Explicit

Inside the Museum of Sex’s 150-Year-Old Porn Stash

While online porn may seem a world away from the brothel catalogs of long ago, the Museum of Sex’s latest show shows our appetite for porn is long—and inventive.

Courtesy Museum of Sex Collection

For most, pornography isn’t a comfortable topic of conversation. Although sex and sexual imagery have both drenched our culture, explicit erotic material is still deemed to be a private matter.

We hide it in our homes, behind televisions, in drawers, or watch it at home.

“We think that we invented hardcore porn,” Mark Snyder, the Museum of Sex’s director of exhibitions, told The Daily Beast, noting how the digital age has facilitated its growth and demand. “But it’s really something that people have been creating for a very long time.”

Walking into the Museum of Sex’s latest exhibition, Hardcore: A Century and a Half of Obscene Imagery, his point immediately became apparent.

The first glimpse the viewer gets—erotic literature dating back to the 1500s—is full of sexual desires and fantasies that, at some moments, can be viewed as “more hardcore than any of the things we see today,” according to Snyder.

The 16th-century writer Pietro Aretino, who is referred to as the “father of pornography,” filled his work with “sexually explicit dialogues that attacked clerical corruption and social injustice; it detailed male and female homosexual relations, group sex, masturbation, and it demanded plain talk, rather than elaborate euphemism.”

The erotic novel Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure has been circulated worldwide since its author, Joe Cleland, manifested its lustful plotlines from debtors’ prison in London in 1748.

Fanny, who moves to London at the age of 15 after her parents die, becomes a prostitute and explores the dramas of having her virginity sold, discovering masturbation, and developing a sexual appetite.

It’s widely considered the first pornographic novel, featuring dozens of illustrations of sexual acts, and is seen as one of the most prosecuted books in history. In 1821, after permeating America’s culture, it sparked the country’s first obscenity trial.

The book’s U.S. publisher, Peter Holmes, was charged with manufacturing “lewd and obscene” material, though the prosecutions only led to even more widespread knowledge of the book.

And it inspired Americans to create their own output of porn, often produced as “Fancy Books” with illustrations and homemade guides on sex.

The museum even has vintage brothel catalogs on display. These small booklets, which were sold on street corners and in specialty stores, foretold what to expect from each “Palace of Pleasure”—décor, drinks, service, and style of “young belles.” Think a Yelp! review of your favorite sex den.

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“Don’t fail to visit” Miss Kate Hastings at 119 Mercer Street, one entry writes, for “kind treatment” and a “beautiful harem.” However, at Miss Jane McCord’s just down the street, things aren’t so positive for the “three or four depraved creatures, who possess not a single charm that can allure a gentleman of taste.”

Of course, don’t forget your “male safes,” or condoms as they’re most commonly known. One crafted of sheep intestine from a 1800s recipe is on display. They were also often made from thick rubber, Snyder explains, stating they could be as thick as a bicycle tire. Ouch.

But safety measures were needed for all the exploring that was soon to be done, especially at the dawning of photography.

“People have this conception that the Victorian age was a very prudish culture,” Snyder said. “That’s what they were presenting to the outside world, but they were also very curious. They definitely liked to explore and document all sorts of things.”

As the exhibition continues, images of “money shots” (ejaculation caught on camera), bodily sex fluids, close-up encounters and masturbation line the wall, the most interesting being the use of sex toys.

Candlesticks, broomsticks, bottles, and flashlights are depicted in various photographs of women—both dressed and fully nude—in lavishly decorated Victorian homes.

The household items served as a means for women to penetrate both themselves and other women: a candlestick used in a solo moment while one woman used a flashlight on another.

“There was no active sex toy industry or market,” Snyder explained, “so most of the toys that people were using were fashioned from household items. You could have gone to a specialty person to make you something specific, but that would have been very expensive.”

At the turn of the century, people also began documenting their exploration of taboos—group sex, same sex, clergy-themed sex—which were oftentimes illegal to perform and even own.

There’s even some of the first photographic documentations of BDSM—a nude woman holding a bullwhip while standing on a nude man’s face, and bondage-clad men and women bound together by chains recalls Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial images.

According to Snyder, many of the photographs were destroyed not just in the moment, but after the fact—“While I’m sure there was more of this happening,” he said. “There are very few relics that still exist.”

One particularly exciting component to the exhibition is an entire wall of nearly 120 personal photographs discovered in the walls of a Brooklyn brownstone.

The images, which depict both men and women, solo and in groups, were possibly hidden from the Society for the Suppression of Vice during the early 20th century.

Anthony Comstock, a former Civil War soldier who headed the group, “was personally responsible for destroying 160 tons of erotic material,” according to the exhibition.

But as porn expanded with new technologies, little could be done to prevent its creation. Pornography grew from print to film, and the birth of silent format stag reels (meant for men only) emerged before evolving into full-fledged feature films.

The stag reels on display, which were discovered in 1993 at the Broadway Tourist Hotel in Paterson, New Jersey, depict both straight and gay sex, and were viewed in public venues by large groups of men.

“You would stand around and watch the movie in a very social situation,” Snyder said. “It wasn’t a private thing and there wouldn’t have been any women watching these films.”

Since homosexuality was not socially accepted and in some places illegal, filmmakers would use a “beard,” or a woman who would initiate and then disappear, to make the films bisexual in nature and avoid prosecution or public disapproval.

By 1972 the erotic film exploded into mainstream with the feature length film Deep Throat, showcasing Linda Lovelace and her signature act—taking the entire member of her male counterparts in one full gulp.

The film hosted red carpet premieres across the country that attracted the like of Jackie Onassis and Truman Capote and grossed well over $6 million.

The literal climax of the film sits playing on a screen next to a wood door panel with holes of various sizes cut from it engraved “New York’s last glory hole” and meant for anonymous pleasure in public spaces.

“[Deep Throat] was kind of the birth of the next era: ‘porn chic’ as it was called. It pretty much changed everything,” Snyder said. “It wasn’t illegal, but there was this freedom of expression that was happening which gave rise to a backlash in the ’80s when porn became vilified.

“In the ’70s it was still cool but by the early ’80s it was suddenly the exact opposite. It was a very interesting moment and this film gave rise to the modern porn industry.”

The exhibit was so evocative that as I stepped back into the bustling streets of New York, I couldn’t help but imagine a time when the area was teeming with black market erotica, back room brothels, and forbidden sexual escapades. The world today may be much more open, but it also suddenly seemed much more boring.