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Saturday, 19 December 2020

Introductory post

Decided that it might be a good idea to have a blog linking to my website. People have asked me whether there's any way to find out when pages on my site are updated, so this can be a place where I note changes and updates to Lesley Hall's Web Pages. It's also a place where I could post updates on my academic activities - publications, forthcoming conferences etc I'm attending, media appearances, etc (NB the media don't always tell me when my 30 seconds of fame is going to go out).

Over the course of time this blog has got a bit more discursive than the above might suggest, and now includes occasional book reports, impressions of conferences, seminars  and other events attended, and thoughts more generally on archives, history, and other matters within the general remit.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Catherine Lee, Policing Prostitution, 1856–1886: Deviance, Surveillance and Morality (Pickering and Chatto, 2012)

This annoyingly had been announced but came out rather too late for me to incorporate its insights into my revised edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change, although I had gleaned a general idea of them from articles by Lee. It significantly adds to our understanding of late Victorian prostitution and its policing and the impact of the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Lee's wonderfully meticulous research on a range of sources covering several well-differentiated sites in Kent which became designated districts under the Acts reveals that these Acts were imposed over a situation in which there had already been various significant local efforts to control and police prostitution. This is contextualised within changing ideas of public space and the kinds of behaviour that were appropriate within it, the nature of developing professional policing, local economies in which the employment opportunities for women were very limited (unlike, for example, the textile districts), plebian communities, and particular elements of the urban geography of the areas under discussion.

She makes the important point that the prostitution that can become visible to the historian is a very particular sector - public streetwalking which came to the attention of courts and was reported in local newspapers - however, it may well be that this was the type most represented in the areas she is analysing, port towns and those near military camps.She also reveals the extent to which many of the women who appeared in the records were not career prostitutes, but women whose intermittent street-walking was part of a 'makeshift survival economy' of casual work, application for poor law or other welfare relief, and petty crime. However, once a woman had been identified as a common prostitute, she would be designated as such (or by various synonyms) when appearing in the records for other reasons, such as disorderly behaviour or even when the victim of an assault.

Lee also suggests that looking at Kent and its designated districts provides nuance to Judith R Walkowitz's pioneering classic study of  the CD Acts and the campaign against them, Prostitution and Victorian Society (1980). The affected women in Kent do not appear to have manifested a 'culture of resistance' to the Acts and in fact in several cases seem to have seen the system as providing benefits, both in terms of the medical certificates of inspection being regarded as a selling device, and for the medical treatment and general respite provided by sojourns in Lock Hospitals. She makes a plausible argument that these women were already so harried by the authorities that the Acts perhaps did not strike them as introducing a yet greater degree of oppression. This raises questions about the extent to which the CD Acts were of symbolic importance in the wider struggle for women's rights rather than having major impact on the already difficult and stigmatised lives of the women they were aimed at.

Policing Prostitution is a shining example of the ways in which a time-delimited, locally-focused study based on meticulous investigation of primary source material provides important new insights into a range of historical issues and should not be dismissed as 'micro-history'. Without these,  any project for 'big-picture' history risks being based on partial facts and false assumptions.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Acquisition is not enough

I meant to post something about the discovery of the missing prints at the Boston Public Library last week in connection with the various comments made in press reports and blog posts about the failure of institutions with substantial document and artefact collections to have adequate collection control in the form of an inventory.

This post I came across today, Libraries and cities are terrible at keeping track of art reminded me.

A major problem seems to me to be that institutions (or their sources of funding) are far more eager to acquire things than to pay for the absolutely necessary basic task of processing them so that they can be kept track of and found when required, as well as described in a meaningful way for researchers to access. This is the invisible labour that makes a collection usable and also provides for its security. I don't think this will ever be solved until it is acknowledged that just acquiring collections, however significant in themselves, is not enough. They have to be accessible.

I suspect that there may also be an issue where one librarian or curator has been dedicated to building up a collection in some particular area but this enthusiasm has not been inherited by successors.

Another issue is that donors may not be presenting their collections to the most appropriate home. It may be very gratifying to be offered an important item or collection, but does the institution have the facilities to care for it? Is the institution a place where researchers are going to look? Would there be much greater research synergy if it were placed elsewhere? Donors should also be aware that their apparently generous gift to an institution comes with ongoing costs of appropriate storage (if not active conservation), processing, and general maintenance.

Books, manuscripts, archives, artworks and artefacts are for posterity, not just an immediate press release and a bullet point in the annual report.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Status update

Haven't been particularly moved to blog here for a while, between the pressures of being one of this year's judges for the Arthur C Clarke Award, work, feeling rather under the weather, etc etc. Didn't even manage to post about Richard Cleminson's great seminar on sexology in Portugal at the IHR a month ago (podcast).

The looming news in these parts is that I am retiring as Senior Archivist, Special Collections, Wellcome Library, at the end of May. However, I shall not be entirely shaking the dust of the Wellcome from my feet, as I shall be moving to a new desk and a new role as a Wellcome Library Research Fellow, concentrating on my research project on Interwar Progressives.

In connection with which project, I shall be participating in the following conferences in the near-ish future:
Being Modern: Science and Culture in the early 20th century, IHR, 22-24 April (not giving a paper but imbibing the wisdom of others)
Also at the IHR, during the same week, in fact on the afternoon of 23rd, I shall be giving ‘Bearded fruit-juice drinkers: the queerness of inter-war progressives’ as the keynote at Marginal Presences: unorthodox belief and practice 1837-2015
In June, I shall be attending The Space Between: Literature and Culture, 1914-1945
2015 conference, At Home in the Space Between speaking on 'Feminists and the domestic sphere in early 1930s Britain'.

I have also been making a number of updates to various pages on my website, including adding some recently discovered condom pictures, c. 1930 and an image of that invaluable device, the Le Brasseur 'Re-Rolling Apparatus' for the better preservation of washable reusable condoms:


Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Ongoing trends and/or atypical blips?

There is a fascinating graphic, Sex by Numbers on the Wellcome Collection website (yet another spinoff from the Institute of Sexology exhibition).

A lot of these figures are intriguing, but for so many of them we don't have a baseline, or at least, not a baseline lying further back than the original National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle published in 1994. The generational changes, at least among women, do continue a trend that was already becoming apparent when Eustace Chesser undertook his methodologically somewhat idiosyncratic but nonetheless suggestive study of The Sexual, Marital, and Family Relationships of the Englishwoman (1956) - the women born in the 1930s who have had fewer partners than those in the 1970s were those who, in the 1950s, married earlier and had higher expectations of sexual satisfaction than their foremothers.

Similarly the falling age of first intercourse can be mapped against other early surveys such as Geoffrey Gorer's Exploring English Character (1955) and Michael Schofield's The Sexual Behaviour of Young People (1965) to show a continuing trend over time.

However, some of the other figures cannot be set in a similar context, and I think one might be hesitant to suggest that they represent e.g. ongoing decline in the frequency of intercourse to a point at which nobody has sex at all (though I have come across dystopian sf that posits this exactly - either the drive has vanished or the dystopic State forbids with extreme penalty - an early instance would be E M Forster's The Machine Stops). As this (apparent) decline is set in a context of people living their lives to a greater extent online, maybe what should be being prophesied as the outcome ought to be sophisticated teledildonics?

The lowered toleration for infidelity may have something to do with the removal of the legal difficulties and social stigma around divorce (still very much present at the time Gorer and Chesser were writing) which kept people in marriages they might have preferred to exit, not to mention the (related) rise in the acceptability of cohabitation.

Some of the statistics lead me to wonder about how far they might reflect longer patterns of behaviour - e.g. what percentage of men in the population at a given period were actually paying for sex (and whether it was always a good deal less than All Men) and whether this was more likely to happen 'playing away' - or whether they are idiosyncratic blips.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Forthcoming talk

Compared to this time last year, when I seemed to be on an endless treadmill of giving talks on a wide variety of topics in different venues, I don't have much on my dance-card at the moment. However, I shall be giving the following talk to the Queer Studies Forum at the University of Westminster on 9th Feb at 6.30 pm: 

‘‘‘Bearded Fruit-Juice Drinkers” : the Queerness of Interwar Progressives’
There was a significant mass of individuals and organisations in Britain between the wars, concentrated in the metropolis, who were widely perceived as ‘queer’ both in the contemporary popular sense of generally eccentric and cranky and also on account of their contravention of gender and sexual norms. This paper will look at the ways this somewhat amorphous group destabilised prevalent assumptions of the day, with particular attention to the ways in which they were felt to be violating hegemonic masculinity, whether through belief in pacifism, a dedication to vegetarianism, unconventional personal fashion style, or enjoyment of such unmanly forms of exercise as yoga and folk-dancing, alongside their liberal attitudes towards homosexuality and on other matters of sexual conduct.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

New Year message: The bizarre timescales of academic publishing

Last year I didn't have anything published, which makes it the first year in getting on for 20 that I haven't been able to add something to my bibliography by the year's end. However, I do currently have 2 journal articles, 4 book chapters, and a couple of fairly substantial encyclopedia entries somewhere along in the publication process, and indeed, one of the books in which I have a chapter should finally make its appearance, having been nearly 6 years in the pipeline, early this year.

I also recall that there is another chapter, in the proposed proceedings of an archives conference which took place in the spring of 2007, about which I have heard nothing for a very long time, and assume that the project has quietly expired. Not that one can always count on this; it is not beyond the reach of probability that there will be a sudden and urgent call for final editorial revisions due the day before yesterday, after which there will be another lengthy hiatus.

The year, however, when everybody started saying to me 'Wow, you are so prolific' was probably 2001, in the course of which I saw finally reach the light of day one chapter in a volume generated by a conference in the summer of 1994 (and fortunately there had not been massive advances in the historiography of the topic since then) along with other things which had been turned around in considerably less time. The apparent prolificness was entirely an artefact of the publishing processes involved and not because I had spent the previous 12 months madly writing.

What you see can be quite misleading.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Eras are ending all the time, and new ones starting

To anyone who has been keeping up (not that I'm sure I'm entirely kept up, because these things are developing all the time) with the historiographical area of 'Soho Studies', so ably undertaken by Frank Mort in Capital Affairs: The Making of the Permissive Society (2010) and Judith Walkowitz in Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (2012), the gloom and doom in this article: The slow death of Soho: farewell to London's sleazy heartland: For years, relentless gentrification has been squeezing the life out of the infamous district. The closure of Madame Jojo’s feels like the nail in its coffin feels not just like same-old-same-old, but actually rather ironic.

In particular, in its invocation of some kind of traditional Soho embodied in 'the old rogue' Paul Raymond, it places a figure who himself, as Mort has so ably elucidated, was instrumental in bringing about the end of a previous era of Soho, as the keeper of a heritage he himself did much to destroy. 

Perhaps, however, the glory days of any subculture are never in the present, but always in some moment that has just fleeted past and been missed: in a telling little essay on bohemia and the bohemian, Elizabeth Wilson invokes the following quotation:
“Bohemia is always yesterday,” wrote the American writer Malcolm Cowley, a bohemian himself, as long ago as the 1920s.
As writers on nineteenth and twentieth century bohemianism have commented - and were, as this line by Cowley shows, in a long tradition - that the 'real' bohemian has always just passed, by the time of writing it has become a performative spectacle or sold out to the mainstream.

But, as Wilson suggests, has it vanished - or has it just mutated or is it just located somewhere where people aren't looking?

Someday, no doubt, someone will be looking back at those vibrant subcultures of 2014 and lamenting their passing into the banal normality of the present moment.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Attack of the sex cliches and national stereotypes

There is a fairly lengthy piece in today's Guardian on the about-to-open Institute of Sexology exhibition at Wellcome Collection (I may have given some advice on specific aspects, but I was not involved in curating this, by the way). It doesn't entirely manage to escape a number of dodgy cliches and generalisations, in particular the one about Those Brits In The Past, so repressed.

So, not only do we get the idea that the nation of Havelock Ellis, Marie Stopes, a host of other sex reformers and educators, and pioneering organisations for birth control, abortion law reform, and marriage guidance, was locked into a 'saucy postcard view of sex': which presumably came after, rather than running in parallel with, that other cliche, 'hooked on cold showers and the pursuit of empire' (is there nothing in the exhibition on Sir Richard Burton, we ask ourselves? - pursing empire perhaps but not about the cold showers).

We also have the O Les Francais, so much more relaxed and sorted about L'Amour than les rosbifs of Olde Angleterre: 
the curators make a little joke about our embarrassment when it comes to sex by juxtaposing a 19th-century French booklet praising “Les charmes de la masturbation” with an English publication, The Secret Companion, in which a gentleman is shown lying exhausted on a chaise longue in a section called “On Onanism as a cause of sexual debility”.
The Great Masturbation Panic was Europe (and North America)-wide - if kicked off by the early C18th quack pamphlet Onania it was given serious credibility by the (Swiss) physician Tissot and fears of self-abuse were disseminated every more widely over the course of the C19th, with the dread disease of spermatorrhoea being more or less invented by the French doctor Lallemand
Early C19th French anti-masturbation corset

While it is entirely probable that in the corpus of C19th British smutty literature there may be found some text on 'The Joys of Frigging' or similar.

Indeed, while Marie Stopes was hymning the benefits of contraception as an essential adjunct to married love, the French government, beset by longstanding fears of population decline, actually made it illegal in 1920, and idealistic Malthusian anarchists were imprisoned for promoting birth control.

There's also the very common simplistic notion of who was liberal and who conservative. Krafft-Ebing may not look like a radical, and he wasn't, but he was a supporter of the campaign for the repeal of Paragraph 175, the German penal law on homosexuality, initiated by Magnus Hirchfeld.

It does, however, manage to eschew some of the usual suspects.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Further thoughts on the urban myths of sex

Musing further upon my post yesterday, and wondering about the endurance of these two narratives about sex in history, it occurred to me that they do have something in common.

They are both about posited attempts of a patriarchal system to exert control over women - in the case of the chastity belt, specifically husbands attempting to ensure the fidelity of wives, in the case of hysteria/vibrators, the notion of dealing with disruptively hysterical women by giving them a good seeing-to with a medically-approved and scientific device.

And both get subverted. Most tales involving chastity belts are about the woman managing to deceive her husband nonetheless, while the hysteria/vibrators narrative implies that women took a procedure intended to pacify them into appropriate womanly docility and turned this into private enjoyment with personal appliances.

This is a much more widely applicable gendered narrative of male desire to control and sly womanly subversions, with added sauciness. No wonder these have legs.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Urban myths and legends about the sexual past

I was gratified to see somebody concurring with my own views on the extreme dubiousness of the case for Victorian vibrators and C19th doctors masturbating female patients for hysteria. But from the comments on that piece, people seem very attached to the belief that this Really Happened and was a Genuine Thing in Victorian medicine.

I note some people claiming that they have seen Victorian vibrators in a museum and so it must be true. Except you can, really, label any old Victorian medical device as such, because, given the spread of the idea that these actually existed, people will take it on trust. I've personally been asked to testify that a certain Victorian medical object was a Victorian sex toy, when there was really very convincing evidence (such as the patent number attached to its base) that it was an electrotherapeutic device intended for rectal use (a use of electrotherapy which can be substantiated from contemporary medical texts - it was recommended for haemorrhoids and also for prostate problems). I feel that there are interesting and bizarre stories about Victorian medical practices which are rather depressingly being occluded by the desire to bend them to the hysteria/vibrator narrative.

The 'saw it in a museum' defence of some sexual urban myth is not a new one: in fact it's of some antiquity, being recorded by E J Dingwall in his classic work, The Girdle of Chastity (1931) apropos of chastity belts. He pointed out that although widely supposed to have been a medieval device, the examples he saw were no earlier than the Renaissance - and more recent scholarship suggests that even these may have been later forgeries. The curatorial comment on one of these items

held in the British Museum remarks:
The evidence for their use in the Renaissance period, however, is largely anecdotal or in burlesque fiction. It is probable that the great majority of examples now existing were made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as curiosities for the prurient, or as jokes for the tasteless.
But presumably there are still people going around with a vague belief that this was a thing that actually happened in the Middle Ages.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

New departure

There's not much on it yet, because this is still a pretty new and underdeveloped project, but I've created a page on the website for my work in progress on Interwar British Progressives  (I've also, talking of the website, added a number of new references to Literary Abortion).

I haven't yet produced much arising from this project, but I have been doing a certain amount of archival research, and as I noted in my very preliminary thoughts on what the progressives were about in my Porter Lecture last May, they were about things like a healthy society and planning for the people and public amenity, so I was really interested to see this piece in today's Observer about Green Belts.

Certainly the progressives, who were all about the rights of the people to roam in the countryside, the stopping of the curse of 'ribbon development' and urban sprawl, and the ability to access green areas by public transport, would I think have been horrified if the legislation now turned out to be favouring the rich (given the attacks on private land-owners and such actions as the Kinder Scout Trespass) and affecting the availability of housing. This was the very reverse of what they hoped would be achieved by the Labour-controlled London County Council of the mid-1930s designating the London Green Belt, as praised in an editorial in Plan for World Order and Progress: A Constructive Review, the journal of the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Ada Lovelace Day post: sisters in science

To commemorate the achievements of women in STEM today, I thought I'd mention two women who are perhaps not among the most well-known of women in science in spite of their significant achievements.
Elsie Widdowson, self-experimentation

Elsie Widdowson spent 60 years in a fruitful collaboration with Professor R A McCance, working principally on questions of nutrition. Together they were responsible for inaugurating Standard Food Composition publications with their 1940 Chemical composition of foods, and were also extremely influential on World War II rationing policies. They and their research team went to the Lake District and self-experimented, trying the various recommendations for adequate nutrition and then going fell-walking to test them. Widdowson continued to be research active into her 80s.

Her sister, Eva Crane, although she initially studied physics, achieving a PhD in the subject when women in physics were very rare birds, and even being appointed a university lecturer in the subject, became a world-renowned authority on bees and apiculture following the gift of a hive as a wedding present. She similarly remained active into her 80s.

A draft letter by Widdowson in the McCance/Widdowson papers in the Wellcome Library suggests that they had an unusual background in that their parents were Exclusive Brethren.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Twitter is a limited forum for discussing 1920s contraception

Further to an exchange on Twitter apropos of (didn't see this, only reported) instance in Downtown Abbey of an unmarried upper-class woman getting herself fixed up with contraception before having a fling. Well, not entirely improbable, but I really don't think she would have been sending her maid (even if she trusted her implicitly not to blackmail her further down the line) to procure the necessary. 

The most reliable form of contraception for women being advocated by e.g. Marie Stopes, and indeed the rest of the UK birth control movement, was the female occlusive rubber cup, and while there were controversies between Stopes's pet high-dome cervical cap and the Dutch cap (diaphragm) that other clinics thought women found easier to fit, it still had to be fitted by a trained nurse or doctor and this was hardly something that a maid could undergo on her mistress's behalf. What the lady in question needed was one of the discreet Harley Street specialists unconstrained by the requirements of the various voluntary clinics to ascertain that all their clients were respectably married. There would, however, be practicality issues around fitting a woman who did not have former sexual experience.

There were other possibilities: W J Rendell's 'The Wife's Friend' quinine pessaries were widely advertised (though without ever explicitly stating what they were for and why they were the wife's friend) in the most reputable women's magazines. However, this is an under-researched (and possibly impossible to research) area of contraceptive practice - the oral histories studied by Kate Fisher in Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 and by her and Simon Szreter in Sex before the Sexual Revolution are silent on the topic. However, there is evidence that this was a profitable line, and Rendells were incensed when the National Birth Control Association (later the Family Planning Association) found them not meeting the standards of efficacy and safety necessary for inclusion on their Approved List of contraceptives, pointing out  that they were widely used by numerous (they claimed) entirely satisfied customers (documented in the FPA archives in the Wellcome Library). Quinine, however, is only weakly spermicidal, although the greasy medium used as a carrier did have some effect in slowing sperm motility. But anyhow, these would not have been a particularly reliable expedient.

The really sophisticated cosmopolitan woman might hear about and resort to one of the early forms of intrauterine devices that had been around since the early 1900s, principally the Grafenburg ring, named after its deviser. There was, allegedly, only one doctor (and to no-one who knows anything about these issues surprise, it was Norman Haire) in England who would fit them, and he charged the kind of rate that that commanded, to the extent that at least one woman (the bohemian writer Ethel Mannin, as stated in her correspondence with Douglas Goldring) found it slightly less expensive to travel to Germany and be fitted by Grafenburg himself. Mannin was a great advocate for this method even while conceding that the process of fitting it was the reverse of fun and might even require local anaesthesia.

I find it hard to suppose that the maid's errand would have been to purchase condoms to be discreetly handed over to the partner at an intimate moment. This does not seem a likely scenario for the period.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

What's online is < 1% of the primary sources worldwide

If Dan Snow thinks he can do history by searching primary source material from the comfort and convenience of his office, I fear he is not doing very sound or thorough history. Yes, digitisation is making a lot of material available without the stress and strain of visiting actual archives, but as an archivist, and as a historian who has just returned from a trip involving crossing Canada from Toronto to Victoria to look at archival collections which it is unlikely will go online within the foreseeable future, I think I can state fairly categorically that any historian who thinks they won't ever need to go and get hands-on with the sources is limiting themself in ways that are very bad for the process of history.

I refer back to my post in late April flagging up the problems of what is given priority in digitisation programmes, how complete it is, how much necessary context is there.

I might also remark that in many instances I have encountered, repositories holding important collections of personal and institutional papers don't necessarily even have a decent online catalogue so that one can ascertain what they've actually got.

Plus, maybe the research Mr Snow conducts does take him to glamorous places, but many archives are to be found in locations which are not only not particularly places one would choose to visit for any other reason, but not even particularly easy to get to. (Though I will say, Victoria BC in June is lovely, even if most of my days were passed in a semi-basement furiously making my way through handwritten and occasionally typed correspondence.)

What has possibly transformed research in this digital age (from my experience on the basis of this recent research trip) is the ability to take digital photos of the documents for later perusal (I was fortunate to be working in special collections which permitted this). Having  worked, in the past, in institutions where there was not even a routine procedure for obtaining photocopies and one was obliged to rely on the kindness and available time of the staff, or in other institutions where the charges were inordinately high presumably to discourage the ordering of large amounts, being able to take away images from collections which I had a very short time to ingest has been a major boon.

Friday, 23 May 2014

It's not all about you

My attention was drawn to an article by an author about having being solicited to sell his papers (past and future) to a university archive and his musings about the relationship this bears to his existing and future literary reputation, the impact of the prospect of the preservation of his correspondence on his self-expression, etc.

Maybe it's because I'm a historian rather than a literary scholar, or maybe because I'm an archivist, but it's not necessarily the intrinsic value of the work of the individual that makes the papers interesting. It may be what people wrote to them, their circles and connections, what their papers tell us about relatively quotidien details of their life. Sometimes the papers of a relatively minor figure who was well-networked, or who kept scrapbooks or diaries, can be more informative than those of a major figure who didn't bother to keep things.

It's only relatively recently that most people routinely have a copy of outgoing correspondence, because they've saved the word-processed file of the letter, or because it all happens in email anyway. Certainly from at least the early twentieth century one does find some individuals (as well as people who needed to keep copies for business purposes) making carbons of their letters out, but on the whole this remained fairly rare. In the past a letter was despatched to its recipient, to be preserved, torn up, burnt, have shopping lists written on the back, etc and its survival as a record of the sender's thoughts and emotions a haphazard matter.

Embarrassing or revelatory letters or bundles of correspondence still do occasionally turn up.

A further thought about archives in general that was my takeaway from a fascinating workshop discussion on Women and Gender in the Archives at the Berkshire Women's History conference: the great extent to which discussion of archives of [x] all tend to end up with the same issues and problems common to all archives (which are not those of central government) - whether papers, of individuals or organisations, have been kept at all, if they have, how complete are they or has expurgation/damage occurred, the under-resourcing of archives, the importance (and the limitations) of cataloguing and provision of metadata, the digitisation question, the continuing fascination and importance of handling the originals, etc etc.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Not just archival nerdery

I recently came across a fascinating article by Andrew Paul Janco on Dissertation Reviews about the use of digital archive collections - which would appear to be curated selections from a range of different archives, rather than what the Wellcome Library is doing with Codebreakers and the forthcoming Digitising the Asylum project, in which entire collections are being digitised wholesale and made available online.

I was cast into a certain amount of gloom to discover that a problem I had encountered with academics developing digital resources, that they did not seem to think it necessary to include the references of the documents they were using, is far from unique and that the documents are thus detached from their original context and not readily traceable back to it.

Janco posits that this is because of the
public-history model where digital archives function more as virtual museum exhibits than as research archives.  While this provides important access to primary sources, advanced undergraduates and graduate students quickly grow frustrated by limited collections that show little promise for original research or do not lend themselves to innovative research methods.
This seems to me not only sad, but bad practice. When I edited an anthology of extracts from published texts some years ago, I included the relevant publication details, including edition and page references, such biographical details as I could glean on the authors, and so on - I didn't just present bits of texts without anchoring them. And books are usually a lot easier to access than archives.

While it is doubtless useful to bring individual documents into juxtaposition with other contemporaneous documents on related matters, it does risk losing important contextual information on the individual documents, especially if where they come from has been occluded in the process. Just an archival reference can tell you something about a document, though I'm never sure whether anybody but archivists who carefully construct references to reflect hierarchies within the archive appreciates this. A reference number is not only a means of locating and retrieving an item within an archive, it contains encoded information as to what collection, what part of the collection, what subsection, etc etc. As Janco usefully points out:
archives have a detailed finding aid and have been organized in ways that allow researchers to identify what kinds of materials are held in the collection and where to find them.  It is impossible for a researcher to read every page in an archive, so he or she depends on archival organization to assess a collection, to understand its origins, its possibilities and limitations.  Knowledge of the materials as a collection informs how we find materials, evaluate their authenticity and their usefulness as historical evidence.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Have they tried Kellogg's cornflakes?

It has come to my attention that there is a movement (I hesitate to speculate on how large or thriving it is) aimed at encouraging individuals to give up, or at least radically reduce, their masturbatory practices. (This seems to be distinct from, or at least not co-terminous with) the fundamentalist religion- inflected anti-masturbation  discourse.) These are pretty much entirely seen as the result of the proliferation of internet porn, although in the nineteenth century fear of masturbation was pretty much epidemic in spite of pornography being rather more difficult to come by and possibly the habit was just as prevalent without the intervention of the wonders of modern technology.

However, abandoning self-abuse seems to have all the benefits that Victorian onanists would have anticipated from giving up the dire habit. While it doesn't seem that modern sufferers fear a slow death from consumption

or a decline into insanity (masturbatory insanity remained a diagnostic category according to the Board of Control (pdf), formerly the Commissioners in Lunacy, well into the 1930s), they do report improved health, ability to engage effectively with the world, and sexual functionality.

The emphasis appears to be on willpower and self-control, but I wonder if there is a marketing niche for some of the older remedies...

While I'm not sure it's actually true that John Harvey Kellogg specifically invented cornflakes as an anti-masturbation breakfast cereal, they would certainly fit in to his dietary notions about non-stimulating food. And anyway, surely there is a modern advertising campaign in there somewhere - ?Control Yourself with Kelloggs? 

Monday, 14 April 2014

A foundational myth?

The story was going around some years ago that sanitary towels were invented during the First World War, and this is reiterated in an article today about inventions that owe their success to World War One. I daresay that Kotex  - a US Brand - may have owed its development to the series of events therein described, and maybe the story about the Red Cross nurses repurposing absorbent surgical dressings for their own hours of need is even true. But while this may be a compelling foundational story for Kotex, it's not actually true of sanitary towels as a product in general.

Even the Wikipedia article for Kotex concurs on this -'modern, commercial, disposable pads seem to have started in the late nineteenth century with the Hartmann company in Germany and Johnson & Johnson in the United States'.

Unmentioned there is the Southall Company in the UK, which was advertising in Family Doctor and Home Medical Adviser, c. 1893:

The greatest invention of the century for Woman's Comfort, at the cost of washing only.*
May be obtained from Ladies' Outfitters, Drapers and Chemists throughout the world
A Free Parcel of SOUTHALL'S "SANITARY TOWELS" will be sent Carriage Paid to the first Lady Stall Holder of every Bazaar who applies to THE LADY MANAGER... mentioning this paper, and enclosing circular with list of stall-holders.

FREE SAMPLES could also be sent for.

The primacy of Southalls features in the main Wikipedia article  on the history of sanpro and there is yet further information, including scans of ads, on the Museum of Menstruation website

*Possibly not disposables, then.