Exploring the Forbidden Archives

14 min read

| By Phil Virta |

Mention the word “sex” while you’re chatting with anyone and you’re likely to get a variety of responses from rational to emotional to visceral depending on whom you are speaking to.

“Did you just say ‘sex’?” 

[Lewd laughter]

“I’m so embarrassed right now that I’m blushing.”


“Are you some kind of pervert?” 

“I’m a doctor; we can have a frank discussion.” 

“What about sex?”

Unless you’re Dr. Ruth Westheimer, sex is not something most people bring up in casual conversation. Nevertheless, it is, and always has been, at the core of who we are as a species, and a topic we study, write about, obsess over, read about and (some of us) frequently contemplate.

Teehan, Michael Fabian, and Stephen T. Bayles. Standard sex knowledge and health encyclopedia: by M. F. Teehan …. Standard Pub. Co., [c. 1922]. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|HMGZGJ924971504

Thomas, William Isaac. Sex and society: studies in the social psychology of sex. University of Chicago Press, 1907. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

People tend to have very specific reactions to the idea of sex based on the social and cultural attitudes with which they were raised. These attitudes differ around the world due to a variety of factors (gender, education, religion, social norms) and are prone to change over time. Some openly embrace sex (that wasn’t meant to be a pun), some accept it for the biological function that it is, and some consider it a taboo subject, only meant to be discussed or considered with gravitas.

Gale Document Number: GALE|GRXWMC936935933

Sex, the noun, is defined as either sexual activity or a categorization of female or male. In the latter case, the definition overlaps with that of gender. Yet sex generally focuses on the biological, while gender focuses more on identities – generally cultural and social – that don’t always correspond to the idea of female or male. In any contemplation of sex and gender, one must also consider sexuality, which can mean sexual activity, sexual orientation or preference, or sexual feelings.

Knight, Melvin Moses, et al. Taboo and genetics: a study of the biological, sociological and psychological foundation of the family, by M. M. Knight, PH. D., Iva Lowther Peters, PH. D. [and] Phyllis Blanchard …. Moffat, Yard and Company, 1920. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.
Gale Document Number: GALE|MUSPGJ225687085

Why are we contemplating sex in a blog post, you may be wondering? Because Gale has created an archive called Sex and Sexuality, Sixteenth to Twentieth Century, part of The Archives of Sexuality & Gender program, and it is a collection like no other. Within the archive, you can to access three unique collections:

  1. The Private Case from the British Library, originally comprised of more than 4,000 “obscene” books kept locked away in cases or cupboards in the Keeper’s room. Today, there are just over 2,500 volumes in the Private Case; several books were moved out of the collection over time as social mores changed. The collection primarily spans the 18th to 20thMany of the books came from private bequests (some anonymously), making for some interesting research opportunities into the lives of the original owners.

D’Icy, Jacques. Fifi l’arpète. Incursion dans les ateliers parisiens, etc. [With plates and illustrations.]. Collection Des «Orties Blanches», [1922]. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.
From the collection of Charles Reginald Dawes (1879-1964). Part of the “Collection des orties blanches”.  Charles Reginald Dawes (1879-1964) was a collector of erotica, bibliographer and writer who published bibliographic studies of Restif de la Bretonne and the Marquis de Sade.

Gale Document Number: GALE|MPVFJW346743576

“Private case” or segregated collections exist or existed in many institutions around the world. As you have been made aware, the British Library holds a famous Private Case. Now researchers can browse the collection themselves. The Bodleian Library holds the Phi Collection, the U.S. Library of Congress had the Delta Collection, the New York Public Library the *** Collection, the wonderfully-named Enfer (Hell) at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and Giftschrank (literally, poison cabinet) at the Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek are all examples of private cases. Some of these collections remain difficult to access. Others have been dispersed among the broader library collections, making it harder to see them as they were and understand why they were locked away in the first place.

Bear in mind that not all of these books were shut up behind closed doors; many were collected purposefully to create a corpus of sex and sexuality (perhaps that was a bit tongue-in-cheek). Pioneers like Magnus Hirschfeld, Alfred Kinsey, Havelock Ellis and many others created libraries of materials to study human sexual behavior. Learned societies, academic institutions, libraries and museums established collections on aspects of sex and sexuality for the preservation of knowledge and to promote serious study. Within Sex and Sexuality, Sixteenth to Twentieth Century, the Kinsey Institute and New York Academy of Medicine materials are representative of purpose-built collections for academic study.

  1. Special Subject Units from Sex Research: Early Literature from Statistics to Erotica, is a collection from the Alfred C. Kinsey Institute for Sex Research dating primarily from the 18th to 19th centuries, with some books from the 17th and 20th centuries as well. Dr. Kinsey founded the Institute for Sex Research to study human sexual behavior as well as to promote the serious study of sex, gender and sexuality. This collection represents some of the first materials Dr. Kinsey acquired to further his research.
The Frisky songster. 9th ed., Printed, and sold by all the booksellers and newscarriers in England, Ireland, and Scotland, 1802. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

The Frisky songster is described as a Select Choice of Such Songs, as Are Distinguished for Their Jolity, High Taste and Humor and above Two Hundred Toasts and Sentiments of the Most Delicious Order

Gale Document Number: GALE|KCUQFI391274850

3. Established in 1847, the New York Academy of Medicine continues to promote its vision that everyone has the opportunity to live a healthy life. More than 1,500 books in sex, sexuality and gender studies, some from the 16th century, are presented from the Academy Library collection, bridging the history of medicine, the humanities and the arts.

Tp. woodcut; A reprint of Jan van Ghelen edition of between 1550-1570; Binding: old vellum manuscript leaf wrappers De Natuere ende complexie der vrouwen …. Jacob Bosselaer, 1599. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Vernacular manual on women’s health. In addition to examining the four humors and their relation to the health of both men and women, this “Dutch folk book” also deals with herbal remedies, sex, the frequency of sex and its consequences, ways to facilitate and prevent conception and pregnancy. The book is primarily directed at men rather than women.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CYHUNJ941472832

Overall, Sex and Sexuality, Sixteenth to Twentieth Century is made up of more than 5,500 rare and unique books covering topics across the sciences and humanities and throughout history. It’s the variety of titles and subjects covered in this archive that make it intriguing.

A quote from Dr. Alfred Kinsey is representative of what the archive encompasses:

“A sex library, unlike a library in any other subject, must draw material from a diversity of fields. Not only must biology, medicine, psychology, psychiatry, and other sciences be represented, but also material from purely literary sources, from the Classics, from modern fiction, from poetry, from art, from law, from religious literature, and from many other fields.”

It is thus that you can read a scientific work on sexual instinct.

Gale Document Number: GALE|ALXMKC347310735

Féré, Charles Samson. The evolution and dissolution of the sexual instinct. 2nd ed., C. Carrington, 1904. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.



And here, a beautifully (and erotically) illustrated work that is possibly a fictitious sexual autobiography; the imprint is also fictitious. Published in Paris, the author is anonymous.

Ma vie secrète. [s.n.], 1885. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|HPFRUP419541689


Here’s a book on marriage and procreation.

Fowler, Orson Squire. Love and parentage: applied to the improvement of offspring: including important directions and suggestions to lovers and the married concerning the strongest ties and the most sacred and momentous relations of life. 13th ed., Fowlers and Wells, 1847. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|AAWWDA080930150

And a book on the consequences of adultery.

Gill, R. A new collection of trials for adultery: or, General history of modern gallantry and divorces. Containing a variety of the most remarkable trials, heard and determined in the courts of Doctors’ Commons, the King’s Bench, &c. &c. for adultery, fornication, cruelty, and other criminal conversation, &c. &c. to obtain divorces or damages, from the year 1780, to the present time … By a civilian of Doctors’ Commons, etc. (A new volume. A new and complete collection of the most remarkable trials … from … 1780, to … 1802 … By R. Gill, Esq. and a civilian of Doctors’ Commons, etc.). Vol. 2, Printed for the Proprietors, Sold by J. Gill, 1802. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|QPZMPI767085921

By presenting materials across a range of topical areas and time periods, readers have an opportunity to explore the fascinating subjects of sex and sexuality from a variety of perspectives. For the forbidden fruits, one can certainly find erotica in the archive, but the collections go far beyond simple titillation and pornography. You will also find books on reproduction, love, marriage and extramarital sex; the status of women, homosexuality, health and hygiene; sex offenses, mythology, poetry and my personal favourite, the immoral effects of music, theatre and dancing. The archive presents a history of society and culture as seen through a lens of sexuality. Readers can discover for themselves how views on sexuality and gender roles evolved over time and ascertain the many ways sex, sexuality and gender in its historical context impacts our lives today.

You’ll find many interesting titles within the archive, such as:

  • Dunton, John. The hazard of a death-bed-repentance, fairly argued from the late remorse of W_ late D_ of D_ with serious reflections on his adulterous life.p., 1708.
  • Alcott, William Andrus. The young wife, or Duties of woman in the marriage relation: by Wm. A. Alcott. 7th ed., G. W. Light, 1838.
  • Marvel, Charles, editor. Love frolics of a young scamp. George Vickers, 1864.
  • Meibom, Johann Heinrich, et al. A treatise of the use of flogging in venereal affairs: also of the office of the loins and reins: written to the famous Christianus Cassius: by John Henry Meibomius; made English from the Latin original by a physician. [s.n.], [18–].
  • Howard, Clifford. Sex worship: an exposition of the phallic origin of religion: by Clifford Howard. 5th ed., Chicago Medical Book Co., 1909.
  • Lacroix, Paul. Geschichte der prostitution bei allen völkern von der urzeit bis zur gegenwart. 5th ed., vol. 2, P. Langenscheidt, [1907].
  • Amateur Flagellant. Experiences Of Flagellation. A Series Of Remarkable Instances Of Whipping Inflicted On Both Sexes … Compiled By An Amateur Flagellant. Printed for Private Circulation, 1885.
  • Davenport, John. Aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs, etc. Privately Printed, 1869.
  • Fétichisme amoureux. Librairie Galante, [1923].

In the past, many of these materials would have been locked away, hidden from the public and general readership, only available to certain learned professionals, or part of someone’s private library. Some of the books were labelled obscene, lewd, pornographic or scandalous, and some actually were (depending on your point of view). One famous case is Fanny Hill, also known as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which was banned in the U.K. up until the 1960’s. A search in the archive will yield copies in English, French, German, Dutch, Hungarian and Italian.

Cleland, John. Mémoires de Fanny Hill, femme de plaisir. Compositions en couleurs de Edouard Chimot. [A prospectus.]. N.p., [1954]. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.
Gale Document Number: GALE|UEYKTP039267971

Cleland, John, and Erich Feldhammer. [Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.] Die Memoiren der Fanny Hill. [Translated by Erich Feldhammer. With plates by Franz von Bayros.]. Vol. 1, n.p., 1906. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|LJHZYD123299407

Yet some of the books were locked away as much for their own protection as that of the public. Librarians, archivists and curators saw the value in keeping these books safe, whether from those who might wish to steal them, destroy them or suppress them, all while making them available for research purposes. The New York Academy of Medicine notes that The Sex Side of Life (Mary Ware Dennett, c1919), a sexual education pamphlet for young people, was deemed obscene by the U.S. Post Office in 1922. Dennett was tried by a federal court in 1928 and found guilty of distributing obscene materials through the mail. Request a trial to read The Sex Side of Life for yourself to see what all the fuss was about. You can also read New Ideas that Challenged Old Convictions: Banned Books at the Academy website for more information and to adopt a banned book.

Dennett, Mary Ware. The sex side of life. N.p., [c. 1919]. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|SICKCJ089395719

Regardless of the reason a book was locked away or made somewhat difficult to access, the keepers of the forbidden books did us a great favour, they preserved a valuable historical record that helps us better understand ourselves, our culture and society.

Now is your chance to explore this wonderful “sex library.” The Archives of Sexuality & Gender: Sex and Sexuality, Sixteenth to Twentieth Century offers a fascinating collection of historical material providing multiple perspectives on the study of sex, sexuality and gender. Don’t be afraid to peek beneath the book covers and have a look around!

Oh, and on the subject of book covers, check out the Private Case and New York Academy of Medicine collections for some gorgeous examples of marbled book covers. Here are a few for your viewing pleasure:

Beverland, Adrian, and Francis David Byrne. The law concerning draped virginity: an academical study: by Adrian Beverland; translated for the first time with philological and other explanatory notes by Francis D. Byrne. C. Carrington, 1905. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|ALYJOB800638912






Taruffi, Cesare. Storia della teratologia. Vol. 6, Regia tip, 1891. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|ZPPREX594361248







Chansonnier du bordel …, Nouvelle édition, revue, corrigée, augmentée de 12 chansons. N.p., 1833. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|OIBAIF415736968







De Voisenon, Claude Henri Fusée, and Anne Gabriel Meusnier De Querlon. Les Exercices de devotion de M. Henri Roch avec Madame la duchesse de Condor … Edition revue sur l’edition originale … et sur l’edition de Vaucluse, 1786. F. P. N.p., [1875]. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|IRGSFF468398930






Pheuquewell, Roger, and Thomas Stretser. A new description of Merryland … The fifth edition. [The author identified in the editor’s preface as Roger Pheuquewell.]. Printed and sold by J. Leake There; and by E. Curll, 1741. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|MWOBBC675424461






Merdiana, ou Manuel des chieurs … Quatrième édition. 4th ed., Au Bureau Des Vidangeurs, 1814. Archives of Sexuality & Gender.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CMTMRI658081453







Learn more or request a trial of the Archives of Sexuality & Gender, Part III.

Meet the Author

Phil Virta has worked at Gale for more than 14 years in various capacities, most recently as a publisher of digital primary source archives in charge of the Archives of Sexuality & Gender program. He enjoys long walks through dusty archival collections, visiting far-flung places, and frequent woolgathering. When he doesn’t have his head in the clouds, he can be found researching new archive ideas, working on his stamp collection, watching squirrels, or planning his next tropical vacation. “He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher… or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.”  Thank you Douglas Adams.

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