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New Spirits



New Spirits excerpts:   Sex  ■  executive powers  ■  youth

The Victorians and sex:
perception and reality

From the working-class to the elite, the Victorian Era was a lot sexier than you might think.


Victorian doctor ad

The word “Victorian” conjures up parasols and bustles, overstuffed parlor furniture, and sexual prudery. . . . But today’s caricature of Victorian primness would have looked alien to Americans in the decades after the Civil War. For one thing, it describes little of the experience of working-class people, including millions from non-Anglo backgrounds. The barrelhouse dance music of the black South was famously explicit (“squat low, mama, let your daddy see / You got somethin’ that’s worrying’ me”) but many rural and frontier whites shared non-Victorian mores. Farming couples in the Ozarks planted spring crops and then went out before sunrise to make love in the field, which supposedly ensured a good harvest. Arkansas fiddle tunes had names such as “Take Your Fingers Out of My Pants” and “Grease My Pecker, Sally Ann.” . . .

Even among the elite, many married couples enjoyed passionate sexual relations. One respectable lady asked her husband to write her a naughty letter, “for it makes me want you a lot to read one.” The wife of an army office teased her husband for having once courted another girl; that woman, she wrote in a letter, could never have handled “your long Tom!” While they cautioned against excessive lust, most advice books told husbands they had a conjugal duty to satisfy their wives in bed.

— from New Spirits, Chapter 6, “Sex”   |   have a comment?   CONTACT REBECCA

The United States
and its Power Overseas

“I am not afraid, and am always ready to do my duty, but I would like someone to tell me what we are fighting for.”


US troops halt muddy road between Arayat and Cabiao, 1899

U.S. forces found themselves bogged down in a frustrating guerrilla conflict against Filipinos fighting for their independence. American military men quickly realized that they were not “liberating” a grateful people. . . . A sergeant in the 1st Nebraska Regiment put it bluntly. “I am not afraid, and am always ready to do my duty, but I would like someone to tell me what we are fighting for.” “I deprecate this war,” wrote an officer of the 13th Minnesota, “because it seems to me that we are doing something that is contrary to our principles in the past.” Both Filipino and American critics of the war found it ironic when a U.S. commander in Manila seized copies of the U.S. Declaration of Independence that had been translated into Spanish, calling it “an incendiary document.”

Many African-American soldiers found their loyalties conflicted. “The future of the Filipino, I fear,” wrote one private . . . “is that of the Negro in the South. Matters are almost to that condition in Manila now. No one (white) has any scruples respecting the rights of a Filipino. He is kicked and cuffed at will and he dare not remonstrate.” Yet, fighting with fellow Americans as proud volunteers, other black soldiers rejected any identification with the enemy. One described the slaughter of Filipinos in battle as “awful” but added simply, “it was fight or die with us.” Thinking back later on his war service, another black veteran wrote, “I was filled with the spirit of adventure and also possessed a reasonable share of bigotry. It never occurred to my simple mind that there could be anything wrong, morally or otherwise, with any of our government’s undertaking.”

— from New Spirits,m Chapter 11, “Executive Powers”  |   have a comment?   CONTACT REBECCA

American Business and the
“Extreme Sports” of the 1890s

Despite 21 deaths in the 1904 season, football was called “the best school for instilling into the young man those attributes which business desires and demands.”


Yale vs Columbia, late 1800s

The manly sport par excellence was American football, which spread from the Ivy Leagues . . . . to universities nationwide. Its rules remained alarmingly loose. Yale’s 1905 team captain was twenty-seven years old and received for his services free tuition, a vacation in Cuba, and exclusive rights to sell American Tobacco products on campus. Players wore no helmets and little padding. Punching opposing linemen was a popular strategy. Young Dakota student Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), chosen to lead his class squad at Dartmouth on the assumption that he was a fierce Indian warrior from the West, observed wryly that on the football field, he had “most of my savage gentleness and native refinement knocked out of me.” In a notorious Harvard-Yale match in 1894, two players' eyes were gouged, another’s collarbone was deliberately stomped on and broken, and a fourth player ended up comatose. That same year a Georgetown quarterback died from injuries inflicted on the field. Nationwide, twenty-one deaths were reported during the 1904 season.

. . . . Like the era’s industrial and financial titans, football players did not so much break the rules as fiercely resist the creation of them. When successful reformers came along they cited, in fact, economic regulation as a precedent for their work. Purdue University’s president took the lead in 1894, organizing the Western Conference (known today as the Big Ten) and pointing to the Interstate Commerce Act passed by Congress five years earlier. Like governments, he argued, schools had the right and obligation to set rules and insist on fairness and safety. But football heroes such as Yale’s Walter Camp (who went on to become president of the New Haven Clock Company) disagreed. “American business has found in American college football the epitomization of present day business methods,” he wrote without apparent irony. He called football “the best school for instilling into the young man those attributes which business desires and demands.”

— from New Spirits, Chapter 6, “Youth"  |   have a comment?   CONTACT REBECCA

© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press

Cupid and Psyche

Cupid and Psyche from the 1893 World’s Fair. “There was usually great size of figures, exceeding “courage" in design—that is, defiance of customary prudence as to moral effect, united with high brilliancy of color, and absolute regard for reality in drawing.”

The Conversation
Perceptions and Realities: The Victorian Age Inventions of the era Tramps and Millionaires Yellowstone Park Journals of the era White City/1893 Worlds Fair The Civil War President McKinley