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Disability

Marie Stopes’s Married Love and the National Library for the Blind

stopes

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.[1] 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’.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.


[1] Matthias Reiss, Blind Workers Against Charity: The National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland, 1893-1970, pp. 90-92.

[2] Penguin Random House Archive, Marie Stopes Papers, letter from Constance Bellhouse to Constant Huntington, dated 19 August 1924.

[3] 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.

[4] British Library, W24-9611, NLB Catalogue of Books (1937); 11919.bb.24 NLB Catalogue of Books (1952).

[5] 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.

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Tracing Hypertrichosis: Disability in Early Modern Europe

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On a trip to Bologna in 1594, Italian collector, physician and scientist Ulisse Aldrovandi inspected Antonietta Gonzales, a young girl with an unusual condition and brought to him by the Marchesa of Soragna. After studying her extensively, Aldrovandi reported: “The girl’s face was entirely hairy on the front, except for the nostrils and her lips around the mouth.”[1]

Like her father Petrus Gonzales and most of her siblings, Antonietta suffered from the genetic condition hypertrichosis, or Ambras Syndrome, which leads to abnormal hair growth all over the body. This condition is extremely rare, with less than fifty cases documented since the sixteenth century.[2] However the early modern period saw another excessively hairy, or hirsute, figure that appears in the historical records around twenty years after the Gonzales Family. Barbra van Beck was born in Germany, 1629.[3] From the age of ten her parents exhibited her as some kind of ‘oddity’ as she travelled across Europe performing on the harpsichord.

Because of their appearance, many contemporaries believed that those with hypertrichosis could be animals, referring to them as ‘dog haired ladies’ or ‘lion men.’ As we reflect on disability history month, studying hypertrichosis in the early modern era illuminates how pre-existing ideas on race and gender helped to construe disabilities in the past.

In her influential article ‘Disability History: Why We Need Another’ Catherine Kudulick calls to view disability not as an individual’s diagnosis, but as a ‘social category’ that is equal to gender and race.[4] Highlighting disability as another social force which strengthened European empires and patriarchy paints a better picture of how the disabled were oppressed. While there is little historiography approaching the Gonzales family and Beck through the lens of disability, tracing their lives allows us to see how they were contextualized as wild and animalistic, and how this affected race and gender. 

The Gonzales family, as painted in courtier clothing, entered royal circles via the pater familias, Petrus Gonzales. He was a Guanche, a native of Tenerife, who was taken from his home as a young boy and raised in the French court by order of Henry II. In most sources documenting his existence, he was referred to as a ‘wild man from the Canary Islands.’ However, whether he was seen as wild due to his ethnicity or disability, or both, is hard to gage. 

A biographical account of Petrus describes his life:

“Tenerife brought me forth’ hairy all over my body… [my] second mother France nourished me from boyhood to man/ hood’ and taught me to give up my wild manners,/ And the liberal arts, and to speak Latin.”[5]

Here, the imposition that Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, taught Petrus to ‘give up his wild manners’, and regulated his education through ‘liberal arts and Latin’ to civilise him may not only reflect prejudice towards his disability, but also towards his identity as a Guanche. 

In an anonymous portrait of Petrus, he wears a ruff and a black scholar’s robe edged in red, alluding to his courtier role, yet he’s situated in a cave. Through the juxtaposition between the background and his hirsute condition, and his clothing, the artist may have wanted to emphasize his provenance, as a ‘wild man from the Canary Islands’ rather than his social status. 

Portrait of Petrus Gonzales, by unknown artist, 1580s, held currently at: Ambras Castle, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Source: Wikicommons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PetrusGonsalvus.jpg

Hypertrichosis is also fascinating in connection to gender, as in the early modern period, hairiness was more accepted in the case of men than that of women. Contemporary scientists considered female facial hair to be ‘monstrous’ and ‘unnatural’ because it was not compatible with the humoural system, as facial hair was considered excrement from the heat created by male sperm.[6]

Beck was referred to a number of times as ‘monstrous’ by those who saw her, and it was only through her role as a mother that Mark Albert Johnston argues Beck was accepted by society.[7] Very little is known about her family, apart from the fact that her daughter was not born with hypertrichosis and that her husband continued to exploit her disability for money, just like her parents had done before him. 

Before pregnancy, depictions of Beck often draw her as child-like, playing the virginal which served to make her hirsuteness seem less threatening to society. . Yet after her pregnancy, Barbra van Beck became more of a ‘natural wonder’ than a monstrous threat to the patriarchy as she was able to carry out her reproductive function in society. This trajectory is illustrated when we compare the artwork depicting Barbra after the 1650s, as historians infer she gave birth around this time.[8]

Republished etching of Barbra Urselin (maiden name) referenced from 1928. Johnston demonstrates the original was made around 1653 Credit: Wellcome Collection. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/w33fhuju/items
Barbra van Beck, A hirsute woman’, etching by R.Gaywood, 1656, Credit: Wellcome Collection. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/emce4mgp

The Gonzales family and Beck were exploited for their disability throughout their lives. Their hirsute condition, in the minds of contemporaries, allowed them to be seen and treated as animals. It is interesting how early modern assumptions about Petrus’ race and gender permeated these ideals,while there might have been more acceptance of Beck and her condition due to her ability as a mother. Using disability as a social category is one way of bringing the narratives of disabled people back into history, as it sheds light on the way disabilities were contextualised but also on how they were used to uphold able-bodied, patriarchal and colonial hierarchies.

Bethan Davis is an undergraduate history student at the University of Sheffield. She is currently writing her dissertation on Facial Hair and Gender Identity in Early Modern Europe.

Cover image: Antonietta Gonzales by Lavina Fontana, c.1580. In this oil portrait, the Italian painter shows Antonietta in an elaborate embroidered dress and holding a piece of paper giving biographical details about her life: “Don Pietro, a wild man, discovered in the Canary Islands was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the King of France, and from there came to his excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honourable Marchesa of Soragna.”  Source: Wikicommons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tognina.jpg


[1] Merry Weisner-Hanks, The Marvelous Gonzales Sisters and Their Words (Cornwall, 2009) p.3

[2] Ibid., p.6.

[3] Mark Albert Johnston, Beard Fetish in Early Modern England: Sex, Gender, and Registers of Value,  (London, 2011) p.190

[4] Catherine J. Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other,’” American Historical Review 108:3 (2003), p. 763.

[5] Joris Hoefnagel,  Animalia Rationala et Insecta (ignis), c.1575-80

[6] Alun Whitney, Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England 1650-1900,. (London, 2020) p.4

[7] Mark Albert Johnston, p. 190.

[8]Ibid., p.190. 

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The Greatest Showman: The Last Great Con of P. T. Barnum

The_Peerless_Prodigies_of_Physical_Phenomena

Throughout history, storytelling has often bent the truth to create a better, more interesting story. The latest Hugh Jackman film ‘The Greatest Showman’ does just this. In its rags-to-riches musical fairytale, P. T. Barnum appears as a slightly flawed, but generally caring man who wants to prove to disabled people that they can be valued by displaying them in a circus ‘freak show.’ Unlike an omission that improves a story, this is blatant and flagrant twisting of history to offer a more pleasant and appealing story for the public.

In reality, Barnum was not a sympathetic character. He was a con man who used people—disabled or otherwise—for his own personal gain. The stories of those he used have, in ‘The Greatest Showman,’ either been omitted or twisted to allow the audience to sympathise with Barnum.

When one investigates the true history of his life, Barnum was not ‘the greatest showman’, and little of his impact on human lives was ‘great’. Early in his career, for example, Barnum bought an old slave called Joice Heth to display her as the supposedly 161-year old nurse of George Washington. When she died, Barnum staged a public autopsy, charging people 50 cents to watch it, profiting from her demise as he did from her life.

Though one might excuse the omission of Joice Heth’s story on the basis of limited time in the film, the film did not just omit the parts of Barnum’s life that were unsavoury. Actually, the film twisted his work beyond recognition to show him as the ‘saviour’ of people with disabilities, rather than the abuser and owner of them.

An example of this is the recruitment of people like Charles Stratton (a man with dwarfism, who played General Tom Thumb in Barnum’s circus) and Annie Jones (a woman with hirsutism who was replaced by the fictional ‘Lettie Lutz’ in the film). The film depicts both Stratton and Jones being recruited by Barnum as adults, who (in one of the more patronising sequences of the film) promises them that they will be not be seen as outcasts anymore. Barnum appears as their rescuer. In reality, both were bought by Barnum as children: Stratton was just 4 years old when he was purchased from his family, whilst Jones was bought at just 9 months old.

Moving away from the portrayal of Barnum, the film is still flawed in its portrayal of disabled people. There is a totally different approach when Barnum recruits people with and without disabilities. With disabled people, Barnum appears as a rescuer, whereas with the white opera singer Philip Carlyle (his fictional sidekick) the relationship is portrayed as a business proposition (he offers non-disabled partners a percentage of the show’s profits).

Whilst Barnum did purchase some of his so called ‘freaks,’ it is not true that all of the people with disabilities in his shows had little agency. Chang and Eng Bunker, the conjoined twins, were actually savvy business people. These two became a successful act outside of Barnum’s influence and they controlled their own business and marketed themselves.

Barnum was not the only showman to display and abuse disabled ‘freaks’. Freak shows were a popular form of entertainment in the United States, Great Britain, and across Europe, particularly in the Victorian era. Together with ‘Human Zoos,’ which displayed ethnic minority peoples, they satisfied the curiosities of the Victorian public. Materials in the National Fairground Archives held in Sheffield show the extent of this ‘othering’ as entertainment.

Despite hopes that this sort of entertainment was confined to the history books, ‘The Greatest Showman’ has once again conned the public, just like Barnum. Two hundred years on, the film mirrors Barnum’s tactic: distracting the public from a distasteful reality with a spectacle. This time, however, the distracting spectacle employs special effects and music.

‘The Greatest Showman’ could have been an empowering piece, instead it falls into the trap of romanticising the notion of the ‘Freak Show’ and allows the public once again to ignore the harsh realities of its past.

Helen Stanton is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. She has been involved in conducting research into the impact of race on the ‘othering’ of specific peoples, including those in Victorian ‘freak shows’.

Image: “The Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena”: Barnum & Bailey Poster 1898-1899 [via Wikicommons].

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