Historians once regarded the passage of the Comstock Laws in 1873 as a death knell for the public discourse on gender, sex, and reproduction that thrived in the early nineteenth-century United States, but this view has given way to a more complex appreciation of the strategies available to actors seeking knowledge about the body. I examine some of these strategies in late-century health and hygiene manuals. Although certain discourses about sex became closed off, others persisted and evolved in the interstices of Comstock’s regulatory state. Readers’ demand for information did not abate in 1873; savvy publishers found different ways to meet it, utilizing suggestion, allusion, and nontextual cues from which active readers could extract useful knowledge. A once-public debate about the morality, effectiveness, and appropriate use of contraception had become coded in the pages of health and hygiene manuals, pointing readers to the burgeoning mass market for contraceptive devices as a locus of reproductive control.


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pp. 463-490
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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