I Speak to You Through Electrical Language: Traveling Into the Nineteenth Century with the “Nervous Icon”

The image on page 401 of George W. Hunter’s 1907 Elements of Biology is strikingly out of place. It is a Greek bronze flattened to a black silhouette. A woodblock engraving in a textbook otherwise illustrated with halftone photographs. A relic of Renaissance anatomy covered by the soot of the Age of Steam. Yet there it stands, owning the page.

The Nervous Icon (as I’ve come to call the image) was a popular feature in biology textbooks into the 1950s. Picked up, rephotographed and copied with apparently little concern for image quality, artistry, copyright or context. It was treated poorly, just plopped in and barely referenced in the later texts in which it appeared.

But something told me there was a story here. I felt as if the Nervous Icon was a courier carrying a secret message from the past.

It turns out that tracing the history of this image – exploring when it was first cut, how it was reproduced, where it appeared, and why it remained popular even as similar classically styled illustrations were retired – reveals surprising connections between the seemingly disparate topics of printing technology, print piracy, electricity, telegraphy, spirituality, abolition, and that most central of nineteenth century anxieties, masturbation. The Nervous Icon’s secret is that, in its hyper-nakedness, it warned of the dangerous interconnectedness of the body, where stimulation, or over-stimulation, of any one part would cause damage to the entire system.

Continue reading

Purity, Pornography and Eugenics in the 1930s (Part II)

Continued from PART I.


In the first science-drunk decades of the twentieth century in the United States, when open discussion of sexuality was severely circumscribed, by custom and law, efforts to understand and control sexuality – all the institution-funded studies of prostitution, journals on birth control, books on eugenics, lectures on proper marital relations, plays and movies about venereal disease, etc. – mutated in meaning to become themselves a kind of erotica.

Ad from the Critic and Guide (1907), a journal edited by William J. Robinson.

The desire to understand and the desire to control were inexorably linked to desire in general. And commercial interests beholden to no ideology other than profit, happily exploited the tension.

Continue reading

Purity, Pornography and Eugenics in the 1930s (Part I)

From left to right: a page from a Tijuana bible, an advertisement from Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review (1921) and a portrait of Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

[Revised 5.30.16]

As far as the U.S. Post Office was concerned in 1930, birth control and pornography were one in the same thing. An 1873 federal anti-obscenity statue known as the Comstock Act prohibited the mailing of both dirty pictures and “rubber goods.” According to scholars, this act, along with associated state regulations – collectively known as the Comstock Laws – were passed in part in an attempt to counteract the loss of community control over personal behavior generated by rapid industrialization and the rise of an unmoored labor class.
Continue reading