Thirteen Things about Life and Sex in the Eighteenth Century
1. Coffee houses were places for men to meet, take refreshments and read newspapers, but even here they got into trouble with the opposite sex. Coffee-house owners were blamed for providing attractive barmaids. A quote, “such tempting, deluging, ogling, pretty, young Hussies to be our Bar-keepers, as steal away our Hearts, and insensibly betray us to Extravagance.”
2. If a gentleman had admired a lady at a ball or masquerade the previous evening, he might request to meet her by placing a newspaper ad. An example from 1754: If the Lady that was at the last Masquerade, dress’d in a white Domino, trimm’d with Purple, a hat of the same, tall and genteel in person, will be so obliging as to favor the gentleman who ask’d her to dance, but was refused, with a line when and where he may have the pleasure of seeing her, by directing for C.G. at the Cocoa-Tree in Pall-Mall, he intends to propose something greatly to her advantage.
3. Many taverns doubled as brothels where a man could buy a pint of ale in the front room, pick up a young woman and take her into the back for sex.
4. Despite its seriousness, veneral disease had become so widespread in the eighteen century that any libertine might expect to catch it. When Boswell’s father shared his concerns with his friend, Mrs. Montgomerie-Cunningham, about his son having contracted pox yet again, she responded casually that “it was now become quite common.”
5. It was not only a woman’s chastity that came under scrutiny in the disciplining of the female body, but also her eating habits. A woman should not appear too healthy or robust as it was considered unattractive. The weak and delicate woman, especially when combined with her intermittent fainting, was thought to be the sort to turn a young man’s head.
6. A young man from a moderately wealthy family could make the choice to indulge in a wide range of sybaritic pleasures: heavy drinking, travelling on the Continent, eating to excess, as well as hour upon hour of sex. Frequent sexual activity was seen to be good for a man’s health – doctors advised that sperm should be dispelled regularly to ensure the smooth running of the humours, thus keeping a healthy balance of one’s bodily fluids.
7. Margaret Leeson, Harriette Wilson and Julia Johnstone were all celebrated courtesans. Their extravagant way of living found them frequently in debt. Once they reached an advanced age and were no longer able to attract wealthy lovers, they wrote their racy autobiographies in an attempt to cash in on their lives as some of the most notorious and wealthy men in society.
8. When the London hangman was arrested for debt on the way back from Tyburn, he was able to buy his freedom instantly with the clothes he had stripped off the corpses as one of the perks of the job.
9. Householders were responsible for the lighting outside their houses. There was no insurance against household burglaries. Insurance pertained only to fire.
10. Procreation was universally regarded as the primary purpose of marriage. In London between one-quarter and one-third of babies died before their first birthday. Only half of all children passed the age of fifteen.
11. Admiration of ladies’ feet was commonplace. The sight of a well-turned foot was recognized as an object of desire and something in which men might take a keen interest. Courtesan Harriette Wilson’s small feet were esteemed by her paramours.
12. Rents were high, but the majority of Londoners expected neither space nor privacy. These were unfamiliar concepts. Tall and narrow with two or three rooms a floor, a typical terraced house might be home to a husband and wife, two to four children, two to four servants including apprentices and lodgers. Rooms were small.
13. River transport in London was essential, partly because the streets were so congested and also because the bone-shaking jolting of hackneys was unendurable. The language of the watermen as they indulged in the tradition of shouting insults across the water was “coarse and dirty”. Many travellers opted to disembark rather than brave the rapids at London Bridge. The water was a deep and roaring torrent and was very treacherous.
Would you like to time travel to Eighteenth Century London?
1700 Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller
Lascivious Bodies, a sexual history of the Eighteen Century by Julie Peakman
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