Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Filth in the Wrong People's Hands: Postcards and the Expansion of Pornography in Britain and the Atlantic World, 1880-1914

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Filth in the Wrong People's Hands: Postcards and the Expansion of Pornography in Britain and the Atlantic World, 1880-1914

Article excerpt

Official Warning

The Postmaster-general finds that during the past year there has been a large increase in the number of post-cards, principally of foreign manufacture, sent by the post bearing pictorial designs of an objectionable and in some cases indecent character. [1]

Pictures of "naked ladies" are the staple of pornography in the twentieth century world, but the extensive use of pictures came late to pornography; before the end of the nineteenth century, words--not images--dominated communication about sexuality. [2] During the 1880s and 1890s, the situation reversed itself as visual images, in the form of cheap ephemera, outstripped older forms of pornography. Although the emergence of visual pornography transformed the medium of expression, the content of pornography stayed remarkably similar: visual pornography continued to focus on women as the objects of desire; ephemera deepened, rather than inaugurated, the imperial gaze; and scatological humor persisted in part through a focus on children's sexuality. Nonetheless, the new medium did transform pornography by developing new visual cues, by deepening an examination of corporeality, and by establishing the single image as synecdoche for sexuality. Of even greater importance, the transformation from literary to visual pornography expanded the audience.

While earlier, written pornography functioned as a dialogue among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie on politics, sexuality, and gender, visual pornography allowed the working classes, as well as women, children, and people of color, to join in this dialogue. The new wide-spread availability of pornography allowed these people to be more than objects of representation; they became consumers of them as well. Although the new visual pornography built on the themes of older class-restricted pornography, the expanded dissemination of these ideas transformed their meanings by radically re-situating them in society.

Concerned authorities, like the National Vigilance Association, the police, the Home Office, and the Postal Service, believed that the expanded audience for pornography and its social repositioning fundamentally disrupted an intrinsic moral order. They responded with increased vigilance in policing working-class space. However, the expanded audience appeared to believe that the consumption of pornography remained consistent with that same moral and social order. They apparently saw nothing wrong with the objectification of "themselves." This rift in perceptions between the authorities and the audience highlights the hidden relationship between representation and social control at the end of the nineteenth century. [3]

The Audience for Literary Pornography

Before the advent of working-class pornography, access to pornographic representations had been primarily restricted to wealthy, white men who had political, economic, and cultural privileges. Before the 1880s, the majority of pornography consisted of expensive, hard-to-find, literary texts that cost between three shillings for a shoddy pamphlet like "Kate Handcock" to 100 pounds for My Secret Life. [4] Both pamphlets and full-length books were too expensive for the working classes. Illiteracy further constrained working-class and women's use of pornography. [5] Furthermore, the working classes and women lacked the necessary language skills and knowledge to make sense of early pornography which often interspersed Greek and Latin phrases and mythological allusions with English and contemporary references. Moreover, class specific patterns of distribution [6] and state repression placed early forms of pornography out of the hand of the working classes. High prices, low literacy rates, class-specific cultural r eferents, unequal patterns of state repression, [7] production, [8] and distribution patterns restricted the dispersal of pornography in British society before the 1880s. This pattern [9] meant that women, the poor, children, and people of color could only seldom use pornographic representations even though they were often the subjects of these representations. …

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