So there I was, enjoying the usual stream of posts on a scholarly mailing list I subscribe to, about 18th century literature and culture, when up pops a series of posts under the title “Dildos, I’m afraid.”
Now, if you’re like me, and I know I am, that’s going to catch and keep your attention. So herewith are some of the list’s observations and conclusions:
First, Delilah Marvelle’s illustrated history of the dildo. Of course scientists have found 28,000 year old dildos in caves in Germany. Why wouldn’t they have? As to Marvelle’s statement, “the very first appearance of the word dildo in the English dictionary is said to have appeared in 1598,” what we actually get from the Oxford English Dictionary is “a. A word of obscure origin, used in the refrains of ballads” and “1593 T. Nashe Choise of Valentines or the Merie Ballad of Nash his Dildo (1899) 20 Curse Eunuke dilldo, senceless counterfet.” The scholarly take on this poem:
The only extant example of this manuscript industry is Nashe’s erotic poem in the vein of Ovid’s Amores, “The Choice of Valentines,” dedicated to the “Lord S”–either the earl of Southhampton or Ferdinando Stanley. The couplets of this poem chronicle the speaker’s visit to a brothel, where his failure to maintain an erection leads his mistress to find an artificial substitute.
Rictor Norton’s Gay History & Literature site, which I was hitherto unaware of, but looks to be a valuable resource.
“There are references to dildoes in Measure for Measure.” Wait, what? Dildoes in Shakespeare? Apparently so! From Dutton & Howard’s A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Comedies:
When Nerissa questions, “Why, shall we turn to men?” Portia reprimands her, warning of the repercussions if she “wert near a lwed interpreter!” and then promises to tell her “all my whole device” – a term which itself solicits a “lewd interpretation” as a dilod – when they are together in the privacy of her coach (3.4.75-82). Although critics often focus on the end-point of the disguises – Portia saving her man – the dressing itself, as a joint process between the two women, has explicitly homoerotic connotations. There is a similar dynamic in The Two Gentlemen of Verona between a servant and her mistress. When Lucetta is dressing her mistress as a boy, she asks: “What fashion, madam, shall I make your breeches?” and when Julia responds: “Why e’en what fashion thou best likes, Lucetta,” Lucetta avows that “You must need have them with a codpiece, madam” (2.7.49). Like the “device, the codpiece is associated both with the prosthesis or dildo and sexual license, Lucio in Measure for Measure calls the “rebellion of a cod-piece” (3.2.109). When Lucetta criticizes men, Julia reprimands her and then tells her to “go with me to my changeroom / To take note of what I stand in need of,” an erection/phallus joke which is not only about her lack as a man, but her erotic makings with her maid.
And there’s the mention of the dildo in The Winter’s Tale, and–but you take my point.
Support from the literature? Well, there’s good old Havelock Ellis:
Archemholtz states that while in Paris they are only sold secretly, in London a certain Mrs. Philips sold them openly on a large scale in her shop in Leicester Square. John Bee in 1835, stating that the name was originally dil-dol, remarks that their use was formerly commoner than it was in his day. In France, Madame Gourdan, the most notorious brothel-keeper of the eighteenth century, carried on a wholesale trade in consolateurs, as they were called, and “at her death numberless letters from abbesses and simple nuns were found among her papers, asking for a ‘consolateur’ to be sent.” The modern French instrument is described by Gamier as of hardened red rubber, exactly imitating the penis and capable of holding warm milk or other fluid for injection at the moment of orgasm; the compressible scrotum is said to have been first added in the eighteenth century.
But everyone knew about that, right? Not so widely known were the…wait for it…clockwork dildos. In Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter, Levenson, writing about the life of criminal William Chaloner, says:
In this society of crime, a lone man or woman, unskilled, without friends, known to none of its gentry, would have found it almost intolerably dangerous to attempt a freelance rampage. Chaloner was too smart to try. Instead, he drifted to the hungry fringes of city life until he could find a way to its gilded center.
It took him only a few months, and the path he found earned him scandalized admiration from his biographer, who wrote, “The first part of his Ingenuity showed it self in making Tin Watches, with D–does &c in ’em.” These Chaloner “hawk’d about the Streets, and therby [sic] pick’d up a few loose Pence, and looser associates.”
That is, Chaloner’s first attempt to rise above mere subsistence turned him into a purveyor of sex toys. London in the 1690s was as famous, or perhaps notorious, for its spirit of sexual innovation as Berlin would be in the 1920s. Prostitution was ubiquitous, as much a part of the life of the wealthy as it was that of the poor, who supplied most of the trade’s workers. The best brothels vied to outdo each other in their range of offerings – so much so that Dr. John Arbuthnot, a man about town in the early eighteenth century, apparently spoke for many when he told a madam at one of the better houses, “a little of your plain fucking for me if you please!”
Anything a cultivated lecher might covet could be had: erotica in words and pictures, ribald songs, and lewd performances. Perhaps the most obscene work of theater ever composed comes from this period, the scabrous play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, attributed to the notorious libertine John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Written in or around 1672, the play may be a disguised attack on Charles II (with whom Wilmot shared at least one mistress). Its description of a monarch attempting to promote sodomy throughout his kingdom has been interpreted as a coded denunciation of the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672, which pronounced official toleration of Catholicism. If that was the author’s intention, the polemic comes very well disguised within its wildly ribald plot.
For those whom literary debauches did not satisfy, a market for sexual aids flourished. As early as 1660, just two years after Cromwell’s death, which resulted in the decline of Puritanism, there were reports of imported Italian dildos being sold on St. James’s Street. Homegrown entrepreneurs also sought to profit, although it remains something of a mystery just what Chaloner was trying to peddle. That his devices demonstrated “the first part of his ingenuity” suggests that they were more than mere knockoff phalluses. They probably were not true watches either. The technology of watchmaking had advanced a good deal by the mid-1670s. The spiral balance spring, invented by Robert Hooke, stored enough energy and released it precisely enough to allow small, hand-held clocks and and watches to keep time accurate to minutes instead of hours – a key step in the evolution of timekeeping. Apprentices usually spent seven years learning the intricacies of clockwork. Balance springs would be used to drive clockwork puppet shows by the early eighteenth century, and it is possible to imagine early attempts to make pornographic displays.
From Robert Muchembled’s Orgasm and the West: A History of Pleasure From the 16th Century to the Present:
…dildos and other bijoux indiscrets, such as consolateurs, then highly prized, were openly sold in the streets of London in the eighteenth century. They were associated with an extreme sensuality, reputedly of French origin, of course.
From Iwan Bloch’s Marquis de Sade: His Life and Works:
We finally come to the last group of aphrodisiacs. They were the substitutes for man; the artificial apparatus by which women compensated for the absence of man. [sic – Jess] They were the leather phallus, godmiches, the consoler or as in English dildo. These artificial penes have been in use since ancient times. During the eighteenth century they became very prevalent in France. De Sade described the workings of an automatic godmiche (Juliette V, 328) as well as other sharp pointed instruments that were used by the tribade Zatta (Juliette VI, 124). The engravings in Philosophy of the Boudoir show that the dildos used in the eighteenth century were similarly constructed to the ones found in France today. Garnier gives the following description: “Here in Paris they make perfect imitations of hard red rubber; they are sold secretly at the known addresses to all the interested parties. The mechanism is most ingenious. They can be blown up and filled with milk or any other liquid. They heat up in contact with the vagina and the liquid flows out at the psychological moment to give the proper illusion.”
From Rachel Venning and Claire Cavanah’s Sex Toys 101: “The Italians called them passatempos or dilettos, which evolved into our word, dildo. By the eighteenth century, upper classes had them made by hand from silver or ivory.”
From Gabrielle Morrissey’s Urge: “In the West in the seventeenth century, dildos were manufactured mainly in Italy; in the eighteenth century, the French designs became popular.”
From Sherry Marie Velasco’s Lesbians in Early Modern Spain:
…and yet despite the heterosexual focus on the female criminals’ sexuality, other texts…reveal a different option for same-sex eroticism in the prisons…among [the] findings are details related to the unruly behavior of the female prisoners. Not only do the women talk like the male criminals, but according to Chaves, they also imitate the men’s sexual activities by using artificial penises or strap-on dildos: “And there are many women who want to be more like men than Nature intended. Many women have been punished in the prison for making themselves into ‘roosters’ with an instrument made into the shape of a penis, which they tied to themselves with straps.
From Neil Schaeffer’s The Marquis de Sade: A Life:
Sade had been using vanilla as a kind of aphrodisiac to promote orgasms. His code word “manille” refers to masturbation, supported by the intromission of dildos into his anus. That is probably what he meant when he wrote, “One good long hour in the morning comprises five manilles, artfully calibrated from 6 to 9.” In prison, Sade described the dildos he used as measuring from six to nine inches in circumference.
From Ulinka Rublack’s Gender in Early Modern German History:
Mary Lindemann provides the last, and most spectacular case-study…it is set in Hamburg in 1701 and records the case of a woman called Maiden Henry, or Heinrich, who was sentenced to death on the wheel for multiple crimes, among them transvestism and murder. Heinrich had a dildo attached to her body in an Amsterdamn brothel, and she and her wives reported how it moved and ejaculated. Lindemann uses her case to uncover how early modern women might change their sexual identity, and how this was linked to concepts of the body which emphasized the mutability of genitalia and the symmetry of male and female bodies.
From Claude J. Summers’ The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts, “The English word “dildo” is first recorded around 1592, in a poem by John Nashe. John Donne in his licentious elegies also refers to dildos. In the eighteenth century, Fuseli drew a woman wearing one.”
From Philip S. Rawson’s Primitive Erotic Art: “”In Europe through medieval times, even into the eighteenth century, it was customary for dildos (called ‘love gods’ or ‘love birds’), which were roughly shaped as phallic-headed birds, to be sold openly in markets.”
This Telegraph article from Mar. 2010 describes the sale of a 17th century set of travel godemiche for £3,600. Rosewood, with fleur-de-lys decoration.
The best-known purveyor of such things in London was Mrs. Phillips. From Richard Gordon’s The Alarming History of Medicine:
Boswell was a condom crusader. He could buy them conveniently in Leicester Square at the sign of the Rising Sun, condoms designed for gentlemen, of sheep’s or goat’s gut, pickled, scented, eight inches long, delicately fashioned on glass moulds by the hands of the proprietress, Mrs. Phillips. Her best quality ‘Baudruches Superfines’ were secured round the neck with ribbon, which could be in regimental colours. (They are viewable, carelessly tossed on the floorboards with the oyster-shells and chicken-bones and stays in Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress of 1736).
From Fernando Henriques’ Prostitution and Society, a Survey: Prostitution in Europe and the New World, “In contrast to Paris, where these aids were sold privately, London, in the person of a Mrs Phillips, kept open shop. Her place of business was near Leicester Square and she found ready custom amongst prostitutes.”
From Allan H. Mankoff’s Mankoff’s Lusty Europe, “…shop of a certain Mrs. Phillips in Leicester Square which specialized in ‘dil-dols.’ Ivan Bloch says they cost about £2/10 during the 1840s, were made of India rubber, and were of several varieties: ‘one that can be used by two.'”