Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A cheap, late 19th century Yiddish guide for contraceptives

In 1886 a physician named H. A. Allbut published a cheap little book called The Wife's Handbook. While it was mainly about pregnancy, delivery and recovery, it also included a chapter on contraception - and it would cause a great controversy. Here is the 23rd edition, from 1894, which claims that there were now no less than 210,000 copies of this book in circulation:

Although I have not seen a complete English copy of this, apparently rare, book, here is a quotation from its introduction which I found elsewhere:
"To save the lives and preserve the health of thousands of women, to rescue from death and disease children who may be born, to teach the young wife how to order her health during the most important period of her life, to remove from her mind the popular ignorance in which she may have been reared, and to enable her to learn truths concerning her duties as wife and mother, I have thought fit to write this little work."
Here is a more extensive quote from a book printed in London in 1900 and which I think gives a sense of what this book was trying to promote. The other book is The Wife's Guide & Friend (full title below):

How to prevent Conception.  
There are times in the life of almost every woman who bears children at all rapidly, when the knowledge of how to prevent conception will come to her as a great blessing. It is, therefore, a subject on which every wife needs good and practical advice. Many persons maintain that the course of nature should never be interfered with, and that a woman should have as many children as nature will allow. That, however, is an opinion which is rapidly giving way to one far more humane and sensible in every way. It is quite true that some women can have as many children as nature will allow, and suffer but little in health. On the other hand, it is frequently the case when a woman gives birth to children in rapid succession, that her constitution gets weaker and weaker with each confinement, and in some cases, to continue as nature allows, means an early death to the mother, and the bringing into the world of children with weak and debilitated constitutions. Is it not, then, far more humane and better in every way for a mother to give birth to a less number of strong, healthy children, who are capable of passing through life in a satisfactory manner, and at the same time, to retain her natural health and strength, rather than have a larger number of children, some of which are poor, weakly little mites, who frequently die at an early age; and the mother, at the same time, gets prematurely old and careworn? The knowledge of how to prevent conception in a perfectly harmless and moral manner is, therefore, of the greatest value to every wife. It is a subject to which many eminent physicians have devoted considerable attention, with the result that there are now a number of methods that do not transgress the most delicate moral principles, and are perfectly harmless, simple, and absolutely reliable.
Quoted from pp. 65 - 66 in The wife's guide & friend: being plain and practical advice to women on the management of themselves during pregnancy and confinement, and on other matters of importance that should be known by ever wife and mother by Stewart Warren (link).

In any case, Allbutt's popular book was translated into several other languages - including Yiddish! (link)

The book includes some interesting illustrations. For example, this is a "feeding bottle" for a toddler, which can clip to her dress, very useful for your little Victorian Alice in Wonderland who is on the go go go all the time. (Click to enlarge)

And here is another bottle, which is a matone fir mutters! - another Eggington bottle.

The book included ads for various contraceptives, and Allbutt got into professional trouble for the whole thing, for in 1887 we find that after a complaint was lodged against him to the Leeds Medical Council, 
"in the opinion of the council Mr. Henry Allbutt has committed the offence charged against him—that is to say, of having published and publicly caused to be sold a work entitled The Wife's Handbook, in London and elsewhere, and at so low a price as to bring the work within reach of the youth of both sexes, to the detriment of public morals. That the offence is, in the opinion of the council, infamous conduct in a professional respect." 
And his name was stricken from the council's registry. Clearly he did not care, for he continued to print more editions of the book, to which we now return.

Here is an ad for Rendell's aptly named "Wife's Friend," namely an occlusive pessary with spermicide, which I gather is similar to a modern diaphragm contraceptive.

And here is Allbutt's own pessary - imagine, he even allowed his competition to be promoted! It's not that he was such a tzadik - although maybe he was - he was a committed Malthusian.

Finally, here is an advertisement for Higginson's siphon can and schpritzer, a uterine douche. Beneath it seems to be one of those chimney sweep things you see in Mary Poppins.

And here is Dr. Allbutt, in a photograph included in a periodical devoted to his other passion: driving cars. From the 1903 Motoring Annual and Motorist’s Year Book. (link)


  1. This is remarkable, I mean today such a book would be banned before it would hit the shelves.

  2. This is remarkable, I mean today such a book would be banned before it would hit the shelves.

  3. Well, this isn't a frum book. And today it wouldn't hit the shelves in any store for an actual Yiddish speaking community. Back then, all the Jewish masses were Yiddish speaking.



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