Is Your Victorian Gentleman Sponge-Worthy? Contraception in the Years 1826 – 1891. Part II

This post is a continuation of Is Your Victorian Gentleman Sponge-Worthy? Contraception in the Years 1826 – 1891. If you haven’t already, you may want to read that post before continuing.

This week I received a copy of What is Love? Richard Carlile’s Philosophy of Sex by M.L. Bush.  In this book is the original text of Carlile’s small volume Every Woman’s Book published in 1826.

Carlile was a radical for his age, arguing that women should enjoy intercourse without the dread of pregnancy.  His book recommended the sponge method as described in my previous post. However, I did find a few interesting tidbits that I wanted to include as closure to the original post.  I am not interested in Carlile’s ideology; I merely examine his work as a writer trying to understand the everyday details of life in the nineteenth century.

Carlile stated that one tenth of the women in London were involved in prostitution. He didn’t substantiate that number.  This is interesting to me because I’ve found more statistical information on prostitution in the Victorian era than the late Regency.

Carlile writes, “The practice [the sponge] is common with the females of the more refined parts of the continent of Europe, and with those of the aristocracy of England. An English Duchess was lately instanced to the writer, who never goes out to a dinner without being prepared with a sponge. The French and Italian women wear them fastened to their waists, and always have them at hand.” Carlile claimed to know a gentleman who carried a sponge with him in the event that he needed it. Men could also obtain a condom called baudruche or the glove in brothels, from tavern waiters, or from women in places of “public resort, such as Westminster Hall, etc.”

In his essay “What is Love,” Carlile described the sponge as the size of a “green walnut” or “small apple.” It was tied to a string for easy removal. He advised wetting the sponge with water before inserting and then rinsing it out before the next use.

Carlile claimed that every English village annually had cases of women harming or killing themselves when they tried to destroy conceptions with such means as knitting needles and poisons such as “Ergot of Rye, Savine and violent purgatives.”  In her book, The Covent Garden Ladies:  Pimp General Jack & the Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List, Hallie Rubenhold states that eighteenth century prostitutes in London knew what herbs and powders to purchase from an apothecary to make douches or induce miscarriage. If those measures didn’t work, the city was teeming with surgeons and midwives willing to terminate a pregnancy.  One of the Harris’s List women is described as “pretty much affected” by the “rough medicines” she had ingested.

Carlile also thought that by advocating contraception he could reduce “the debauchery constantly going on among men and maid-servants, between servant-girls and their young masters, and even their old masters.” These lines remind me of a letter written by Lord Byron concerning his female servants that is published in A Country House Companion by Mark Girouard.  Byron writes, “I am plucking up my spirits and have begun to gather my little sensual comforts together. Lucy is extracted from Warwickshire; some very bad faces have been warned off the premises, and more promising substituted in their stead.” Lucy was a servant whom Byron impregnated.  He continues,  “As I am a great disciplinarian, I have just issued as edict for the abolition of caps; no hair to be cut on any pretext; stays permitted, but not too low before; full uniform always in the evening.  Lucinda will be commander…of all the maker and unmakers of beds in the household.”

2 Replies to “Is Your Victorian Gentleman Sponge-Worthy? Contraception in the Years 1826 – 1891. Part II”

  1. He writes of women carrying the sponge around with them. I had always read that it had to be wet with wine, and thought they kept it that way. I guess the women could soak it in wine or vinegar before insertion, though that might try the patience of the man. It does seem as though they could insert it before they left for an evening of fun.

  2. @Nancy, I went back and added Carlile description of the sponge to the post. In everything I’ve read, he advocated using water. Knowlton (sp?) in the previous post suggested using other substances. I don’t recall wine being one of them.

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