Penises, Pain and the Progressives: How America Prepared for the 20th-Century by Cutting Off Its Foreskins
By Jack Hafferkamp
One hundred and one years ago this year in Great Britain, long-reigning Queen Victoria died, and took her era with her. A hundred and one years ago this year in America, Teddy Roosevelt was becoming this countrys youngest president, and Americas forward-looking Progressive Era was in full swing.
Like most of the 20th Century, this often-overlooked time frame, which we can date roughly from 1890 to 1920, saw great and rapid social change in America. The frontier-facing,"manifest-destiny,"-chasing, agrarian-based and commercially driven, Protestant-Northern-and-Western-European-rooted America of the 19th Century, was giving way to something new at many levels. Certainly the Victorian social structure was crumbling along with the economic transformation that was the result of industrialization, urbanization and immigration. The Progressives were the middle and upper middle-class response to a changing world.
In recognizing the Progressives, we see a reflection of ourselves, and the birth pangs of the modern world. Seeing how the Progressives dealt with sexuality is a cautionary tale for our own times.
The Progressives were a self-defined movement, a new generation of young Protestant professionals who had a strong faith in themselves, their God, their race and capital "P" progress, the evidence of which was, in fact, exploding around them. They lived at the dawn of the telephone, the incandescent light, the motion picture, the automobile, powered flight and the growth of Americas world influence -- all things we now take for granted
With good reason these days we tend to think of the Progressive Era as an energetic period of growth, reform and change in America, when much of the recognizable infrastructure and hardware of modern society was put in place. Governmentally, Progressives gave us the Federal Reserve System, the Food and Drug Administration, the departments of labor and commerce and anti-trust legislation, for a few major examples. The Progressives were mostly Party-of-Lincoln Republicans who sought not to bring down big business as the socialist and anarchists of the day were attempting, but to regulate it from Washington. Today, of course, this idea is seen by leading Washington Republicans as hopelessly liberal. (Although this years corporate scandals have brought surprisingly rapid response from the Congress and the White House, where leaders quickly assessed that the fallout from corporate greed would quickly kill the golden goose of the American economy as well as their own political careers unless they took corrective regulatory action.)
Meanwhile, Europe had its Belle Epoque and its decadent fin de siècle, but America had something else going on at the turn of the 20th century, a wide-eyed, wide-ranging, often-conflicting reform movement that sought to protect and perfect the promise of what Roosevelt, for one, called "the American race." Diverse as they were -- and in detail they were -- The Progressives are today remembered for their efforts to improve the "civilization" of the United States.
But there was a downside -- probably several downsides -- to all of this. And in fact, the focus of this article is the price people -- particularly men, and especially white, Protestant, middle and upper-middle class men -- paid to be involved in the creation of the modern United States.
Not so surprisingly this downside had a definite, even major, sexual component. In short, what Im suggesting here is that as bad as the Victorians were about sexuality, the Progressives, for all their pragmatism, practicality and self-congratulatory forward thinking, may have been even worse -- more uptight and even less forgiving.
Is that possible?
In terms of male sexuality, the answer is, yes. I think its accurate to say that The Progressives didnt so much want to throw out Victorian ideas of manliness and morality as they wanted to purify and strengthen them. And for lots of men since then, the result was a pain in the penis.
What Im saying is that while the Progressives were looking forward to remake their world, they were looking backwards to re-define the kind of men who were up to the challenge. Progressive manliness, for all its chest-thumping declarations of virility, was even more-controlled manliness than that of the Victorians. And achieving it involved a conscious clamping down -- literally -- even harder on male sexuality than the Victorians ever did.
Here is some of the evidence.
During the Progressive era, it was common for family physicians to council parents to tie the hands of their children to their beds at night, after prayers, to prevent them from giving in to the urge to touch themselves. Of course, fear of masturbation was a hallmark of Victorian sexuality, but in the Progressive years the nature of the fear underwent a subtle change. Ill talk more about that later on; here I mainly want to note that during the Progressive years the technology for detecting and preventing solo sex and wet dreams achieved new levels of absurdity.
For instance, if tying hands didnt work, there was a range of products available for preventing even experimental masturbation by boys and men.
This charming device was designed and patented by inventor Albert Todd. It is one of two anti-masturbation devices he took to the U.S. Patent office in 1903. This one is a wire-coil penis and testicle cage that would, in Mr. Todds words, "limit longitudinal extension." It was of rugged enough construction, Mr. Todd pointed out, that it would "resist any reasonable effort on the part of the wearer in an attempt to break or cut" it.
The most impressive aspect of this device is its galvanic belt composed of zinc and copper plates that generated an electric current designed to deter the urge to masturbate.
Not insensitive to the potential effect of electricity applied directly to the genitals, Mr. Todd, allowed that the cage could be insulated with chamois to prevent too strong a current, i.e. one powerful enough to burn flesh.
I should point out here that these slides come from the wonderful book by Hoag Levins American Sex Machines: The Hidden History of the U.S. Patent Office.
Mr. Toddys second device was even more awesome. It included a solid penile tube, also electrified, with an alarm. The inside of the tube had a kind of plunger device that mechanically detected tumescence and then could trigger a couple of responses, an alarm bell for one and the other, Todd wrote, was an electric current "strong enough to assist the cure of sexual disease."
The truly deluxe version additionally included sharp-edged, metallic points that Mr. Todd said were "of sufficient length to cause considerable annoyance and pain to the patient should any attempt be made to manipulate the penis by means of the tube."
Mr. Todds devices were not the only ones available. Just below it on the slide is a sketch of the device patented in 1906 by Mr. Raphael A. Sohn. It was a locking mechanical penis sheath that came along as a solution to one of the obvious problems with Mr. Todds devices -- they were big and bulky, and it was hard to wear clothes over them. Mr. Sohns device was small enough for, as he called it, "walk around" use.
Small though it was, Mr. Sohns device was serious. As he put it, "Once positioned, it will be impossible to remove the appliance without great physical pain and possible mutilation, and if removed it cannot be replaced without the key, so that detection will be inevitable."
In those days, dont forget, it was possible to be put away for masturbating, and the truly baroque devices inventors came up with were for use in mental institutions, where doctors felt fairly extreme measures were permissible to prevent masturbation because of its widely "presumed" deleterious effects.
In 1908 Ellen Perkins said this to U.S. Patent Office examiners: "It is a deplorable but well-known fact that one of the most common causes of insanity, imbecility and feeblemindedness, especially in youth, is due to masturbation or self abuse." Her solution was the pad-lockable device she called "Sexual Armor."
The suit featured a lockable metal compartment that covered the complete crotch area of male and female patients alike. Sexual Armor had a hinged genital "gate" with holes so that urine could pass through. Perkins also noted that the gate could be swung open by an attendant to permit defecation.
This is a 1917 device by Alfred Jones. It was made of rubber, canvas, iron and chain and came in male and female versions -- as you can see. The suspenders were attached in such a way that they could not be slid off the shoulders, the rubber genital pouch had a hole too small for a finger to get in, and the legs had tight bands at the bottom that prevented putting a hand up the leg. Add a helmet to this thing and you could do deep-sea diving.
One problem with all this masturbation prevention was, and is, that healthy young men who dont masturbate often experience nocturnal emissions. This natural, physical process was turned by Victorian physicians into the disease of spermatorrhoea. And here, too, Americas home-grown inventors came up with some wonderfully bizarre ways of preventing it. Between the Civil War and World War I, 21 patents were granted for nocturnal erection detection. Heres one:
Patented in 1905, The Timely Warning was one of a widely advertised type of devices that awoke the wearer to warn him of the danger. Often the wake-up call involved pain. You can see how this works. On the outer ring is a set of sharp points. You clamp on the Timely Warning, and if any engorgement occurs, the inner ring is pushed back so the wearer is, in effect, pricked in the prick.
Some inventors attempted designs that were more humane. In 1893, for instance, Frank Orth came up with this beauty. Author Hoag Levins says this device was big and bulky as a major kitchen appliance, and it spoke directly to prevalent belief that as the body heated up under covers it became more sexually responsive. This device solved that apparent problem with the latest technology of the era a battery-powered electric motor.
Levins writes that: "The motor drove a fan that forced cooling air down a tube into rubber drawers fitted with circulation bladders."
Orth also held a patent on a water-based cooling system. Levins writes: "Each of these thermal harness systems was installed permanently in the bedroom, like a piece of furniture. At night, the user would fit his body into the device and then, along with the trailing straps, wires and flexible pipes, slide under the covers."
In 1899 a patent was submitted by Mr. George Dudley for a device that utilized tumescence to trigger a mechanical circuit that rang a bell. My own particular favorite is still this one from 1900:
Mr. Joseph Lee engineered this beauty, a harness you wore to bed that sensed an erection, which activated an electrical circuit that could be hooked up to your choice of the then-competing phonograph, gramophone or graphophone and thus awaken the endangered sleeper with music or an inspirational talk.
The point of the accompanying images is to make visible just how obsessed Progressive-era America was with preventing unwanted sexual arousal. But these devices were not the only indication of the depth of Americas fear of the errant erect phallus. There is another, huge marker of Progressive Americas dread of uncontrolled male passion.
And that is the rise of circumcision.
According to leading members of the emerging medical establishment of the time, one good way to go about making America morally, mentally and physically stronger, was to remove the foreskins of infant males. That is, physicians prescribed infant circumcision as preventive medicine against adolescent sexuality.
Let me give you some examples of the kinds of things respected physicians were saying about circumcision in the Progressive Era.
In his 1888 article "Treatment for Self-Abuse and its Effects" the famous Dr. Harvey Kellogg of corn flakes fame wrote: "A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect on the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment."
Kellogg, you should note, wasnt talking about new-born infants. He was talking about "small boys." Initially when the idea of circumcision came along surgeons wanted to do it to all males: men, adolescents, and boys included. One reason the emphasis quickly shifted to new-borns is that older males heard or read exhortations like Kelloggs and said "No, thanks."
In 1891, The influential Peter Charles Remondino, author of History of Circumcision, and vice president of the California Medical Society, called the foreskin a "tight-constricted, glans-deforming, onanism-producing, cancer-generating" vestigial appendage. He recommended circumcision to parents as like having "a substantial and well secured life-annuity."
And it got worse.
In an article titled "On the Advantages of Circumcision" in the Medical News of 1900, Jonathan Hutchinson concludes this way:
"Finally, circumcision probably tends to increase the power of sexual control. The only physiological advantage which the prepuce can be supposed to confer is that of maintaining the penis in a condition susceptible to much more acute sensation than would otherwise exist. It may increase the pleasure of coition and the impulse to it; but these are advantages which in the present state of society can well be spared. If in their loss, increase in sexual control should result, one should be thankful."
In 1914 Dr. Abraham L. Wolbarst, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association had this to say:
"The foreskin is a frequent factor in the causation of masturbation Circumcision offers a diminished tendency to masturbation, nocturnal pollutions, convulsions and other nervous results of local irritation. It is the moral duty of every physician to encourage circumcision in the young "
Now, I must also note here that in the years between 1890 and now, a wide range of other benefits, including possible reductions in penile and cervical cancers, infection reduction, tuberculosis reduction and social acceptance were added as reasons for circumcision. But underneath all those other claims, and especially in the early years of this century, masturbation-prevention was a core issue in the spread of circumcision.
And so, during the Progressive years the number of circumcisions in the United States rose sharply. In 1871, 1 percent of North-Eastern urban males were circumcised. In 1900 the number had risen to 25 percent. By 1920 it was 50 percent and rising. And in fact that momentum carried the increase in the number of infant male circumcisions to its apex in 1971 when it reached 90 percent. (The No Harm website (www.noharm.org) provides some useful statistics to show the point. By 1994 the rate had fallen to 60 percent.)
It was also in 1971 that the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that, "There are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period." There was, then, in American history, an 80-year period, from roughly 1890 to 1970, when doctors felt that cutting away the foreskin was a way to uplift the nations morals.
The zeal and success of this effort is underscored most clearly by the fact that infant male circumcision was the single most performed surgery of the 20th century in America. And as late as 1996 was still the most common surgical operation carried out annually in the United States.
So what was that all about, this unnecessary surgery on the penis of infants or the clamping on of major appliances to prevent pleasure in boys and men?
To be so drastic, it must have been about something fairly basic in terms of being a man. Why else would such an extreme thing happen to so many people?
In his book The First Sexual Revolution: The Emergence of Male Heterosexuality in Modern America, Historian Kevin White writes that the changes going on in American society at the turn of the last century did indeed herald a "fundamental masculinity crisis" (p.9) as America moved into the modern age. For all its outward optimism, The Progressive Era was also very much an age of uncertainty for middle-class American men. Their gender identity markers were dissolving across several fronts.
In economic terms, the Progressive Era was uprooting for middle-class men. For example, " between 1870 and 1910, the proportion of middle-class men who were self-employed dropped from 67 percent to 37 percent." (Bederman)
In other words, men went from working for themselves to working for a company, from independent spirits, they became cogs in larger, corporate machine. Facilitating that drop in independent work was a boom/bust free-market economy that experienced all-too-regular and wrenching downturns. These resulted in "tens of thousands" of bankruptcies.
For an emerging generation of men, these downturns underscored their understanding that the traditional source of male work, power and identity was no longer available.
At the same time these men saw themselves financially and politically threatened by the new Catholic, Orthodox Christian and Jewish immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
And if that wasnt enough, they were having the rug pulled out from under them by their women -- the rising feminist tide. The wives and daughters wanted their own right of education and economic self-determination. And along with their own jobs, they wanted The Vote, prohibition and even the end of the last bastion, the relief valve outlet of the Victorian sexual double standard, the bordello.
Victorians mostly tolerated bordellos as a kind of unspoken-necessity, which allowed for a kind of out-of-respectable-peoples-faces expenditure of pent up male hormones. But with syphilis rates soaring, crusading Progressives from the religious, feminist and medical social axis aimed to end prostitution and end the double standard.
Progressive politicians, catching the wave, started closing whorehouses and entire red-light districts around the country at this time. Even the U.S. troops were, for the first time in their history, denied camp followers. The last trip with the troops for semi-sanctioned prostitutes was the Mexican campaign of 1916, where General Pershing chased Pancho Villa around Mexico.
It was also in our time frame that terms like "sissy" were first heard, marking the recognition of a new fear for most men. "Inverts or Uranians," as gays were called then, were seen as men who had lost their virility. And in fact, virility was a major issue in the Progressive Years. Think of Theodore Roosevelt in this regard -- he of the Rough Riders, the Bull Moose Party and what he called the virtues of "The Strenuous Life." In their lack of virility, gays were thought to be symbolic of the American races decline in virility. And in this regard they were similar to neurasthenics.
Neurasthenia is not a disease one hears about today because it has been discarded by a wiser medical profession. But a hundred years ago it was taken quite seriously. It was the "civilization disease," a combination of symptoms ranging from "nervous breakdown," to what today is called chronic fatigue syndrome. It was believed to be a condition that affected people who had become too civilized, that is, too highly refined for their own good.
Neurasthenia was another of those period-related diseases like spermatorrhoea in that it was seen as a kind of tragic consequence of the civilizing process that made white Protestant American men the most advanced "race" on earth. Having achieved success, white, Protestant American men were in danger of becoming weak and vulnerable. For Progressive thinkers this was known as the "neurasthenic paradox."
In retrospect its possible to understand fairly easily that the transformations occurring a hundred years ago were the birth pangs of our modern, urbanized, consumer-oriented, self-focused America, which offers 24-hour instant gratification.
In Victorian times what mattered in a man was his character, which largely meant his self-restraint, his ability to deny and defer personal, familial and communal gratification. In the Progressive Era, with its roller-coaster markets and changing nature of work, the reasons to defer lost their value. Without economic success, men could never achieve the Victorian ideal of "character." A hundred years ago, Progressive era social critics were very worried about the "alienation" of modern society because they saw it as an indicator that their America was becoming decadent, morally and physically.
In her thought-provoking book, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States 1880-1917, historian Gale Bederman illuminates the uncomfortable but necessary realization that for Progressive thinkers and doers like Theodore Roosevelt, the issues of gender became tightly, even intimately, linked to issues of race and civilization.
That is, the reinvigoration of white, Protestant, middle-class American manhood that Roosevelt and other Progressive leaders sought, was interwoven with ideas about competition with and domination of the lower "races" -- i.e. people of color and non-Protestant religions. In their minds the American race had to be strong because it had the responsibility for making the world safe for what they called "civilization."
Insight into this mingling of gender and race issues is found in a concept much discussed by white Americans 100 years ago -- that is, "race suicide." It was something Progressive era leaders, even the President of the United States, were very much afraid of it.
Historian Bederman notes that in 1902 President Roosevelt called the issue of race suicide, "fundamentally infinitely more important than any other question in this country."
The term "race suicide" was coined in 1901 by sociologist Edward A. Ross in an address titled "The Causes of Race Superiority." The speech delineated all the fears of the neurasthenic paradox that is, the very traits that had made American men superior to all other races, were also their undoing.
Specifically, Ross argued that when faced with competition from less manly, racially inferior immigrants, American men, unwilling to work for lower wages, also would be "unwilling to sire children they cold not provide for," and thus would have fewer and fewer children in a rising tide of foreigners. In other words, by "manfully controlling their [fine Victorian] emotions, American men would quietly and unmurmuringly eliminate themselves."
As Bederman puts it, the concept of race suicide "expressed the ultimate racial nightmare -- impotent, decadent manhood."
The solution was "The Strenuous Life," a term championed by, who else?, Theodore Roosevelt -- and here is Roosevelt as his own buckskin-clad poster child. This is a promotional photo for one of TRs books.
It demonstrates clearly that in word and deed Roosevelt called for Americas middle class men to reinvent themselves by becoming more macho. It is not coincidental that during the Progressive years boxing became a national passion. Nor is it coincidental that during this time America flexed its imperialist muscles and took Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1889, chased Pancho Villa around Mexico in 1916 and engineered the separation of Panama from Columbia in the Revolution of 1902, which guaranteed American control of the Panama canal.
This machoization, Roosevelt and others -- notably the psychologist G. Stanley Hall -- believed would reinvigorate the white race and make it strong for the challenges of the 20th Century.
But being ready to fight for world domination was only half the battle. The other half was reproducing.
In the preface to a widely popular 1902 book called The Woman Who Toils by Bessie Van Vorst, Roosevelt wrote that "a man or woman, who, considering only his or her own individual convenience, deliberately avoided having children, was In effect a criminal against the race, and should be an object of contemptuous abhorrence by all healthy people."
This is a shot of Roosevelt campaigning for president in 1912 as the candidate of the Progressive Party, which was also known as the Bull Moose Party in reference to a famous line of Roosevelts about feeling as strong as a bull moose. The point TR regularly underscored for people is that it was a mans moral duty to be a bull moose, to marry and have as many children as possible. This was the only way to guarantee that Americas white, Protestant middle class wouldnt be out populated in their own country.
Having children was important not only for numbers, race-conscious Progressives like Roosevelt believed, but for the sake of civilization itself. One important detail about Progressives that hasnt come up so far in this discussion is that along with their other beliefs, they were basically Lamarkian Social Darwinists. Not only did they have a "survival of the fittest," attitude toward society and race, they believed that their children would genetically inherit their values, so it was doubly important to "live right."
I would argue that it is probably in that Progressive sense of responsibility for insuring the triumph of civilization and morality, is where the Victorian fear of masturbation evolved into the Progressive Era fear of masturbation.
For Victorians, masturbation indicated a lack of personal physical control of passion that could lead directly to personal physical consequences. For Progressives masturbation was an indicator of a cultural disease, a contributing factor, if you will, to "race suicide."
One of the curious little twists in this whole story is that this attitude came about just about the same time medical science was beginning to question some long-held Victorian beliefs about masturbations supposed physical effects such as mental impairment and blindness.
In other words, just as some physicians were beginning to say "Wait a minute!", their point of view was swallowed up by a tidal wave of American angst over lost virility and race suicide. Progressive Era worries about preventing erections and loss of seminal fluid was not just about sex. Masturbation prevention was part of a larger moral hygiene issue that had to do with better preparing young men for the struggle for dominance in a dangerous world.
Circumcision was one means to that end. It was seen as preventive medicine against a neurasthenia-like lassitude; it was something responsible parents could give to their sons to make them stronger individually and to guarantee the continued virility of the American race.
And thats what made circumcision and errant-erection control so large a set of issues. They were about defining a new American manhood that was prepared to lead the world under the banner of American civilization and to channel its white, Protestant American sperm for the production of enough offspring to ensure success abroad and at home.
Id call that a fairly heavy set of baggage for those men to have to carry around.