Who is Miss Abigail?

Abigail Grotke
Silver Spring, MD
email: missabigail at missabigail dot com
twitter: @DearMissAbigail

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Miss Abigail has a collection of over 1,000 classic advice books, spanning from 1822 to 1978 and covering a variety of topics, from love and romance to etiquette and charm. The collection sparked the idea for this site, then a book, Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage, which has inspired an Off-Broadway production of the same name!


Posts Tagged ‘sex education’

Apparently I’ve Been Channeling My Grandmother All These Years

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Building Healthy Sex Knowledge, 1937A few months ago, my mother uncovered a college paper that my Grandmother Bailey (her mother) had written when she was at Oberlin College. She saw that the topic was right up my alley, so sent it along to me.

The paper is titled “Building Healthy Sex Knowledge” and was written for a child development course (and is marked up by the professor) by Virginia Moore Patterson 75 years ago ~ on December 15, 1937. I recently scanned the whole thing in and posted it over on Flickr.

Virginia Moore Patterson Bailey

Virginia married Allen Bailey in the summer of 1938, and they went on to have three girls (my mother is the eldest). Here’s a picture of Grandmother Bailey, in a photo dated July 1941, after they’d been married a few years. By the way, Virginia was also the one who enrolled me in charm school when I was in junior high.

Imagine my excitement to read this paper! And to see that my grandmother had cited many books that are in my own collection! They include Growing Up (I’ve got the 1945 edition), Sex Life of Youth (I’ve got the 1948 10th printing), and New Patterns in Sex Teaching (1934).

She starts out the paper by writing “One of my ‘when I grow up’ resolves has been to see that my children where not, like myself, left to their own devices to find out facts about human reproduction, or left to fantastic imaginings as substitutes for knowledge.” Hmm… Maybe my mom and my aunts can let us know how things turned out with that in the comments.

I chuckled at some of the markup, such as on page 10, where next to the text “Here there is a particularly fine presentation on the problems of necking and petting,” the professor writes “be specific here.”  She does go on to mention the “seven tests on page 66 through 72” of The Sex Life of Youth. Though I have a later edition, I excitedly turned to my copy of the book to see if those seven tests would appear, and lo and behold, they were there! I was able to read the seven tests that my grandmother had read and cited 75 years before. I won’t reproduce the full details here, but the topics were:

1) Sensual or Spiritual? How far is the petting a matter of sheer sensual gratification, without any particular respect for the person concerned, and how far is it a natural expression of an understanding which has grown up in the realm of the spirit, and which has become something rarely beautiful and respected?

2) After-Taste? What sort of a taste is left in the mind as one looks back upon the experience?

3) Mutual? Is the relationship honestly shared by both?

4) Habit-Forming? Is the petting so light or temporary that is could hardly result in the fixing of a habit, or is it intense and prolonged and oft-repeated?

5) Further Effects? Is the petting likely to lead to a loss of rational controls and to an indulgence in sex intercourse which one or both will later regret?

6) Socially Acceptable? What is the social status of the person who pets, or who refuses to pet?

7) Exclude Other Activities? What other type of enjoyment is petting preventing?

Sex Life of Youth - cover
The seven tests end with a section titled “Thoughtful Decision.” Here’s an excerpt: “Upon the answers to some such questions as these will depend the judgment in each individual case… Probably some experience with petting will lead any young person to realize the difference between physical stimulation and real love, and will thus help to avoid the difficulties which arose in some cases in which two young people, mistaking infatuation for love, become engaged as a result of a petting party.” Oh my, my grandmother was reading about petting parties possibly at the same time she was dating (and most likely engaged) to my grandfather! Scandalous!

It is refreshing to see how frank her writing is, for a woman of her age and in that era. And so very fun to learn a bit more about Virginia and her college days, and to know that she might have gotten a kick out of this Miss Abigail thing (which came about long after she died).

Thanks to mom for finding this and passing it along! And to Grandmother Bailey for writing it so many years ago.

Personal Hygiene for Young Women and Men (1920s)

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

For my day job, I work at the Library of Congress helping archive the Internet, and I don’t often get to see the physical stuff in our collections. So when a colleague tipped me off to some amazing films from the 1920s that had apparently been in our nitrate vault and scored by another colleague, I was really excited! These predecessors to the health and hygiene films of the 1950s are fantastic. I posted these over on Facebook but they deserve a more permanent blog post, so here you are:

First up is one for the men:


And even better, one for the young ladies:



Shopping for Books the Old Fashioned Way

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

“Sixth Thousand Now Ready!” “An Important Book for the Family and School!” “An Attractive and Useful Gift” read the ad, found in the back of the 1894 printing of The Physician’s Wife, which I recently I picked up in Baltimore. How could I not be intrigued? Ads often appear in the back of some of my older books, a great place for publishers to have advertised new titles. Unfortunately I couldn’t send away for a copy using the instructions in the ad (“price, post-paid: $1.00 net”) – although it appears the company is still in business. The interwebs became my friend, however, as I turned to AbeBooks to hunt down a copy of the 1891 The Daughter: Her Health, Education, and Wedlock. Lucky for me a seller had it for a reasonable price, and a few days later, a copy was in my collection!

The DaughterI’ve only just begun to read it, but already found some  gems like this, about a mother’s duty to inform her daughter of sexual matters:


To preserve the charm of true modesty and innocence, it is safer for the girl that she be instructed concerning the requirements of personal purity, rather than be allowed to grope amid chance experiences and to run the risks of unfriendly influences. Experience is the only teacher for all, but in many things the lessons may be taken at second hand, and the wise do well to profit by the experiences of others. Although it may be a difficult duty to perform, no careful mother will neglect to properly instruct her daughter in matters relating to the sexual nature. Thoughts upon this subject cannot be avoided, but will arise as mind and body develop, and they should be wisely and intelligently directed in confidential talks skillfully planned and discreetly managed by the mother.

Sexual matters are not motives and aims in life, but they imperiously mingle with and influence all motives and aims. They are inseparable from existence, and though important must be made subordinate, and though irrepressible must be held in subjection. To ignore them is as fatal to happiness and success in life as to allow them to be the objects of chief pursuit. To underrate their influence is a great mistake; it must be justly appreciated in order to maintain an effective control by the stronger forces of the intellect and the will. Let it be remembered how large a portion of human misery results from the disorderly animal passion. Much of this should be withheld from the knowledge of the young, but enough for their own safety may be pointed out by the mother, and be accompanied by such admonitions as seem suitable in each individual case. That the duty is a delicate one is surrounded by difficulties affords no reason for its avoidance, but rather calls for redoubled tact and a superior skill, which will not fail of their aim when instigated by the loving instinct of a true mother’s heart.


Flipping to the back of The Daughter, I of course notice a few more ads. I wonder if I can find Hartvig Nissen’s ABC of the Swedish System of Educational Gymnastics? or John V. Shoemaker’s  Heredity, Health, and Personal Beauty? Or Plain Talk on Avoided Subjects, by Henry N. Guernsey?



Where Do Babies Come From?

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

their favorite ways of showing loveQ Dear Miss Abigail:

Where do babies come from?


A Dear Sam:

“The medical facts in this book were checked by Dr. Charles Birdsall…” reads the editor’s foreward to Wonderfully Made. So this little excerpt must be trustworthy, right? The book is one of six in the Concodia Sex Education Series aimed at students in grades four through six. Those poor, confused children!

1967: Married Love

One of the sperm from the father’s body must find and join an egg in the mother’s body before a new person can be conceived, or start to grow. Here the love of parents comes into the story. In an act of love the father puts the sperm into the mother’s body.

Married people show their love in many different ways. Kisses and hugs are among these ways. They also help each other. They share happy times and sad ones. They enjoy just being together. Your parents have their favorite ways of showing love for each other.

At times the love between two married people makes them want to be alone and very close together in an act called sexual intercourse. In this act, sperm leave the father’s body and enter the mother’s. One of the sperm may unite with an egg cell. The egg cell is then fertilized and begins to grow into a new human being. This is one of God’s ways of continuing His creation today. He uses the love of husband and wife to carry on the human race.

A new life doesn’t start each time a man and woman have intercourse. An egg cell is in one of the Fallopian tubes only a few days each month, and only then can a baby be conceived. Since it is through intercourse that a baby can begin, God wants only a husband and his wife to make love in this way. Husbands and wives have promised to live together always and to make a home for their children. They as parents will take care of the babies born to them.

This, then, is the story of how your life began. You may have heard the old tale of how the stork brings babies. It wasn’t the stork who brought you. The truth is that your parents’ love brought you to life.

Source: Hummel, Ruth. Wonderfully Made. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967.
~[no pagination] ~

Should a Boy Toy?

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

it will not weaken the individualQ Dear Miss Abigail:

I’m a twenty-two year old male from India. I have this habit of masturbating, very regularly. I started it three years back, after my first girlfriend ditched me. I never had sex with her. I used to feel guilty, but now I don’t. But I don’t want to go about telling it to every one. Something tells me it’s not right for my health.

I have no other bad habits like smoking, drinking, hanging around in discos, etc. Tell me if I’m wrong in masturbating and what do I do to stop it. I seriously want to stop it.


A Dear Saagar:

You and a number of other readers, my dear. I think this is the perfect time to show how advice has changed across the years. Check out the difference between Sylvanus Stall’s harsh words in 1909 to the more tame advice from the 1950s and 60s. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate how far we’ve come. Shall we?

And Saagar? Stop worrying and spend more time dancing. What’s wrong with discos?

1909: No Boy Can Toy

No boy can toy with the exposed portions of his reproductive system without finally suffering very serious consequences. In the beginning it may seem to a boy a trifling matter, and yet from the very first his conscience will tell him that he is doing something that is very wrong. It is on this account that a boy who yields to such an evil temptation will seek a secluded, solitary place, and it is because of this fact that it is called the “solitary vice.” Because the entire being of the one who indulges in this practice is debased and polluted by his own personal act it is also called “self-pollution.” It is also called “Onanism,” because for a similar offense, nearly four thousand years ago, God punished Onan with death (Genesis xxxviii, 3-10). This sin is also known by another name, and it is called “masturbation,” a word which is made from two Latin words which mean “To pollute by the hand.”

Source: Stall, Sylvanus. What a Young Boy Ought to Know. Philadelphia: The Vir Publishing Company,1909.
~ pp. 107-108 ~

1952: Will We Go Crazy?

“Doctor? Is there anything we can do that will keep us from going crazy?”

The doctor guessed what had led to this question, for he had heard it asked several times before. It took a little cross questioning, however, before the boys would admit what had happened. The truth was that Tom’s mother had suspected that he was handling his genital organs, and had told him in horrified tones that “the insane asylums are just full of people who have gone crazy because of such self-pollution.” What made it worse was that she really believed it; and she as so certain about it and so upset, that the boys believed it too. Of course, Tom at once told Jim.

Both the boys had stayed awake the greater part of that night, and the next, too; and had brooded over the matter pretty steadily ever since. Then they heard the doctor talk in school; but hadn’t gotton up the courage to ask him about the matter. At last they couldn’t stand it any longer, so they came to him in terror to find out if there was anything they could do to save them from this terrible end. . . .

The answer he was able to give them was prompt, direct and reassuring. He explained that while the habit they had been indulging in was anything but a desirable one, and had once been considered even by doctors to be a very dangerous one, they had nothing to fear. He told them that it is now known to be a scientific fact that, while it is something to be discontinued, it is nothing to worry about, unless they were to carry it on into their later adult years. And he was sure that they had sense enough not to do that.

Source: Richardson, Frank Howard. For Boys Only: The Doctor Discuss the Mysteries of Manhood. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1952 (reprinted 1970).
~ pp. 55-56 ~

1963: Bugaboos of the Past

I want to emphasize the fact that the commonly quoted medical consequences of masturbation are almost entirely fictious. Masturbation will not impair the mind. It will not weaken the individual. It will not cause him to lose his ability to be a father. It will not interfere with the successful performance of the sexual function under normal conditions. Those are bugaboos of the past and should be discarded.

Source: Bauer, W. W. Moving into Manhood. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963.
~ p. 14 ~

How Do I Explain Puberty?

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

one of the most interesting things a body doesQ Dear Miss Abigail:

I want to explain to my daughter what puberty is. Could you help me go about it?


A Dear Nancy:

In our continuing saga of “vague and slightly scary old advice to help teach children about sex and puberty” (see this other question), I bring you a little chat between a mother and daughter. Jane, “now eleven years old” has some questions that are probably similar to your daughter’s. Dr. Edith Hale Swift wrote Step by Step in Sex Education in 1947 for “those parents who feel their responsibilities and are perplexed about a proper approach to the subject of the sex education of their children,” so I’m sure it will help. And by the way, “Bert” is Jane’s brother.

1947: What’s In Those Machines?

JANE. (talking to Mother in a women’s restroom) What’s in those machines? I saw a woman drop a nickel in one and pull out a roll of something.

MOTHER. A gauze pad.

JANE. What did she want it for?

MOTHER. To soak up a flow that women have, once in a while, from the vagina. I have some pads home on my closet shelf in a box marked ‘Sanitary Pads.’ You see them in drug store windows frequently.

JANE. Why won’t toilet tissue do?

MOTHER. Because the flow lasts from four to five days, and the woman needs to protect her clothing.

JANE. When will I have to wear one?

MOTHER. When you have changed into a young woman ~ in two or three years. I’ll tell you all about it some day. Changing a girl into a woman is one of the most interesting things a body does. But we have a dress to buy now for a certain girl I know. What are you laughing at?

JANE. I was just remembering about Bert last Christmas, when we went shopping with Aunt Harriet for your presents. She wouldn’t let him buy those pads, at a special bargain. He said you used them somehow ~ he’d seen the boxes. But Aunt Harriet said he’d better buy something you didn’t really need, something pretty for the house. Remember how he bought the bed lamp?

MOTHER. I must explain to him, then, and also thank Aunt Harriet for steering him toward the lamp. I just love to read in bed.

Source: Swift, Edith Hale. Step by Step in Sex Education. New York: Macmillan Company, 1947.
~ 92-93 ~

I Think My Daughter is Having Sex

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

I'm a woman nowQ Dear Miss Abigail:

My child appears to be having sex. She is only fifteen years old. What shall I do?


A Dear Dickie:

I’ve been just waiting for a chance to use an excerpt from Dr. Edith Hale Swift’s Step by Step in Sex Education, which is written in the form of a play. Mother and Father start explaining the facts of life to their children at a very early age: Bert is “aged two years and a quarter” and Jane is a mere”three months old” when they begin. The narrative continues on throughout their adolescence, ending when Bert and Jane leave for college.

Unfortunately I think this advice is a little too late for you, but we should all admire Mother and Father for opening up those doors of communication. So let’s listen in on an important conversation between Mother and Jane (who is “now about fourteen”). Perhaps you and a loved one could sit down and read their lines outloud. Too bad there is no stage direction.

1947: Step by Step in Sex Education

JANE. Sue’s mother says it’s very thoughtful of you to have all of us go to the early show, and then come home here for some eats.
MOTHER. Has Sue been to the movies with a boyfriend before?
JANE. Once or twice. But she said her mother always makes her come straight home.
MOTHER. Just as you will be doing tonight. There’s nothing much for young folks like you to do at that hour. All you would have to talk about is school, and ball games, and so forth. You’d have that all said in a half an hour. I’ve known boys and girls to sit around in parks and pet just for lack of something better to do.
JANE. But it’s all right to pet, isn’t it? Lots of girls do. They say the boys will drop you if you don’t.
MOTHER. I’d take it as a sign I wasn’t much of a companion if a boy turned me down because he couldn’t hug me all the time. But as to your question, the answer can’t be a blanket yes or no. Everyone who loves likes to be close to his dear one. Real loving makes petting look dishonest. Certainly the girls that you speak of can’t love every Tom, Dick, and Harry they go out with.
JANE. They say it makes them all trembly and queer inside. Why is that?
MOTHER. That’s a long story, but now that you are beginning to “date,” you’d better understand it. Let’s see how many of my questions you can answer. Why do girls like you get interested in boys, and when they get a bid to the movies, spend hours dressing? You didn’t use to care so much how you looked.
JANE. Why ~ because I’m a woman now, and some day I want to have a home of my own. So I have to choose a husband.
MOTHER. Good beginning. Now, how are you to go about choosing?
JANE. That’s easy. Knowing lots and lots of boys.
MOTHER. Which will take a long time. How will you know when you’ve found him?
JANE. I’ll thrill when he touches me, dream about him, pine away when he doesn’t write, get jealous when he goes with other girls ~ oh, I’ll know we were made for each other.
MOTHER. Not so fast! You’ll be thrilling and dreaming and pining over a dozen, perhaps. Why so?
JANE. You said once that we would be pushed into being lovers and would like it, just as we do when we eat to satisfy our hunger.
MOTHER. Then you expect to enjoy loving and being loved?
JANE. Of course. I just can’t wait.
MOTHER. How do you expect to show your love?
JANE. Oh ~ by hugging and kissing.
MOTHER. I notice you didn’t say petting. Why not?
JANE. Because that’s different. You don’t mean anything when you pet. It’s just fun.
MOTHER. I wonder why it’s fun when it’s just pretending.
JANE. As I tell you ~ the girls say they get all excited inside. Why is that?
MOTHER. I expect it’s the way something inside has of saying, “more ~ more.” That’s where trouble comes in. That something doesn’t seem to know whether you have a husband and a home. All it wants is to get two people closer and closer, until ~ well, one takes the other in that union which we call sexual intercourse.
JANE. Is that the way it happened with that May Jacobs who had to leave school, and then had to have her baby adopted?
MOTHER. I imagine so. There are always a good many who lose their heads. You see, our heads build the dreams for the future, and try to remind us what the plan means. But if we get to wanting something very much, our brains become dulled, so that they can’t think or remember. Our feelings and our wants increase until, finally, we take what we crave. That is why it is called, “losing one’s head.”
JANE. But I am sure I can take care of myself.
MOTHER. Perhaps ~ but how can you tell? After all, you’re no smarter than other girls. You’ll want boys to like you; you’ll try to please them; you’ll enjoy their affectionate ways. Under these conditions, things may get out of hand. There is still much to learn about all this. What I want you to understand now is that young boys and girls can hardly care to get serious with each other and so shouldn’t find themselves reduced to petting to fill up the time. We’ll try to plan interesting things for you all to do together. Tonight I’ll have such good snacks that they’ll want to come again.
JANE. David said he hoped you’d have brownies.
MOTHER. Then brownies it shall be. 

Source: Swift, Edith Hale. Step by Step in Sex Education. New York: Macmillan Company, 1947
~ pp. 142-45 ~

An Important Difference

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

no harm in kissing and embracingBoys and girls. Girls and boys. Who would imagine that they were so incredibly different? Thanks to P. J. Bruckner’s pamphlet titled How to Give Sex Instructions, which was written as “a guide for parents, teachers, and others responsible for the training of young people,” we are finally able to have a better understanding of these mysterious creatures.

1937: An Important Difference

Young people usually are ignorant of the essential difference between the sex instincts in men and in women. Young people think the sex instinct is the same in all people, that it differs only in intensity. Psychologists, on the other hand, say there are two factors in the sex urge: (1) the psychic factor, the craving of the soul for companionship, understanding, and sympathetic love; (2) the physical factor, the craving of the body for the sensual side of sex. . . .

Dr. Maurice Bigelow states the difference thus: ‘The sexual instincts of young men are active, aggressive, spontaneous, and automatic, while those of women as a rule are passive and subject to awakening by external stimuli, especially in connection with affection.’

You might explain this to your boy or girl by saying that love in a boy is predominantly physical; in a girl it is chiefly mental and emotional.

The average girl has no idea of the fierceness of a boy’s passion. She knows only that she desires to love and to be loved in return. She believes the boy is as innocent as she is; hence she can see no harm in kissing and embracing. And she thinks her parents are exaggerating the danger when they warn her not to be too free with young men, not to indulge in kissing and petting with them. But if she understands how easily boys are aroused physically, she will be more willing to keep them in their place. From the time she is fifteen until she is twenty years of age, she should be warned repeatedly about this difference between the sexes.

The average boy is equally ignorant of the character of the average girl. He does not know that a girl is different from himself; and when she allows him to embrace and pet her, he thinks that she is just as passionate as he is and that her physical experience is like his ~ the urge to go farther. But if he realizes that a girl seeks merely affection, he will be more careful.

Boys and girls who get this difference between the sexes clear in their minds are able to solve many of their difficulties about petting, kissing, and the like. Parents who worry because they cannot convince their children that there are sex dangers may find that a frequently repeated explanation of this difference that exists between boys and girls will do more good than mere warnings.

Source: Bruckner, P. J. How to Give Sex Instructions. St. Louis, Mo.: The Queen’s Work, 1937.
~ pp. 20-21 ~