Medical vs Artistic: A Choice of Imagery in the 19th Century

This post was written by intern Elise Plyler.

SofGMedical texts have a long history as substitutes for pornography. Books describing anatomy and reproduction have been lifted from bookshelves by curious young people and featured as the subjects of controversy for centuries. From this tradition comes the 1844 pocket edition of Michael Ryan’s The Secrets of Generation: Comprising the Art of Procreating the Sexes at Will. This book is an abridged and illustrated version of Ryan’s 1837 work, “Philosophy of Marriage.” It begins with an impressive frontispiece depicting two nude women stretched out on either side of a man in his bedclothes and the text is punctuated with four additional images of nude women.

These images are a far cry from those in the edition held by the National Library of Health, which depict the symptoms of venereal disease on men. While less appealing, the images in that copy are much more fitting; five of the book’s ten chapters cover the recognition and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. The nudes have no relation to the text. They are, however, lovely classical images of women posing by lakes and forests.SofG2

The publisher of the copy in the John Bale Book Company’s collection appears to have taken a dry medical text, peppered it with mildly obscene illustrations and slapped on a “click-bait” style title that would not be out of place on a Facebook newsfeed. Despite its sensational title, The Secrets of Generation gives little practical information in its single chapter on influencing the sex of a child. However, it is strangely comforting to see that the practice of bolstering readership with misleading titles and pictures of beautiful women is not a modern aberration; the same techniques are seen in this book published one hundred and seventy years ago.

This book is not in the best of condition. Only a few remnants of the paperback cover can be seen on the spine, and the pages are spotted and folded at the corners. Despite this, the piece remains a wonderful document of nineteenth century theories of reproduction and an intriguing curiosity to explore.

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