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‘What Every Girl Should Know’: The birth control movement in the 1910s

Layne Craig, a lecturer in the Department of English at The University of Texas at Austin, recently used materials from the Ransom Center’s collections to supplement her class “Literature of the Birth Control Movement.” She writes about discoveries she made in the Center’s collections and how the materials were used in the class.

As a graduate student, I visited the Harry Ransom Center for its literary artifacts: Virginia Woolf’s letters to her niece Angelica Bell, Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, the Hogarth Press edition of Elizabeth Robins’s Ibsen and the Actress. I only recently learned, however, of the breadth of the Ransom Center’s resources on social science movements connected to literary history. I wanted to incorporate those resources into my fall 2010 class “Literature of the Birth Control Movement.” With Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg’s help, I collected texts significant to the English and American birth control movements of the 1910s, along with texts highlighting the connections between birth control and the literary landscape of the twentieth century.

Some of the texts were foundational to the birth control movement. Margaret Sanger wrote “What Every Girl Should Know” in 1916, during the most politically radical period of her career, before she was charged with obscenity and fled to England to escape jail time. My students were able to look at the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Book edition of that pamphlet, analyzing both Sanger’s left-wing, feminist activism and the working-class audience she sought to reach in that text.

In contrast, we looked at early editions of British “Mother of Birth Control” Marie Stopes’s decidedly middle-class-focused bestsellers, Married Love (1918) and Wise Parenthood (1919). Compared to Sanger’s mass-produced pamphlets, Stopes’s books look scientific and pedantic, with text-heavy dust jackets listing the author’s credentials. Inside, however, are flowery descriptions of “the sex tide in woman”: “If a swimmer comes to a sandy beach when the tide is out and the waves have receded, leaving sand where he had expected deep blue water—does he, baulked of his bathe, angrily call the sea ‘capricious’?” Stopes’s dual self-presentation as a scientist and a poet is a source of continual fascination for me, and these editions of her books helped bring that paradox to life for my students.

I also collected texts containing fictional depictions of birth control. Perfect for my uses was a manuscript of the third chapter of Mary McCarthy’s 1963 The Group, depicting a young woman’s visit to a birth control clinic in 1933. I love the title McCarthy gave this vignette: “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself.” I also made a serendipitous discovery: Charles Norris’s 1930 Seed: A Novel of Birth Control. The biblical imagery and art deco aesthetic of the dust jacket provoked conversation among my students, and the book itself, a family drama, has become part of my own work on the period.

Finally, with the help of Ransom Center graduate student intern Stephanie Bordy, I discovered a rich source of manuscript material in the newly cataloged British Sexological Society (BSS) collection. My students read a speech on “Sex Education before Marriage” given to the BSS by Jane Hawthorne, the clinician at Stopes’s Mothers Clinic, and pored over the handwritten notes of the society’s Heterosexual Study Group, to whom Sanger gave a paper in June 1920. We also perused the Society’s Library List, which included a section on “Birth Control” alongside sections on “Marriage,” “Homosexual and Intersexes,” “Venereal Disease,” and “Novels.”

My students completed a writing assignment based on the texts we examined, allowing them to visit the Reading Room themselves for a longer look at our materials. The project was as useful to me as to them, as it gave me a chance to explore the range of the Ransom Center’s collections, both in literary texts and in the cultures that influenced their production.

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Watch video from "Consider the Archive: An Evening of David Foster Wallace" event

From left, Kurt Hildebrand, Shannon McCormick, L. B. Deyo, and Wayne Alan Brenner read an excerpt from Wallace's first novel, 'The Broom of the System.'
From left, Kurt Hildebrand, Shannon McCormick, L. B. Deyo, and Wayne Alan Brenner read an excerpt from Wallace's first novel, 'The Broom of the System.'
The Harry Ransom Center commemorated the opening of the David Foster Wallace archive with readings of Wallace’s work by writers and actors on September 14, 2010. Readers Wayne Alan Brenner, Elizabeth Crane, L. B. Deyo, Doug Dorst, Owen Egerton, Chris Gibson, Kurt Hildebrand, Shannon McCormick, and Jake Silverstein shared selections of Wallace’s fiction, essays, and correspondence. Wallace’s archive is housed at the Ransom Center. The program was co-sponsored by American Short Fiction and Salvage Vanguard Theater.

The video of this event is now available online.

Fighting Heat, Dust, and Glare: Roger Fenton and the first photographic documentation during the Crimean War

In 1950 photography collector Helmut Gernsheim managed to track down a descendant of photographer Roger Fenton and scored one of the greatest coups of his career: Fenton’s own complete set of Crimean War photographs for a grand total of £50. After closing the deal in the owner’s Farnborough garage, Gernsheim loaded the prints into the trunk of his car and referred to the purchase as “quite a haul.” In 1954, Gernsheim published a book about the 360 mounted salt print photographs of the Crimea that he had purchased from Fenton’s heir.

The Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856, was fought mainly on the Crimean Peninsula and was where Florence Nightengale pioneered modern nursing practices. France allied with Turkey and Britain against the Russian Empire in a dispute over the declining Ottoman Empire territories and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church over the Russian Orthodox Church in Palestine.

According to Gernsheim, what made the Crimean War so interesting was that “in many respects, it was the last of the old wars, with dandy officers, purchasable commissions and mortar balls; in others, it is the first of modern war, with telegraphic communication, supply railway, efficient nursing and field kitchen and the first to be covered by photographers and newspaper reporters.”

Fenton took up photography in 1851, and by 1852 he was instrumental in founding the Photographic Society of London. For the next few years, Fenton photographed everything from items in the British Museum to the Royal Family.

From 1854 to 1855, under the patronage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Fenton photographed in the Crimea, where Great Britain was fighting an unpopular war against the Russians. In a joint venture between the Crown and the Manchester publisher Agnew & Sons, Fenton said that the images from his photographic campaign were “intended to illustrate faithfully the scenery of the camps; to display prominent incidents of military life, as well as to perpetuate the portraits of those distinguished officers, English and French, who have taken part in the ever memorable Siege of Sebastopol.”

Though the purpose of Fenton’s images was to realistically exhibit the Crimean War to the British public, Victorian standards discouraged Fenton from photographing the ghastly ravages of war.

Another restriction was the extended exposure times of the wet collodion process, which made photographing active combat impossible. Thus, Fenton relied upon posed images of soldiers and views of a battle’s destructive aftermath to convey the atmosphere of war.

Taking 36 cases of photography equipment, Fenton used a large van as a home base. Fenton equipped the pantechnicon with a cooking area, a living/sleeping area, and a dark room. Despite its utility, the van’s cumbersome size and light color made it an easy target for the Russians. Consequently, the van came under fire several times.

Painted on the van, in large black letters, were the words “photographic van.” As pictures were rare at the time, people inevitably flocked to the van requesting photographs to send home.

In addition to dealing with warfare, crowds, and the technical parameters of collodion photography, the intense heat and dusty terrain further complicated snapping photographs in the Crimea.

“As soon as the van door was closed to commence the preparation of the plate, perspiration started from every pore, and the sense of relief was great when it was possible to open the door to breathe even the hot air outside,” Fenton wrote in a letter that was quoted in Gernsheim’s book Roger Fenton: Photographer of the Crimean War:  His Photographs and his Letters from the Crimea.

Fenton managed to avoid the many dangers of being on location in the Crimea, but by June 1855, Fenton’s luck ran out, and he contracted cholera. He started his journey home and had recovered by the time he reached England. There, he presented his photographs in private audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and was even allowed to lie on the couch due to his delicate condition.

Despite the countless challenges, Fenton managed to produce the first photographic documentation of war in his more than 350 images of the Crimea.

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