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  • Prescription for a Periodical:Medicine, Sex, and Obscenity in the Nineteenth Century, As Told in Dr. Foote's Health Monthly
  • Janice Wood (bio)

Dr. Foote's Health Monthly held a mirror up to the life of its namesake and senior editor and reflected the swirl of reforms transforming nineteenth-century society. From 1876 to 1896, Dr. Edward Bliss Foote's penchant for discussing sex and marketing contraceptives shared the pages with his drive to promote free speech. It was a combination born out of the era's obsession with obscenity, labeled "Comstockery" by George Bernard Shaw.

Foote took it personally when moralist Anthony Comstock persuaded Congress to include items intended to prevent conception among "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" materials banned from the mail when enacting the laws best known as the Comstock Act. Since the 1860s, Foote had sold through the mail out of an office in New York City on Lexington Avenue four types of birth control along with a few potions and medical advice. An easy target for Comstock, Foote was convicted on obscenity charges in 1876 and fined $3,500. Afterward, he modified his prosperous medical practice and publishing business to comply with the laws and, joined by his son, launched the Health Monthly as a journal of health-care information and the voice of opposition to Comstock.

The Footes made no bones about their intentions, which subscribers to the Health Monthly came to know and readers of this article will discover. This study places Dr. Foote's Health Monthly at the heart of an anti-Comstock, pro-free-speech movement that surrounded the prosecution of Foote and other magazine editors who challenged Victorian notions about sex, marriage, and family life. The editors, topics, and language of the Health Monthly are described along with events in its life as a publication. [End Page 26]

Two Doctors in Joint Efforts

Dr. Foote (1829–1906) edited the Health Monthly with his son, Edward Bond Foote (1854–1912). During their lifetimes, they were commonly known as E. B. Foote Sr. and E. B. Foote Jr., although their middle names differed. In the late nineteenth century, the two stood out among physicians as "conscious, articulate social reformers," but little has been published about them outside their professional achievements.1

The father made a name for himself as the author of several popular home health-care books and an innovator in birth control. Foote Sr. apprenticed in newspaper journalism before training for medicine. His first book, Medical Common Sense, appeared in 1858 and sold more than 250,000 copies. An expanded volume, Plain Home Talk, Embracing Medical Common Sense, sold 500,000 copies, starting in 1870, by the author's account. His final book, the Home Cyclopedia of Social and Sexual Science, debuted early in the twentieth century.2

An ardent feminist, Foote Sr. opposed abortion while favoring a woman's right to enjoy sex and control reproduction, preferably with one of the four methods he marketed. His "womb veil" resembled a cervical cap or diaphragm but was never patented. He marketed two types of condoms, one made of rubber and the other of fish bladders. His wares also included a contraption called an "electromagnetic preventive machine," described as capable of producing a weak current. Supposedly, the resultant electrical disparity between the male and female caused a woman's uterus to reject sperm. The text of a brochure promoting Foote Sr.'s birth control products explained his goals of allowing women to control conception as well as protecting both partners against venereal disease.3

The son never achieved the widespread medical fame accorded his father but was better known for his activism within the free-speech movement and other reform issues. Foote Jr. became a high-profile humanitarian, according to his obituary in a directory of the American Medical Association, which also cited him as one of the earliest advocates of sex education in public schools. A Columbia University-trained doctor, Foote Jr. worked in his father's medical practice and publishing company as a physician, writer, and editor; he adopted and advanced his father's causes and viewpoints as his own. Foote Jr. coined the term "contraceptics," considered the origin of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-4238
Print ISSN
1054-7479
Pages
pp. 26-44
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-31
Open Access
No
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