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
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
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.
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
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.