves. It does indeed also feature a sidekick monkey named Sponsie--and yes, as promised, he is troublesome.


It's a Victorian sex-ed manual. For children. Starring a monkey.

"Encountering Sammy Tubbs was a eureka moment, like a shot of a very powerful, very pleasurable drug," Michael Sappol, curator at the National Library of Medicine, tells the Voice. Sappol's metaphor is apt: The Sammy Tubbs series mixes nearly every progressive and fringe element of 19th-century physiology and politics into a sort of patent-medicine speedball. There are lectures against tight-fitting clothes, against tobacco and alcohol, and for phrenology and animal magnetism; there are thrilling showdowns between bigotry and the rights of women and minorities. And there are, courtesy of illustrator H.L. Stephens, hundreds of drawings of everything from shrub-like capillary diagrams to flying monkeys and animated kitchen appliances. Rather more down to earth--if not downright earthy--illustrations include those of genitalia. One set of these occurs on page 180 1/2-- the publishing netherworld equivalent of Floor 7 1/2 in Being John Malkovich—so that mortified parents could razor out the drawings without Junior noticing a break in pagination. But even razored copies still contained a drawing of a vagina with a tiny musical note tooting out of it--a sly touch by Stephens removed from later printings.

Sappol first encountered Tubbs in the early days of researching his recent book, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth Century America (Princeton University Press, 2002), newly published in paperback and featuring a chapter devoted to Tubbs.

I'd love to get a hold of a repro copy of this book. So far, I haven't been able to track one down though. But I'll find it. Oh, yes. I will find it.


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