Select Page

 In the mid-18th century, American church officials spoke out vehemently against the work of founding father and inventor Benjamin Franklin.  They called him a heretic and said he would bring destruction upon them all. One pastor even blamed Franklin for invoking God’s wrath in the form of an earthquake.  Was it his penchant for the ladies, his love of scientific study, his habit of being naked in his home with the windows open? No, it was his lightning rod. That’s not a euphemism.  An actual metal rod for attracting lightning. My name’s…


Douglas Adams wasn’t wrong when he wrote: 

“1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

  1. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  2. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”


This third class of thing is rife to turn into a moral panic.  A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, or interests of the majority group.  Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by the news media and politicians, and sometimes result in the passing of knee-jerk laws. In this way, moral panics are an accidental source of social control.  Like with urban legends, moral panics often vilify marginalized people, be it by race, gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality, nationality, or religion, and the panic only reinforces the stereotypes it relies on.


 A thing doesn’t have to be real for people to panic over it.  There is no evidence that things like the Momo challenge, where a scary internet image makes you harm or kill yourself, ever caused a single injury or undesirable outcome.  The same goes for Rainbow parties, jenkem, and tampered Halloween candy. You can hear about panic over nothing in one our earliest episode, Shenanigans. But a number of actual, factual real life things have left parents and the media clutching their pearls.  You would expect dances like twerking to cause a stink, and briefly cast your mind back to 1987 when we thought Dirty Dancing was scandalously sexual, but would you believe people struck out on moral crusades against the fanciest, stuffiest, most stuck-up dance you can think of, the waltz?


There are many references to a sliding or gliding dances performed in Europe, when the waltz first appeared in ballrooms in Vienna, Austria, it caused an outrage and [marked a decisive shift in European social customs.]  What began as a folk dance called a walzen, meaning “to turn” in German, began to spread through Europe by the late 1700s. It immediately popular with young people from the wealthy middle classes, as it fit perfectly with the shift away from the aristocratic customs of their forebears.  Where dances like the minuet, with its precise choreography, kept the dancers at arms’ length from each other, the waltz called for putting an arm around your partner as you twirled across the floor. Until then, dancers would, at most, hold hands. Conservative critics were outraged. One can only assume the ladies fainted and the men dropped their monocles.  This new dance had entirely too much touching to be decent. In 1818 Madame de Genlis, a governess of the briefly restored French royal family, said that the waltz would corrupt any honest young woman who performed it: “A young woman, lightly dressed, throws herself into the arms of a young man,” she wrote. “He presses her to his chest and conquers her with such impetuosity that she soon feels her heart beat violently as her head giddily swims!  That is what they call waltzing!” An 1833 British manual of good manners recommended only married women should dance it, lest it lead unwed woman to temptation and ruin. The writer Lord Byron wrote that waltz a “lewd grasp and lawless contact warm” that wouldn’t “leave much mystery for the nuptial night”. And that’s coming from a man who had carnal relations with a half-sister.


It was outlawed in parts of Sweden and Germany. The Times of London called it “an indecent foreign dance.”  Even bad publicity is still publicity and the waltz quickly spreading. Its popularity led to the creation of a new kind of establishment: the public dance hall.  The first, Carlisle House in London, was opened by a Vienesse opera singer and allowed guests to dine, play cards, listen to music, and, of course, dance. Soon, they were everywhere.  At the epicenter of the waltz, Vienna’s Apollo Hall had five ballrooms in the early 1800s. Critics continued to speak against it, but the waltz went from craze to staple anyway. By the 1830s, it was estimated that half of Vienna’s population attended such balls.  The waltz spread to the US, where it was especially popular after the Civil War and American versions, like the Boston Dip, were created. The waltz died out in America in the early 20th century not because of any supposed sexual temptation, but because of its Germanic origins and that pesky world war.


Waltzes twirled away just in time for the Charleston to come on the scene and with it a brand new round of pearl-clutching.  The dance originated in the South Carolina city that lent it its name, though it spread across the country, then across the pond, thanks to the likes of Josephine Baker.  The Charleston was a fast dance that called for leaning forward and used kicks and big arm movements. You’d work up a sweat while dancing, something that was never considered lady-like. After taking up historically male jobs and social roles during WWI, the Charleston was the perfect fit for a new-found spirit of female liberation.  According to British historian Lucy Worsley, “When the Charleston arrived from America in 1925 it took the dance floor by storm. It allowed women to break free from a man’s embrace and dance on her own.” Many feared the emmerence of the short haired, short skirted flapper as the erosion of “traditional womanhood.” “Instead of the girls of our fondest imagination,” a soldier wrote to his hometown paper, “we find them madly given over to dancing”.


Before this whole episode turns in moral panics over dances, let me highlight one more staggeringly silly seeming example – the turkey trot.  The core move of the turkey trot is stepping on one foot, then the other, with the legs fairly spread, with optional elbow flapping. It doesn’t strike this reporter as much to look at even after seeing it, but it was held out to be the next big scourge against our moral fiber.  The turkey trot was banned in several cities, warned against by doctors, and even denounced by President Woodrow Wilson. New York’s mayor, William Jay Gaynor, referred to the dances as “lascivious orgies.” Chicago police stationed plain-clothes officers in dance halls. Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald ordered that a matron and a policeman be posted at every dance hall in his city and vowed to revoke the license of any hall that allowed the turkey trot.  The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, forbade cadets from dancing it. A New Jersey couple were arrested and fined $25 each for dancing the turkey trot. Unable to pay the fine, which is roughly $600 in today’s month, the female partner was sentenced to 50 days in jail. Much of the staff of Ladies Home Journal were fired on the spot when their editor caught them practicing the dance on their lunch break. There were even scattered newspaper reports of people dropping dead while doing the turkey trot, printed in an effort, stoked by none other than the Daughters of the American Revolution, to scare people away from doing the turkey trot. 


Follow me out onto this limb as I suggest that what was really bothering the squares about these different dances was the liberation, sexual and otherwise,  they symbolized for each generation of young woman. That sentiment was at the heart of a number of other moral panics that boggle the modern mind. Take bicycling, for example.  After the large front wheel of the penny-farthing style bike gave way to the equally-sized wheels of the safety bike and better riding pneumatic tires were added in the late 1880’s, cycling skyrocketed.  Women were right behind the men in taking up this new fun, healthy was to get from A to B. By 1897, membership in the League of American Wheelmen was one-third female. Women were no longer limited to the neighborhood in which they lived and exciting new fashions, like split skirts, bloomers, and even slacks for women, were being propelled by the bike’s chain.  If you’ve ever wondered why girls bikes have a low frame between the wheels whereas boys bikes have a high frame, primed to squish delicate bits, prevented immodesty in the skirt-wearing set is why.


Cue the panic.  Ministers preached that taking a nice bicycle ride on Sunday was ruining people’s observation of the Sabbath. One writer called this development “alarming” and worse than saloons; another said that bikes were literally Satanic.  Doctors put out the notion that bicycling had dangers beyond the very real threat of crashes and accidents. Articles were published with titles like “Harmful Effects of the Bicycle Upon the Girl’s Pelvis.” The “problem” was in the design of the bicycle saddle.  Riding with one’s body weight too far forward might lead “to friction and heating of the parts where it is very undesirable and may lead to dangerous practices” and women were advised to sit up properly and tall when riding to avoid it. Or even to ride side-saddle, meaning both legs on the same side.  No advice was given as to how to propel a bicycle forward only using one pedal and not immediately fall over while trying to sit sideways on a tiny leather seat. A Tennessee doctor reported “it was no uncommon thing” for a female patient of his, who obviously enjoyed dangerous practices, “to experience a sexual orgasm three or four times on a ride of one hour.”  Are we sure he’s working *against bicycle-riding? Doctors also warned that the vibrations would lead women to become sexually insatiable and even lead them to become lesbians. Bowing to the pressure of the panic, bicycle manufacturers designed modified saddles that euphemistically promised to deliver riders from “injurious pressure.”


Even if your bike didn’t drive you to lesbianism, it could still damage your character by letting you out in public, where you could socialize with unmarried men.  The most extreme manifestation of this sentiment came from Charlotte Smith, whose Boston-based Women’s Rescue League denounced bicycle riding on the grounds that it made young ladies “unwomanly and immodest” and “prevent[ed] motherhood among married women.” According to a circular the organization sent out in 1896, “Bicycling by young women has helped more than any other medium to swell the ranks of reckless girls, who finally drift into the army of outcast women of the United States.”  And if a woman could move freely through the world, who knows what sorts of ideas she might be exposed to. It’s little wonder than the women’s suffrage movement started shortly after women took up cycling. Susan B. Anthony succinctly concluded that cycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”


There were a few voices of reason.  In 1896, a writer for the Chicago Daily News pointed out the double standards in the treatment of women, “When a woman wants to learn anything … or even have any fun, there is always someone to solemnly warn her that it is her duty to keep well. Meanwhile … she can bend over the sewing machine for about 5 cents an hour and no one cares enough to protest.  But when the same women, condemned to sedentary lives indoors, find a cheap and delightful way of getting the fresh air and exercise they need so sorely there is a great hue and cry about their physical welfare.”


Freedom for women to communicate freely, whether to other women or to men, fueld two fires of moral outrage, one against telephones and one against the mail.  These days, parents and other adults are up in arms about the deleterious effects of screen time on kids or young people being bombarded with sexual pictures. Long before Tindr, the very act of talking on the phone got some folks all twitterpated.  You remember talking, that terrifying thing some people still insist on doing when they could just text you.


Edison’s original vision for the telephone was for use in emergencies but primarily for business, which meant for men.   Even after they spread to homes, it was still expected that one man would call another man for brief and important exchanges of information.  It wasn’t until the 1920s, 45 years after it was invented, that phone companies finally started advertising telephones for personal communication.  Picture the wife and homemakers of the 19th century, expected to have no interests or ambitions outside of the domestic sphere, suddenly being given a way to talk to other women who are similarly cooped up in their gender roles.  They soon realized that this new-fangled telephone was a great way to stay in touch with family and friends. The menfolk did not like this. What could a woman have to say that was important enough to use the telephone? They only want to gossip.  And while she’s gossipping, she’s not doing housework or tending the children. The telephone would give wives a chance to complain about their husbands or, god forbid, talk to men who were not their husbands. Obviously, this had to be stopped. “When women began to use the instrument for sociability,” wrote sociologist Michele Martin, “men started to cry out at the futility, frivolity of the use of the telephone in such a way, and then ridicule them in newspapers, in journals, and even in books.”  Men also decried social phone calls as dangerous, because they could clog up the switchboards and prevent emergency calls from being connected. Also, women would have a hard time understanding how to use the phone, as would blacks, immigrants, and rural farmers. Basically, anyone who was not them. So how much time exactly were women wasting on the phone? The average phone call in 1909 was just 7.5 minutes long.


Maybe the menfolk would rather the women just wrote letters.  Nope! While the postal service today is a mismanaged purveyor of unsolicited paper ads, there was a time when the whole idea of regularly delivered mail was considered revolutionary.  Prior to the post office, a woman would write a letter and then give it to one of her parents or her husband. If your family had means, you’d send a servant to deliver it. This meant that someone else always knew who a woman was writing to.  That all changed when author Anthony Trollope, working for the newly formed postal service in England, had red pillar mail boxes installed all over England. Combined with the recently rolled-out stamps, women could correspond with whoever they wanted.  In Britain, even if you managed to mail a letter in secret, the reply would be delivered to your house and you could be found out. Their New York counterparts who visited the post office could both send *and receive mail almost entirely unmonitored by those who might want to regulate their lives.  


New York City’s original post office branch, in the Middle Dutch Church at the intersection of Nassau and Liberty Streets, was quickly beset by women enjoying their newfound epistaltory freedom.  In an 1855 gossip column, “A Stranger in Gotham” tells the New York Times that a quick trip to the Ladies’ Window left her enthralled, “Before it came my turn to be served, that I drew into a corner, and, for half an hour, eyes and ears did me as good service as at any place of amusement that I have visited in the City.”  In other publications, however, the idea of unescorted ladies congregating equaled chaos and a threat to virtue. A Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine told its British readers that their American cousin, “has the privilege, if she chooses to exercise it, of her own private box or pigeon-hole at the post-office of the town where she resides, where she can have her letters addressed, and whither by a “Ladies Entrance” she can resort when she pleases and unlock her box from the outside, and take away her letters without observation.”


According to people in the 1850s, women could not be trusted to contact only respectable people about important matters.  If women were allowed to send letters unchecked, who knows what sorts of trouble they would bring on themselves. Even Trollope, inventor of the pillar box, regretted what he had inadvertently facilitated.  According to one pseudonymous writer at the time, having “clandestine correspondence with unprincipled men” was already affecting “a thousand schoolgirls a week” and opening their minds to “abnormal channels.”  He claimed madams had started hanging out in post offices specifically to lure young women into prostitution. Because we all know that’s the logical consequence of letter-writing. These foolish fears even reached the government, with Congress debating home delivery of mail, like they had in England, to keep women out of the post offices and allow for more oversight in who they were getting letters from.


Okay, no phone calls, no mail, maybe people will leave you alone if you sit and read.  It had better be the bible or a book about nature, otherwise nope! With industrialization in the 1700 came an increase in consumer goods as manufacturing increased and that included books.  More books meant cheaper books, which meant more people could afford them, so it was worthwhile for more people to learn how to read. This both led to and was fed by the rising popularity of novels.  If it’s popular and new, people will freak out about it, specifically how it would lead women astray. For starters, if a woman is reading, that’s time she’s not spending learning to be a wife or the skills to be a servant.


Popular novels were full of adventures, love stories and heroines doing things society frowned on.  While men could be trusted to handle such stories, women were thought not to be able to tell fantasy from reality well enough.  And of course novels could “make erotic suggestions which threatened chastity and good order.” Privately-owned books could also be read in private, as opposed to scarce singular books being read to a whole room full of people.  Anything done in private must inherently be bad, otherwise you would do it out in the open. The early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, a novelist herself, wrote that novels—along with music, poetry and “gallantry”—“tend to make women the creatures of sensation, and their character is thus formed in the mould of folly.” Forewarned, her own daughter went on to conduct a teenage affair with a married, philandering radical poet beside Wollstonecraft’s grave, then ran away with him to Switzerland, then wrote Frankenstein.


Even before affordable novels, some people thought that the printing of any book was problematic.  At the forefront of the anti–printing press campaign was a Benedictine monk named Johannes Trithemius, who wrote several books that criticized the printing press and printed books while praising scribes who wrote copied by hand.  He believed that the art of printing would alienate people from religious contemplation. He thought the printing press and the books it produced were a passing fancy that should be ignored. Printed books were made with paper which wouldn’t last nearly as long as the vellum used for manuscripts.  Trithemius even encouraged monks to rewrite printed books by hand. This stance predates Gutenburg and his moveable type press by a long, *long time. We know the teachings of Socrates because they were written down by Plato, because Socrates was against the written word. Socrates didn’t believe a person could learn from reading, only from experience or first-hand observation.  He believed books were anathema to memory, that people wouldn’t, or couldn’t retain information in their brains if it was written down in books. He’s not necessarily wrong. I can’t remember poems that don’t rhyme, let alone being able to recite The Iliad from memory.


Maybe the men would be happy if we just sit quietly on the sofa.  Nope! In sharp contrast to a LaZBoy couch with two built-in recliners with cupholders, heat and massage … a moment of silence for the couch I lost in the fire … furniture up until relatively recently was anything but comfy.  It kept you up off the ground but that was about it. Your furniture could be limited to a table with benches on either side. The only thing that stood a chance of being comfortable was your bed, the place where sex happened.  Ergo, comfort = sex. That was a lot of people’s reactions when the modern sofa was introduced from the exotic east by Thomas Chippendale in 1748. After all, the ancient Greeks and Romans reclined on comfy sofas and they were lousy with prostitutes and orgies.  The culprit, the cause of such immorality, could only be the furniture. To drive the point home, a book was published in 1742, in both English and French, called The Sofa: A Moral Tale. The plot revolves around a man from the Middle East who is turned into a sofa and seven couples proceed to have sex on him.  Just as the convenience of telephones and post offices would outweigh the fervor, the rich people who could actually afford upholstered sofas just liked not sitting on a wooden bench, so sofas caught on. 


Can I eat a meal without it leading me to sin and depravity?  Nope! Unless you’re willing to give up one-third of the modern cutlery triad.  Forks as a kitchen tool have been with us for ages, for spearing meat from a pot or holding it for carving.  Forks to lift food to the mouth only gained widespread acceptance relatively recently. The fork was frequently compared with Satan’s pitchfork (both of which stemming from the same Latin word, furca) whether for serious reasons or just for satire.  Why this logic was never extended to peasants’ pitchforks is beyond me. It was also argued that God had already created perfectly good fingers for the task and using forks was an affront to god. Again, for some reason this logic was never applied to weapons or other tools.  It’s worth noting that table forks were in common use among many Muslim people, giving Christians a whole other angle to use to call forks evil.  


An 11th century illustrated manuscript from the Byzantine Empire shows two men using two-pronged fork-like instruments at a table, and St. Peter Damian criticized a Byzantine-born Venetian princess for her excessive delicacy: “[S]uch was the luxury of her habits … [that] she deigned not to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth.” Damian was sufficiently offended by the woman’s table manners that when she died of the plague, he regarded it as a just punishment from God for her vanity.  The story was used by the church as “evidence” of the wickedness of forks for the next 200 years.


The influential Medici family of Italy helped to spread fork use throughout Europe thanks to their love of pasta.  Eating pasta with a spoon would be tricky at best, embarrassing at worst. But even with their highly fashionable influence, people still associated fork use with negatives.  In the 16th century, forks became synonymous with aberrant sexuality. French satirist Thomas Artus published a strange book called The Island of Hermaphrodites to mock the court of the previous monarch, Henri III.  At that time, “hermaphrodite” was a pejorative term, applied to anyone you didn’t like. In mocking Henri III’s hanger-ons, one of the worst things Artus could think of was that they “never touch meat with their hands but with forks,” whose prongs were so wide apart that the hermaphrodites spilled more food than they picked up, scattering them everywhere.  The implication was clear– if you preferred a fork to fingers, you were just as bad as these sloppy, effeminate sycophants. A real man would use his fingers to eat, the same fingers he was probably cleaning his ears with a moment earlier.  


Even into the 18th century, Louis XIV forbade his children from using forks.  While fork-acceptance took root on the continent, it was slow to catch on in England.  Thomas Coryate was the first Englishman we know of to use a fork all the time, and people began calling him “Furcifer” (an uninspiring combination of fork and Lucifer) . Even up until 1897, men in the Royal Navy were still refusing to use forks because they were too ladylike.


And that… So why were church officials so worked up over Ben Franklin’s attempt to stop tall buildings from being struck by lightning?  They thought of lightning as “artillery of heaven,” God’s wrath, which they would attempt to appease by having the church bells rung during storms.  All that got them was electrocuted bell-ringers. Franklin was blamed for a Boston-area earthquake because his lightning rods stopped God from punishing people from above, so he had to do it from below.  Fortunately, Franklin had friends in high places who helped him in his efforts to stop people from being turned into a fine red mist. His efforts were helped along by reports of a church in Italy that had refused to install a “heretical rod” and was struck by lightning.  The church was storing thousands of pounds of gunpowder, for … reasons, I assume, and the ensuing explosion leveled one-sixth of the city. Remember…