Smut!

“Are you still working on that smut?! You guys, Ellen’s reading the smut magazine again!”

Such was my coworker’s joy at teasing me about my latest finding aid project.

It’s hard to imagine that a monthly called The Adult: The Journal of Sex could be anything but “smut.” But open to the first page of Vol. I and you will find that the “organ of the Legitimation League” is hardly a dirty magazine. Instead, George Bedborough, The Adult’s editor, declares that the journal’s pages will “be open for the discussion of important phases of sex questions which are almost universally ignored elsewhere.”Copy of P1180447

The Legitimation League was founded in England in 1893 for the purpose of securing the legal rights of illegitimate children, rights which were still very much in question in late-Victorian Britain. By 1895, the League had voted to shift its agenda away from advocating for illegitimate children and toward advocating for adults in relationships considered illegitimate by conventional Victorian morality. The new agenda included the promotion of free unions, or cohabiting without marriage; some members of the organization also promoted free love. The Adult was founded in 1897 as a vehicle for advancing this new sexual morality.

The cataloging team was initially drawn to The Adult as a candidate for a finding aid by its eccentricities. Early issues include intriguing personal ads:

“A middle aged gentleman wishes to correspond with a lady aged 25 to 30 with a view to a permanent union on Ruedebusch’s principles. Please write in confidence with photo to Lyric, c/o Legitimation League. (In 1896 Emil F. Ruedebusch published a volume called The Old and the New Ideal: a Solution of that part of the Social Question which pertains to Love, Marriage and Sexual Intercourse.)

Later issues fill in white space with jokes such as these:

“‘Darling,’ he cried, in tender tones, ‘I never loved but thee!’ ‘Then we must part,’ the maid replied; ‘no amateurs for me!’”

Copy of P1180444

But what really drew me into the project, and what makes The Adult invaluable research material, is not the jokes or the personal ads, but the discourse—the interchange of ideas—contained in its pages. In the journal’s introduction, Bedborough states his intention “to make The Adult a vehicle for the interchange of ideas, and a means for the removal of difficulties which may arise in connection with the experiences of those who favour freedom in sexual relationships.” He “requests the co-operation of all interested in the important subjects discussed in the columns of The Adult. Correspondence is invited…” He encourages those interested to contribute their thoughts to the journal and write with their personal questions, even if the letters are not intended for print.

Bedborough acknowledges from the beginning that there is much to be discussed in The Adult’s pages: many questions must be raised and addressed on the road to a coherent morality of sexual freedom. Topics range from birth control and the interplay of music, religion and sex to prostitution’s possible role in developing a society open to free love and the renewing of the  Contagious Diseases Acts in India. Such issues are raised and discussed openly in the journal’s pages. Often contributors write in answer to one another, arguing multiple sides of a complicated issue like birth control and honing their opinions along the way. In The Adult, conclusions are not foregone—as you read, you can see the contributors genuinely struggling together to form new positions, supported by creative scientific and philosophical thinking. Reading The Adult is exciting—the reader can see a new way of thinking emerging right before her very eyes. I was drawn in by the concept of a truly open format where people who cared about the same set of issues but didn’t necessarily agree on the conclusions tried to work them out together in writing, sharing their thoughts with the public.Copy of P1180450

But all good things must come to an end, and The Adult met its end rather quickly. A year or so into its publication, George Bedborough was arrested for selling a copy of Dr. Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion to an undercover policeman. While Ellis’s volume, the first scientific study of homosexuality published in English, was indeed scandalous, it seems the police were interested not in the book but in the Legitimation League. Surveillance of the group’s activities had left the police without a case: the content of The Adult was ‘within the law’ (not smut!) and ‘there was never any suggestion of indecorous behavior at League meetings.’ But the police worried that the success of The Adult and the growing popularity of the Legitimation League gave support to more dangerous groups. Though Bedborough’s friends organized to help him stand his ground, he plead guilty to the charges against him. An anarchist friend of the Legitimation League, Henry Seymour, stepped in to edit The Adult, but with financial difficulty and lack of direction, it quickly disintegrated, as did the Legitimation League itself.Copy of P1180449

I was genuinely sad to read to the end. Though I came for the unusual personal ads and the provocative title, I stayed for the creators’ honest desire to un-taboo “tabooed topics”—to discuss sexual morality and freedom in a public way—and the fascinating history of the people involved.

Penn holds a full run of The Adult. My finding aid, which lists the contents of every issue and gives more detailed background on the publication, can be found here.

Ellen Williams is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working in Rare Book Cataloging and exploring ways to use Archivists’ Toolkit to create finding aids for printed ephemeral collections and serial publications.

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