I might be alone in this, but when reading about life in the Belle Époque I always wondered how people got away with having affairs or how for example prostitutes could do their jobs without getting pregnant or sexually transmitted diseases all the time?
Even though this period -like any other period – was fascinated with sex, people could not not discuss the intimate and practical details of their sex lives openly. Unwanted pregnancies or diseases were a serious problem in the nineteenth century and campaigns by a progressive minority for birth control and sex education were still in their infancy. Yet that did not mean that birth control, condoms, pornography or sex toys did not exist of course. These had existed in some shape or form (no pun intended) for centuries. But where did people find them?
Well, in Le Frou-Frou apparently.
Le Frou-Frou (meaning frilly or fancy) was, as its title suggests, a light-hearted paper, one of the many humorist journals of the period. The magazine reflected the slightly risqué, Moulin Rouge atmosphere of 1890’s Paris and advertised itself through colourful posters of alluring can-can dancers. Its pages are filled with cartoons, humorist anecdotes on Parisian life or theatre, and lots of publicity.
What struck me most was a recurring section of wonderfully euphemistic advertisements such as the ones on 12 April 1902 for: ‘appareils spéciaux pour l’hygiéne intime des deux sexes et la préservation des maladies’ (special equipment for the intimate hygiene of both sexes and the prevention of diseases), for ‘usage intime caoutchouc’ (rubber intimate use),’photos suggestives, idéales, d’une pureté troublante’ (suggestive, perfect photographs, of arousing purity) or for ‘use musée secret, ultra-galant'(a secret museum, extremely seductive). All of the products are available by discreet mail order and can be send abroad and to the colonies as well. These also include products to make women’s breasts more opulent and firm, or elixirs to cure impotence and frigidity. There also ads for mid wives offering to treat ‘maladie des dames’ (ladies’ diseases) which might suggest women could go there to get an abortion.
It is easy for us to laugh at the way these ads are phrased. Yet they make clear that there was a strong demand for these products at a time when prostitution was rife, women were ostracised for having an illegitimate child, men died from syphilis, and sex in general was very much taboo.
A positive effect of the rise of mass media and advertising in the nineteenth century was that it made these products and services more easily available to a larger audience, at least for those with some money and access to newspapers. Advertising and seemingly superficial magazines like Le Frou-Frou played their own small part in providing access to birth control and in enabling people to enjoy sex.