Selling Sex

Anatomical Museum of New York. New Anatomical Museum. [New York]: Jonh [sic] C. Hall, ca. 1848. (Gift of William H. Helfand)

Anatomical Museum of New York. New Anatomical Museum. [New York]: Jonh [sic] C. Hall, ca. 1848. (Gift of William H. Helfand)Ostensibly educational, anatomical museums were popular from the late 1840s through the Civil War. Typically established by purveyors of patent medicines, the museums contained full-scale wax and papier-mâché replicas of women’s body parts, sexual freaks of nature, and models depicting the disfiguring effects of venereal disease (for which they could offer a cure). This broadside, which would have been posted on the outside of a building, shows an exposed woman’s breast and promises that visitors can see a “full sized Venus” and a figure that is half man and half woman. The poster also mentions a lecture hall “where science will be blended with rational amusement.” Thus, the museum operators encouraged people (and especially men) to pay to see provocative images of women without losing their own identity as decent, upstanding citizens who visited museums for edification.

By the 1870s and 1880s, anatomical museums faced increasing competition from more legitimate museums such as the Museum of Natural History (est. 1869), prompting organizers to promise visitors even more salacious and provocative displays. The zealous anti-obscenity efforts of Anthony Comstock also forced many anatomical museums to shut their doors. In 1888 New York City authorities, with Comstock’s urging, raided several anatomical museums in the Bowery, seizing over 200 wax figures valued at over $37,000 that they destroyed with great ceremony. Comstock’s prurient prudery was not lost on local news reporters, who reported that he stood by as the figures were dismembered, “and only once did his antipathy to nudity get the better of his judgment, when he tore from her soft couch a sleeping damsel with such force as to dislocate one of her nether extremities.”