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A Victorian "Standard"

by Heather Palmer

 

In a cursory glance at the 1895 editions of "The Standard" one might be inclined to think that the publication represented such innocent fun for men. With just a glance we might chuckle and think, "Oh! Those naughty hypocritical Victorians!" The photographic illustrations in "The Standard" show that under the surface of respectability lurked a love of titillation which linked the Victorians to their raucous Georgian and Regency ancestors. But was something more sinister hid in "The Standard"?

As historians delve into the archives of the past we now uncover such anecdotes as the rumors that Queen "we are not amused" Victoria laughed at aide John Brown's ribald stories. And it does not take too discerning an eye to note that some epic paintings of classical and religious subjects which graced the walls of great art galleries in the late nineteenth century were filed with nudes of almost pornographic execution.

 

The key to late nineteenth century bawdiness was that anything was permissible as long as it was cloaked in heavy etiquette and everyone pretended to not look past the surface. Thus, a gentleman left his calling card on the hall table while in a bedroom with his mistress, and houseguests at weekend country house parties closed eyes to connecting doors between bedrooms and pretended not to hear night traffic in the halls. Thus, too, was "The Standard" (the "Playboy" or "Hustler" magazine of the day) billed politely as "A Journal Dedicated to News, Sports, Music and the Drama".

Published from 1889 to 1913 this heavily illustrated weekly "roto" appears occasionally in antiques shops but rarely in libraries. There are no known entire holdings, it has never been microfilmed and even the Library of Congress keeps only a few copies. How should we view a publication like "The Standard" today? If we judge it by our own era the "coy" photographs might at first seem dainty when total nudity and violence can be viewed on a television screen.

There are in fact a number of illustrations in each issue about which there can be no question of propriety now or then. For example, prominent actresses of "the legitimate stage" are shown in carte d'visit portraits and there are some photographic series of rehearsal poses. There are also some instances were real history is documented by "The Standard", such as photographs of the Daughters of Union Veterans on parade in New York. In another issue, Oscar Wilde and his wife are shown just months before the libel and sodomy trial which resulted in the author's imprisonment. But - the majority of the illustrations would have been, at the least, sensational in the year they were published.

One such sensational photograph appeared in the 16 Feb 1895 issue and showed a woman with lovely legs wearing only the tiniest "poof" of a micro, micro mini skirt. The lengthy caption reads: "Ragged but Jolly. Stylish But Flirty. Some girls like to pose one way and some another. Others don't like to pose at all (these are very rare) and there are still others who are ready to pose any ways and all ways. The above is one of the last class. Her face is not unfamiliar to those of us who have 'done' the vaudevilles and extravaganzas of the last year or so, and she has been universally recognized as girl possessing a particularly fascinating figure. That, of course, is a good reason for her appearance in these pages, and these illustrations are selected from several in which either her mind or that of her photographer has been devoted to good purpose in the way of posing." 

To understand the unusually revealing nature of this photograph (and the subtle slams in the captions against the girl's character) it is necessary to remember that in 1895 men stood on windy street corners just to catch a glimpse of a boot clad ankle as the wind whipped the skirts. The sight of a woman's legs were considered to be so aphrodisiac to men that women sometimes made "skirts" for their furniture. And the words "limbs of the lower region" were often substituted for that inflaming word, "legs".

"The Standard" issues of 1895 also reveal that the type of men who read this publication were also excited by "the new woman". A photograph of a woman wearing tight pants is captioned "She gives you a sardonic glance, and smiles when you give idem; she wears side pockets in her pants, and puts her hands inside 'em." The idea that the "new woman" smoked must also have been titillating to the audience of "The Standard". The July 6 issue featured five pictures of women smoking.

 The combination of women smoking and wearing bloomer costumes is also frequently explored. One such photograph is labeled: "A rest at a summer garden on the Hudson. There are many hotels along the Hudson that cater to cyclers and women riders in bloomers are as welcome there as their sisters in skirts. The hotel manager is not particular about the wearing apparel of his customers. He judges them entirely by the amount of their drinks." It should be noted that there are a good many drinks on the table shown.

 The most interesting feature to collectors of "The Standard" and other such publications one hundred years later are the photographs of the attire of women almost always ignored by fashion magazines. Were some of the photographs of "actresses" reproduced in costume history books today, few fashion historians would credit them as representing "real" outfits of 1895. Even some "Standard" captions note the unusual look. For example, "Soubrettes [dance hall "actresses"], when they happen to be pretty and young, are very careful as to their appearance in public. The Soubrette does not dress quite as quietly as society women, but she does with equal enthusiasm." As most illustrations of "actresses" show, "The Standard" never missed an opportunity to show at least an ankle.

Breasts were less of an allure than legs in the 1890s, but a very buxom women in a very skimpy bodice was used as an advertisement to subscribe to the magazine. And "The Standard" was ahead of the "Wet T-Shirt Contest" by a few decades with its photographs of swimsuit clad women. In the 1890s most women's bathing suits were voluminous and some women even made use of "bathing machines" which were in effect screens which a woman could use in the water to keep her from being seen once the bathing suit material became wet and clung to her. One very daring wearer of a wet costume is captioned "A Bar Harbor Mermaid. The kind that is only on exhibition, and does not run away at the sight of men."

While less revealing, the still photography "strip tease" from the cover of the 6 July issue would have shocked most women in 1895 who believed that a man should have no idea how the dressing and undressing process occurred.

These cited outtakes seem to be so mild compared to what we are now assaulted with in magazines that it would be possible to treat "The Standard" as simply one instance of the "innocence" of the past. To completely understand this publication, however, we must try to think within the confines of the mores and morals of 1895. Within that context we must realize that these are photographs of real women who were as much victims of pornography as are women much more rashly photographed today. The women photographed for "The Standard" may not have overstepped the boundaries of our society, but they did overstep the boundaries of their own era and for a woman in 1895 that meant there was no way back.

Before women had the vote and the subsequent political leverage to open more doors for education, careers, equal pay, and knowledge about control over reproduction, women's options were limited. There was little way for a woman to free herself from being under either the control of her father, another male relative, or her husband. Only "bad" girls, like the majority of those pictured, got to run their own lives and the price they paid was indeed heavy. Brutal, cold statistics from the New York of "The Standard" in the 1890s indicate that the majority of the "dance hall girls" pictured in their prime on these pages, went on to lives of intense poverty, prostitution, abuse, venereal disease, back alley abortions or unwed-motherhood, and in many cases, drug addiction and suicide. To remember that the women pictured were real people and to be able to guess at their subsequent histories makes all the charm of their now innocent looking poses vanish.

The small type advertisements in the back of "The Standard" complete the tale of degradation. Among the advertisements in the 16 February 1895 issue are two ads for condoms. In 1895 these would have had a failure rate of about 50% and were of little help in stopping the spread of venereal diseases. There are also two ads for abortive pills which, since they were tansy based meant at the very least a woman's monthly schedule would never again be regular. There are also two ads for cures for gonorrhea, two ads for a product to cure the lasting effects of masturbation, and twelve ads - often in the coarsest language possible - for a man to obtain aids to enlarge the size and strength of his sex organs.

An exploitative magazine that reduced women to sex objects and traded on lewdness is not softened by time. "The Standard" was smut in 1895 and despite the changes in what is acceptable today, "The Standard" is smut still. Underneath a surface glance which can make the publication look innocent today, "The Standard" is a sad reminder that a seamy underside to life has always been part of history - even in the Victorian era.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Heather Palmer, has served as the Curator of three historic house museums and was also the Historian of Blair House, the President's Guest House. She lectures at colleges and publishes articles in the fields of 18th and 19th century women's lives, clothing and needlework, and in the area of material culture. She does free-lance editorial work and writing. 

 
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