In 1924, the National Library for the Blind’s (NLB) secretary and librarian, Constance Bellhouse, wrote to publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons asking for permission to produce braille copies of Marie Stopes’s Married Love (1918). Users of the NLB had heard about the book in Horizon, a braille magazine produced by a trade union for blind people as an educational resource. Bellhouse told the publisher that because Stopes’s was ‘one of the most valuable [books] in the English language,’ the NLB was ‘anxious’ to give their readers ‘what they want’.
The commercial success of this sex instruction book transformed Stopes into a household name, her book having gone through 39 reprints and sold half a million copies by 1925. Reaction and controversy cemented this publication as central to the development of popular sexual knowledge in 20th-century Britain. Its popularity is so well-known, that it features in today’s cultural understandings of how interwar Britons learnt about sex. Stopes has even been given a few brief mentions in Downton Abbey.
Despite the fame of the book, the correspondence between the NLB and Putnam’s reveals another, lesser-known story about Married Love and other 20th-century sex instruction books, of which there were many. It begs the question of how blind people who relied on braille to read may have participated in this particular moment where private sexual knowledge was being pushed into public consciousness through books.
The NLB’s services were a boon to many, especially in the interwar and postwar years when servicemen and civilians blinded during the World Wars had to learn to navigate their lives in a different way. Supplying books through two main branches and consignments to libraries and institutions across the country, the NLB provided blind readers with access to popular sexual knowledge in braille.
Stopes’s Married Love was one of a number of sex instruction books and pamphlets that became available to blind readers through the NLB between the 1920s and the 1950s. They could borrow anatomical texts, general health literature, and religious literature on birth control including Successful Marriage (1941) by Presbytarian minister Herbert A. Gray. Helena Wright’s The Sex Factor in Marriage (1930) was available in braille by 1952, alongside pamphlets from the Marriage Guidance Council. Much of the sex advice literature the NLB supplied had religious and eugenics framings, and represented only a small amount of the thousands of volumes the organisation translated and lent out. Nevertheless, this anecdote represents the important role the NLB held in providing blind readers access to the developing debates about sex and marriage in Britain during the 20th-century.
Since coming across Bellhouses’s letter, I have been grappling with the question: how can we meaningfully situate the NLB’s supply of sex instruction books within historiographical debates? Historian Douglas Baynton notably claimed that disability is pervasive in history, yet it has often been marginalised or sidelined in mainstream narratives. This has certainly also been the case with histories of sex and sexuality, where disability does often feature in relation to eugenics-based understandings of ‘normal’ bodies and reproduction, but is rarely the main focus of our writing. Efforts are being made to centre disability in sexuality histories, and there is an opportunity to bring this into conversation with histories of sexual knowledge.
In particular, scholars have done little to explore how blind people found out about, accessed, and engaged with sex instruction books, and subsequently sex itself, through the institutions that supported and served them, like the NLB. Acknowledging that this was part of the service the NLB provided is a starting point for thinking about how histories of sex intersect with histories of disability generally and blindness specifically.
Furthermore, this case-study allows us to begin asking questions about what access to sexual knowledge meant in a historical context. Why did the NLB want to supply sex instruction texts to its readers, beyond the suggestion that they were in demand? What was the significance of the fact that the books they chose to supply were mostly based on religious and eugenicist thinking? How does the availability of sex advice books through the NLB compare with—or differ from—other libraries, including those for sighted people? And how did blind readers engage with these books, and what impact, if any, did they have in their lives? As a starting point, this anecdote expands possibilities for a history of blindness in 20th-century Britain with sex and sexual knowledge explicitly at the centre. It draws together the well-known source material of sex instruction books with disability histories to complicate our understanding of what it meant and felt like to learn about sex through books in this period.
Phoebe Gill is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her PhD research focuses on sexual knowledge and publishing in Britain and Ireland, 1910s-1960s. She tweets at @phoebeg_7.
 Matthias Reiss, Blind Workers Against Charity: The National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland, 1893-1970, pp. 90-92.
 Penguin Random House Archive, Marie Stopes Papers, letter from Constance Bellhouse to Constant Huntington, dated 19 August 1924.
 Alexander C.T. Geppert, ‘Divine Sex, Happy Marriage, Regenerated Nation: Marie Stopes’s Marital Manual Married Love and the Making of a Best-Seller, 1918-1955’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 8:3 (1998), pp. 395-396.
 British Library, W24-9611, NLB Catalogue of Books (1937); 11919.bb.24 NLB Catalogue of Books (1952).
 Douglas Baynton, ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ in P.K. Longmore and L. Umansky, (eds.), The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York, 2001), p. 52.
Thank you to RNIB Heritage Services for copyright permission to use these letters.