As explained at length in the past, archaeologists don’t much like the use of the word ‘treasure‘. But this really is an archaeological treasure trove – lots and lots of artefacts, from which we shall learn lots and lots of fantastic information. Angel is responsible for this beautifully excavated feature, which we think was probably associated with the London and Paris House, a fancy goods store on Colombo Street in the 1860s and early 1870s. Enjoy!
Ceramics have been decorated to commemorate a range of events, people and places since long before the 19th century. The practice is particularly tied to British royalty, with some rather intense results. While tankards, jugs, plaques, mugs and miniature wares are most commonly decorated for commemorative purposes, a number of different ceramic types could be used in this manner (Perry 2011). The subject of the blog today is inspired by two mustard jars from Christchurch that commemorate events from the Crimean War. The Crimean War occurred from 1853 to 1856. Caused by the failing Ottoman Empire and power struggles between countries over religious rights of access to the Holy Land, two key parts of the war are depicted on these household artefacts, the Siege of Sevastopol (also known as Sebastopol) and the Battle of Balaklava (or Balaclava; Goldi Productions Ltd 1996 & 2000; Wikipedia 2017).
The first of these came from the large Justice Precinct site in the city centre. It was decorated with polychrome transfer print in a style often identified as ‘prattware’. Prattware refers to polychrome underglaze transfer printed scenes that were associated with the manufacturers F. & R. Pratt & Co. Ltd (Perry 2010). This particular jar featured a scene known as the ‘The Fall of Sebastopol 8th Sept. 1855’ (Transferware Collector’s Club 2005-2017). This scene refers to one of the classic sieges of the Crimean War, which aimed to capture the significant Russian naval base in the port of Sevastopol, on the Black Sea (Bunting 2017).
The print depicts and names Sir Harry Jones, the famous British military man who served in the Crimean War as commander of the British forces at the battle of Bomarsund and of the Royal Engineer forces at the Siege of Sevastopol (Transferware Collector’s Club 2005-2017). Most descriptions of this pattern presume that Sir Harry Jones is the figure on the stretcher in the scene, although there is no record of his being wounded during the battle. The full title of the pattern includes the date 8th September 1855, when the Battle of Malakoff occurred and the Russian forces began to withdraw (Atkinson 1911: 451-453; Transferware Collector’s Club 2005-2017).
The second mustard jar base was found on a residential site just outside the city centre. The whiteware jar had a polychrome transfer printed design depicting a battle and the words “The/…OON/CHAR…” around the base. This would have formed the full phrase: “THE DRAGOON CHARGE” (Transferware Collector’s Club 2005-2017). This print depicts the Battle of Balaklava fought on 25 October 1854 as a part of the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. The Battle of Balaklava was a Russian assault on the British allied supply base that involved the famous Thin Red Line military tactic and the infamously deadly Charge of the Light Brigade (Wikipedia 2017).
Although no maker’s marks were evident on the base of either jar, examples of the same printed Prattware are attributed to the manufacturers John Thomas and Joseph Mayer. Thomas and Mayer manufactured pottery in Longport, Burslem, Staffordshire between 1842 and 1855 (Kowalsky & Kowalsky 1999: 274). The date range for the operation of the Thomas and Mayer company and the commemorative nature of the prints suggests a manufacturing date in the 1850s, possibly as early as late 1854 to 1855. This would have taken place while the Crimean war was still ongoing.
Although little remembered today, the Crimean War is often described as the “first truly modern war” (Groll and Frankel 2014). With the advent of new technology, industry and weaponry, the resulting high casualty rate marked this event as a significant moment in the mid-19th century. In addition to this, the perceptions of the war were shaped by real-time journalistic coverage and photographic documentation by Roger Fenton. Due to the process involved in setting up and taking photography at the time, Fenton was limited to producing images of still (sometimes staged) moments in between the carnage. Depictions of the fighting seem to be limited to paintings and prints made during the war by artist-correspondents or after the war.
Polychrome transfer printed scenes like this were used on ceramic food containers throughout the latter half of the 19th century, although they are not common on Christchurch archaeological sites. The jars are an example of commemorative objects available for consumption in the wake of significant events. The participation of British soldiers in the Battle of Balaklava in particular was seen as an example of some of the finest heroic fighting of the war and many depictions of this heroism were created in art and literature (Bunting 2017). These kinds of physical reminders of formative events in national identity have been noted elsewhere in discussions of commemorative products depicting the 1899 South African War, particularly with regards to the connections between colonial and national ideologies (Lucas 2004). Although New Zealand was not directly involved in this conflict, British soldiers who fought in the war later emigrated to New Zealand (New Zealand Crimean War Veterans 2017). Such an event was part of the collective memory of 19th century British national identity, as evident in other depictions of the battle such as paintings and in the poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. As such, the presence of objects commemorating the Crimean War in 19th century New Zealand archaeological sites demonstrate these links to important historical events.
The remembrance of aspects of the Crimean War continued through to the modern era. Lord Tennyson’s poem in particular formed the platform for later adaptations of and references to the event. The Charge of the Light Brigade was immortalised on screen in 1912, 1936 and 1968. Each version varies greatly in how it depicts the events of the war, in line with the time period and popular movie styles of the period. The poem has echoes in modern pop culture as Lord Tennyson’s poem formed the basis of the 1983 Iron Maiden song ‘The Trooper’ and references in movies and TV shows from Saving Private Ryan to Top Gear to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Atkinson, C. F., 1911. Crimean War. In Chisholm, H. (Ed). Encyopaedia Brittanica 7 (11th Edition). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Kowalsky, A and Kowalsky, D. 1999. Encyclopaedia of Marks On American, and European Earthernware, Ironstone and Stoneware 1780-1980. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. Atglen.
Transferware Collector’s Club, 2005-2017. The Dragoon Charge – Balaklava [online] Available at: http://www.transcollectorsclub.org/tcc2/data/patterns/d/the-dragoon-charge-balaklava/ [Accessed 05 May 2017].
As a Spanish archaeologist who used to work on prehistoric sites and then became an artefact specialist in New Zealand, my experience has shown me that although they are worlds apart, Spanish prehistory and the Victorian era are closer than you think. And I’ll explain why…
As you know, archaeology provides us with information about societies in the past. That means a long timeline and heaps of artefacts that let us know how people used to live. But, how much have these objects changed from thousands of years ago to the 19th century? Less than you might imagine…
Food, care practices and children’s education are aspects of life that are present in all times and all places around the world. It comes down to the simple fact that people are people. Daily activities are the most important ones for the survival and development of all societies. These tasks articulate the relationships and social links between people. However, although they are important, essential tasks, they have long been dismissed or gone unnoticed. How is it possible? Easy! Because history has been written in masculine, based on the idea of the technological and industrial progress carried out by man, and those domestic works associated with women and dwelling have been undervalued. This lack of attention in archaeological discourse doesn’t make sense because most of the artefacts recorded in all cultures and historical periods are associated with the household.
To be honest, I chose this topic because gendered archaeology is one of my passions. I have been analysing how women were represented in prehistoric rock art from the eastern area of Spain as researcher at the University of Alicante and I also used to work on the archaeological site of Cabezo Redondo (Villena, Spain), which dates to the Bronze Age. Currently, I have the chance to keep looking for women and children through the artefacts from 19th century sites in Christchurch. So, today, I want to merge my experiences here in the Antipodes with those from Spain. With that in mind, I’ll mainly look at the most common finds that archaeologists deal with: ceramic vessels, along with a couple of other unusual and cool artefacts.
So, first, a few basic ideas to start with!
The basic tasks of daily life may not have always been undertaken by women in prehistory, for sure! In fact, in the early periods of human history, the whole group (women, men and children) would have been involved. It was later that these activities became part of women’s heritage in traditional and historical societies. Especially, by the middle of the 19th century when homes and workplaces were no longer combined in the same place, a strict division of roles of family members became visible: the main responsibility for men was the economic support of the household, while the women undertook the role of homemaker and child carer and retreated from the public sphere. Women were encouraged to be the wives, mothers and domestic servants. Poor behaviour and inattention to housework was often linked to gossiping or even insanity. Can you believe it? Do you think domesticity causes illness? This husband didn’t agree because his wife was the most domestic woman ever.
Now that you’ve had a little bit of an introduction, we are ready! It is time to start democratising the past through archaeology, listening the silent voices from the past, and highlighting and researching the role of the people less represented. Let’s make women, children and their practices visible!
I’ll show you some objects related to food, caregiving and children’s socialization. Comparing both artefacts found in Spain at prehistoric sites and 19th century ones from Christchurch, we’ll reach an evident and clever conclusion: materials and manufacturing methods are different, but the use of the objects remains consistent.
Eating is probably the most essential activity for everybody. As well as being a biological necessity, food practices display social rituals and indicate different means, status and behaviours, based on factors like the variety of table settings. The first tableware and cutlery recovered from prehistoric sites in Spain dates to the 5th to the 4th millennium BC. Is that not amazing? At these sites, we find communal serving dishes from which household members were served, individual bowls for eating and handled vessels to contain and serve liquids. Simple for us, but an authentic revolution for the Neolithic groups. Their new economy, based on farming, involved significant changes in food preparation and consumption. These processes required knowledge about sources as well as tools and technical skills for cutting, grinding, boiling, smoking or roasting. A kind of soup and cream made from grains mixed with water was the main dish on the menu, and it was cooked and eaten with a spoon. It would look like a porridge. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t as yummy as our current food! How lucky we are!
In the same way that eating is important in order to create and negotiate relations between people, childcare and education also have social significance. Through play and imitation, young children were taught roles that would be important in their daily life as adults. Based on the archaeological record, it looks like dolls were of the most popular toys from ancient times! By the 19th century, porcelain dolls were given to girls to encourage maternal instincts as well as toy tea sets to learn the rules of domestic etiquette and social interaction in the Victorian era. But again, this is not a modern invention! Miniature ceramics were also found in prehistoric sites, and they were not only used as toys but also as a way to learn about ceramic manufacture. These asymmetric and unburnished vessels showed the processes of skill acquisition needed to make pottery. To be honest, I don’t think that I would be able to make them any better using my hands…maybe because my mum didn’t teach me about that?
So why have I used prehistoric and 19th century artefacts to look at maintenance activities? I’ve tried to make you think about the evidence of daily life because artefacts hide a history behind them. They talk about social processes and relationships between people, which is the core of all societies. Women carried out an active role as well as men, of course, and the archaeological record confirms this. However, traditional historians and archaeologists, influenced by our contemporary minds, have interpreted the past by focusing on men and their achievements. But in reality, the development of all cultures and societies is the result of the tasks undertaken by men and women, as well as the relationships and connections between them. So, it is time to make women and their practices visible!
So how do we do it? The archaeological record provides the tools that we need – women and children are visible through objects from household contexts as I explained here. Also, human bones from burials and rock art are both especially useful in the case of prehistoric sites. In the case of the 19th century Christchurch sites, archaeologists are lucky as well. Lots of rubbish was dumped into pits or accidentally fell under the floors of houses, waiting to be uncovered and compared with the historical records for that period or site. Therefore, we only need to be asking the right questions to find the answers – and to find the women and children that we are looking for. Let’s go, get into it!
By Maria Lillo Bernabeu
GEA. Cultura Material e identidad social en la Prehistoria Reciente en el Sur de la Peninsula Iberica. [online] Available at: http://www.webgea.es/ [Accessed 11/05/2017].
Gonzalez Marcen, P., Monton-Subias, M. and Picazo, M., 2008. ‘Towards an archaeology of maintenance activities’. In Monton-Subias, S. and Sanchez-Romero, S., 2008 (ed.) Engendering Social Dynamics: The Archaeology of Maintenance Activities. BAR International Series 1862.
Museo Arqueologico Regional. Comunidad de Madrid. [online] Available at: http://www.museoarqueologicoregional.org [Accessed 11/05/2017].
Museu de Prehistoria de Valencia. [online] Available at: http://www.museuprehistoriavalencia.es [Accessed 8/05/2017].
Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarragona [online] Available at: http://www.mnat.cat/ [Accessed 9/05/2017].
Past Women. Material Culture of Women. [online] Available at: http://www.pastwomen.net/ [Accessed 9/05/2017].
Sanchez Romero, M., 2008. ‘Childhood and the Construction of Gender Identities through Material Culture’. Childhood in the Past 1, 17-37.
Symonds, J., 2007. Table Settings. The Material Culture and Social Context of Dinning, AD 1700-1900. Oxbow Books, United Kingdom.
Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2017. Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct Archaeological Report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.
When you think about the Avon River running through Christchurch, you might imagine punting boats and kayaks in Hagley Park. Such attractions in our garden city are far from new and, recently, a few of us here at Underground Overground Archaeology have had the opportunity to learn more about how a section of the Avon was utilised and modified in the early days of our city. As a result, we have managed to catch a glimpse of how the early settlers modified the wider landscape to suit their needs.
Prior to the arrival of the of the first European settlers, Māori had long been living in the Ōtautahi/Christchurch area, utilising the rivers as transport corridors as well as a source of fish and wetland birds. The river was originally known by Māori as Ōtākaro, and was renamed the Avon River by John Deans in the 1840s. Upon arriving in the new settlement in December 1850, Dr Alfred Charles Barker described the Avon as “everywhere bordered with a luxuriant growth of flax” (Lamb, 1981: 93). Barker’s photograph of the Avon River dating to 1860 shows the river banks still in that primitive condition.
The first known development to have occurred on the river bank along this section of Cambridge Terrace was the erection of the Montreal Street bridge in 1861. This single-lane cart bridge would have been a great boon to Christchurch’s citizens, who previously had to cross the river at the Victoria Street bridge when passing through the city (Ince, 1998: 38). It was not until the establishment of the Christchurch City Council in 1862, however, that the first official landscaping of the river bank was undertaken. In July, a newly established ‘planting committee’ declared that three lines of trees (consisting of Lombardy poplars, sycamore, blue gum, laburnum, pineaster firs and weeping willows) were to be planted along southern bank of the river, between Montreal and Hereford streets (Lyttelton Times 16/7/1862: 4). By January 1863, the council had appointed a government gardener to oversee further landscaping around the city (Lyttelton Times 3/1/1863: 4). But it was the hard labour gang that the council most frequently employed in maintaining the river bank, particularly in clearing the refuse that was often discarded in the hollows of the river bank reserve by nearby residents (Lyttelton Times 5/5/1868: 2, Press 16/6/1868: 2).
In 1870, the mayor made a proposal to level the northern bank of the river between the Montreal and Hereford street bridges, as part of his idea to form a promenade along the bank (Star 19/7/1870: 2). Although it is not clear if these works were undertaken at the time, this may have been the beginning of the footpaths that many pedestrians still meander along today.
By 1875, the landscape of the river bank was changing again. The council was forced to authorise the construction of a new bridge in Montreal Street in September 1875, when the timber piles of the original bridge were found to have rotted (Ince, 1998: 38-41). William Aitken also erected the Montreal Street boatsheds here in this year. Permission to do so was granted by the city council, on condition Aitken paid a ground rent of £5 per annum and was not to charge more than a shilling an hour for the use of his boats (Star 12/10/1875: 2). J. McLean took over as proprietor of the boatsheds in 1882, and continued to run them into the 20th century. Fire broke out in the boatsheds in 1919, and although they managed to survive the blaze, they were not so lucky in 1929 when they were completely destroyed by arson (Star 29/12/1919: 8; Lamb, 1981: 111). Photographs of the sheds in 1888 and the early 1920s shows the boatsheds changed little over the years – though the foliage on the banks surrounding them certainly grew denser.
The archaeology that was uncovered from the river banks of the Avon varied in condition. We found concentrations of scattered artefacts on the north bank, all of which were highly fragmented. These artefacts probably represent the random discarding of rubbish or items that were lost by the people who used the area as a recreational space. Alternatively, they may represent the efforts of the city council to fill in the natural depressions in the bank (not an economic recession pun), in an attempt to flatten the land. Such maintenance occurred in 1894 and 1908, to “render the banks of the river better looking” (Press 11/5/1894: 3; 3/8/1908: 9). However they were deposited, these artefacts were probably further fragmented by the trampling of foot traffic of the visitors to the area, and/or by the installation of pedestrian pathways to this side of the bank in 1941 (Canterbury Maps, 2017).
Another way these artefacts could have ended up on this river bank relates to the nearby (and very hygienic), Corporation Baths (ArchSite 2013). These were located downstream from this site, between Cambridge Terrace and Rhododendron Island, and their maintenance required the Avon River to be dredged in 1877. The extent of the dredging along the Avon River is not known, but evidence from a nearby archaeological site suggests that material dredged from the river may have ended up further along the river bank, at least as far north as the Cambridge Terrace/Durham Street intersection (ArchSite 2013). It’s possible that the artefacts found at our site may also represent some of this dredged material. Sadly, these baths were forced to close at the end of the bathing season of 1886 due to the increase in sewage and other discharged wastes from the hospital less than 400 metres upstream (Press 9/2/1886: 2)!
In stark contrast to the fragmentary artefacts found on the northern bank, many complete glass bottles and a clay pipe were found slightly downstream on the southern river bank. No ceramic artefacts were found on this side, and it’s very likely that these artefacts were discarded by people into, or near to, the river. These items would have floated downstream to the southern bank, where they were deposited by natural fluvial processes. The absence of ceramic in the southern assemblage supports this theory – as broken plates don’t make good flotation devices! It’s a very tidy way to look at artefact fluvial deposition… as tidy as rubbish floating down the river can look anyway.
This assemblage from the southern bank could also be more accurately dated because the artefacts were literally capped by modifications of the river bank in 1914. At this time, concrete edging (or sheet piling), was added to the bank, and a concrete fill layer was added above the layer of silty soil that contained the artefacts. This leaves us with (equally as tidy) pre-1914 deposition date for these artefacts.
So, we’ve covered the material and condition of the artefacts found, but what about what they were used for? The answer is a gosh darn lot of alcohol bottles and some tobacco pipes… because… Avon River boat party?! Hey, it’s possible! But perhaps more generally, this area was used primarily as recreational space since the 19th century, and the artefacts that we found probably reflect that. The assemblage notably lacked the tea and table ware ceramic vessels that typically characterise a domestic household assemblage, and other common household artefacts were also absent here.
Whether we are looking at punting parties or river refuse, this Cambridge Terrace site offered us a rare opportunity to consider the use of a primarily recreational public space in Christchurch. We were able to take a wider look at modification of the early cityscape – Christchurch was not always the flat landscape that we know today, we have shaped it to be that way over time, to suit our needs. During this project, we encountered an unexpected abundance of historical data regarding the 19th century use and modification of this section of the Avon River – we could combine this information with an example of a less common process of artefact deposition… and fluvial fun was had by all.
By Chelsea Dickson and Lydia Mearns.
ArchSite, 2013. M35/1063. New Zealand Archaeological Association.
ArchSite, 2014. M35/1783. New Zealand Archaeological Association.
Canterbury Maps, 2017. Canterbury. [online] Available at: <http://canterburymaps.govt.nz/> [Accessed 1 Jan. 2017].
Hickey, M., Dickson, C. and Mearns, L. 2017. 60 Cambridge Terrace, Christchurch: Report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for Ōtākaro Limited.
Ince, J. A., 1998. A City of Bridges: a history of bridges over the Avon and Heathcote rivers in Christchurch. Christchurch, N.Z.: Christchurch City Council.
Lamb, R., 1981. From the Banks of the Avon: The Story of a River. Christchurch, N.Z.: A. H. & A. W. Reed Ltd.
Williams, H., and Dickson, C. 2017. Durham Street South/Cambridge Terrace, Christchurch: Report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for the Fletcher Construction Company and the Christchurch City Council.
In the lyrics to his hit 1982 song, Sexual Healing, Marvin Gaye cries out (in smooth and sultry tones, really) for a remedy that will relieve his mind, restore his emotional stability, stop the “blue teardrops” falling and calm the sea “stormin’ inside of me.” It may surprise you to discover that, amazingly and with only a tiny bit of artistic license (well, sort of), this song works rather well as an allegory for Victorian attitudes to sex. Yep, you heard me. Particularly if you listen to them the day after reading an 1840s-1860s treatise on sexual health, impotence and general quackery (do not recommend for the squeamish…). It’s the last lines, usually faded out past the point of hearing in recorded versions, that really clinch it: “please don’t procrastinate,” he sings softly, “it’s not good to masturbate.”
Bet you didn’t know about that line did you.
I realise that this foray into 1980s R & B and/or the (surprisingly very graphic) world of Victorian sexual health is somewhat out of character for this blog, but do bear with us, dear reader. Let us take you on a journey down the rabbit hole to a side of 19th century life not often talked about, and definitely not often found archaeologically.
It all began a few weeks ago, with the discovery of a relatively unassuming pharmaceutical bottle in an assemblage from the 1870s-1880s. Plain in form and resembling the many tinctures of cough medicine, pain killers, oils and blood purifiers we commonly find on Victorian sites, the bottle was also embossed with an unusual product name: Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum. The name references Syria, which at the time had both exotic and biblical connotations that were exploited by medical entrepreneurs, as well as an earlier well-known remedy called Solomon’s Balm of Gilead (which itself references biblical healing…; Helfand 1989). The product, as it turns out, was a patent medicine primarily advertised as a remedy for three things: syphilis, gonorrhea and sexual impotence. Specifically:
THE CORDIAL BALM OF SYRIACUM is a gentle stimulant and renovator of the impaired functions of life, and is exclusively directed to the cure of such complaints as arise from the disorganization of the Generative System, whether constitutional or acquired, loss of sexual power, and debility arising from syphilis; and is calculated to afford decided relief to those who by early indulgence in solitary habits have weakened the powers of their system, and fallen into a state of chronic debility, by which the constitution is left in a deplorable state…The consequences arising from this dangerous practice are not confined to its pure physical result, but branch to moral ones; leading the excited, deviating mind into a fertile field of seductive error – into a gradual and total degradation of manhood…How many at eighteen receive the impression of the seeds of syphilitic disease itself? The consequences of which travel out of the ordinary tract of bodily ailment, covering the frame with disgusting evidences of its ruthless nature, and impregnating the wholesome stream of life with mortal poison; conveying into families the seeds of disunion and unhappiness; undermining domestic harmony; and striking at the very soul of human intercourse.”
-The Cambrian, 9/09/1843, p. 1
Yikes. Various advertisements for the balm in the 1850s and 1860s claimed that it was a “never-failing remedy for Spermatorrhoea”, “loss of manly power”, “obstinate gleet”, “tic-dolereaux” and “the prostration and languor produced by sojourning in the colonies or hot climates” (New Zealander 17/08/1861: 6). It, apparently, also “favoured the reproduction of the semen and strengthened at the same time the secretory vessels and the resevoirs” and “removed radically all the affections of the genital parts in both sexes; substituting vigour for impotence, and fecundity in place of barrenness” (Perry and Perry 1841). All of which is a lot for one little remedy to do. Although it was apparently “adapted for both sexes”, it is worth noting that most of the advertisements targeted men. When female complaints were discussed, the most attention was paid to the illnesses and dangers of menopause (or, as described at the time, “the turn of life”) and the “safe conduct” promised by the use of the Balm of Syriacum (Perry and Perry 1841: 62).
The actual contents of the balm are unknown, although it may have contained origanum syriacum, which was believed to have blood purifying abilities (Watson 2013: 90). Other similar products, such as the Balm of Gilead, are believed to have contained nothing more than “a few spices and herbs dissolved in a substantial percentage of fine old French brandy” (Helfand 1989: 155). As such, while they may have made the patient feel better for a little while – or as one person puts it, mistake “the frenzy of inebriation for the natural glow of renovated health” – they are unlikely to have achieved any of the lofty goals outlined in their advertisements (Wilson 2008).
The balm was made and sold by R. & L. Perry, London ‘surgeons’ who made quite a name for themselves as specialists in sexual health, specifically the treatment of impotence and the clap. They were self-described consulting surgeons and medical men who “feel that we are not exceeding the limits of truth, or transgressing the bounds of professional etiquette, in asserting that our mode of practice…has been productive of the happiest and most successful results in the treatment of sexual debility in both sexes” (Perry and Perry 1841: vi). In this statement, they were supported by a multitude of (somewhat similar) testimonials from patients who listed, in sometimes excruciating detail, the symptoms and maladies of which they had been cured. In truth, however, they were quacks.
A good part of what we know about the Perrys and their medical beliefs comes from their book The Silent Friend, a treatise on onanism (masturbation) and its consequences, such as impotence, as well as venereal and syphilitic diseases. The Silent Friend contained in its many pages of flowery language, a 65 page long diatribe against “solitary indulgence”, constant advertisements for the Balm of Syriacum and other medicines, numerous descriptions of the symptoms and manifestations of gonorrhea and syphilis, and several disturbing recommendations for the treatment of said venereal diseases. I think my favourite might be the injection of a mixture of lead sulphate (toxic), zinc sulphate, rose water (inexplicably) and opium into sensitive areas. Kids, do not try this at home…
Although the graphic detail of both disease and treatment is morbidly fascinating, it’s the fixation of the authors on the dangers of onanism that I find particularly curious.The Perrys were of the opinion that masturbation not only destroyed the health and mind of the individual, it was a danger to “the welfare of the empire” due to the ways it destroyed man’s emotional, moral and procreative abilities and passed those same debilities on to any children such a sufferer might manage to have. Interestingly, this was a fear that was shared among many in Victorian society: it had become more and more widespread in the 18th century and by the mid-19th century, quack doctors like R. & L. Perry were perpetuating and exploiting the fear and shame associated with masturbation, including the notion that it was responsible for impotence. The list of things caused by such self-indulgence is long and contains a wide range of physical, mental and moral symptoms, to the point where almost any failing of a man or his character could be blamed on his own weakness (oddly enough, no reference is made by the Perrys to women suffering from this particular problem…)
Sufferers of this terrible malady reported, among other things too graphic to include, that (and do keep in mind those Marvin Gaye lyrics…):
- “the powers of the mind were much weakened, my judgment had lost its solidity, my head was confused and subject to frequent swimmings”
- “he often shed tears involuntarily, and a quantity of corrosive pus continually issued from the corners of his eyes”
- “my spirits greatly depressed, so that at times I could scarcely refrain from sighing and involuntary weeping”
- “a disordered stomach, dry consumptive cough, weakness in the voice, hoarseness, shortness of breath on the least exercise”
In general, the various treatments for onanism, as well as the ubiquitously suggested Balm of Syriacum, of course, are just as horrifying as those suggested for venereal diseases. Potential cures ranged from cauterizations and blisterings of the penis (yikes, again) to the application of camphor to the genitals, the use of a ‘curative belt’ which sent shocks of electricity through one’s groin, and that old favourite, arsenic (McLaren 2007: 134). Also, specifically in the case of onanism and impotence, matrimony was recommended. The Perrys were strong advocates, surprisingly given our usual impression of Victorians, for a healthy sex life, but only within the confines of marriage. Marriage, and procreation, were after all, the purpose of human existence.
There’s something of a curious juxtaposition here, I think, between the repressed sexuality and morals of Victorian society and the quackery that very much played on the fears and habits exacerbated by social silence on the subject of sex. It’s visible in the lack of discussion around such matters in daily life and the utter relish with which books like The Silent Friend describe, in extraordinarily graphic terms, the consequences of ‘bad’ sexual habits. I started this post with Marvin Gaye and a tongue in cheek reading of a beloved song (sorry, everyone), but as I’ve written it, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about how much the social censorship, shame and plain old lack of information encouraged the spread of venereal disease and general ill health in the Victorian era (and our own, as it happens, don’t think we’re past this yet). Society created a vacuum into which so-called doctors like R. & L. Perry could step with alacrity and success, virtually unchallenged, to both exploit those unspoken fears and spread their own misinformation, in horrendous and alarming detail. Some things are better talked about, as it turns out, than hidden under the bed.
In the words of another (maybe less beloved song), let’s talk about sex, people. And always avoid treatments and doctors that recommend injecting lead sulphate into your genitals. If you’ve learned anything from this blog, let it be that.
 One anecdote recounted the curing of an obstinate gleet “by the injection of punch, a remedy suggested in a convivial moment; another time by green tea” (Perry and Perry 1841).
 The full title is, in fact, The Silent Friend: A Medical Work, On The Disorders Produced By The Dangerous Effects of Onanism, All It’s Dreadful Consequences Considered, Including Nervous and Sexual Debility, Impotency, &C., And On Venereal And Syphilitic Diseases, With Plain Directions For The Removal Of Secondary Symptoms, Gonorrhoea or Clap, Gleets, Strictures, Whites, And All Diseases Of The Urinary Passages, Without The Use of Mercury, Confinement, Or Hinderance from Business; Followed By General Instructions For The Perfect Restoration Of Those Who Are Incapacitated From Entering Into The Holy State Of Marriage; By The Evil Consequences Arising From Early Abuse, Or Syphilitic Infection. Which is really quite a mouthful. I definitely do not recommend looking up gleets, strictures or whites unless you’re sure you want to know. And gonorrhoea, for that matter.
 There were some who did challenge these ideas and practices, I just haven’t had a chance to really talk about them.
Helfand, W. H., 1989. President’s Address: Samuel Solomon and The Cordial Balm of Gilead. In Pharmacy in History, Vol. 31(4), pp. 151-159.
McLaren, A., 2007. Impotence: A Cultural History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Perry, R. and Perry, L., 1841. The Silent Friend: A Medical Work, On The Disorders Produced By The Dangerous Effects of Onanism, All It’s Dreadful Consequences Considered, Including Nervous and Sexual Debility, Impotency, &C., And On Venereal And Syphilitic Diseases, With Plain Directions For The Removal Of Secondary Symptoms, Gonorrhoea or Clap, Gleets, Strictures, Whites, And All Diseases Of The Urinary Passages, Without The Use of Mercury, Confinement, Or Hinderance from Business; Followed By General Instructions For The Perfect Restoration Of Those Who Are Incapacitated From Entering Into The Holy State Of Marriage; By The Evil Consequences Arising From Early Abuse, Or Syphilitic Infection. Self published. [online] Available at: https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=i1t1p2YRahcC&dq=the+silent+friend&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Ritz, D., 2010. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. Omnibus Press, London.
Watson, L., 2013. Tom Tiddler’s Ground: Irregular Medical Practitioners and Male Sexual Problems in New Zealand, 1858-1908. In Medical History, Vol. 57(4), p. 537-558. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3865952/#fnr16
Wilson, B., 2008. Decency and Disorder: the Age of Cant 1789-1837. Faber and Faber.