Welcome to the final installment of the Dittrick’s special series on student work. Today we feature a guest post from Jonah Raider-Roth on the writings of Charles Knowlton. Want to learn more? Visit the Dittrick Museum’s Skuy Gallery of historical contraception or the website’s early literature page, for more details.
Scientific understanding is usually hailed as progressive, driving humanity toward some higher knowledge and ability. However, different views of morality occasionally draw a great deal of criticism toward commonplace knowledge and discovery. Charles Knowlton, who found himself at the center of one such conflict, made a name for himself in 1832 publishing a book called Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People, the first widely read book discussing contraception techniques (Langer 679). Although this book was the cause of a great deal of uproar in the American Christian community and ultimately resulted in its author and later publishers being taken to court, it made a huge stride in popularizing contraceptive and birth control practices.
Knowlton’s interest in the working of the human reproductive system probably started with his own reproductive illness. The gonorrhoea dormientium (seminal discharges occurring at night) that he suffered from as a teenager was at the time “regarded by authorities as a grave threat to health and sanity,” and after going to ten physicians for treatment for this disease he became depressed (Reed n.p.). This depression would ultimately be treated by electric shock therapy from mechanic Charles Stuart, one of whose daughters (named Tabitha) Knowlton married at the age of 21. Knowlton would go on to recommend early marriage “as a cure for many of the problems of youth.” (Marden n.p.)
Knowlton’s book presented a straightforward explanation of sex, sexual organs, and various methods of contraception, defending its moral position at length. “If population be not restrained by some great physical calamity,” he wrote, reflecting an idea first made popular by the philosopher Thomas Malthus, “the time will come when the earth cannot support its inhabitants.” (Knowlton n.p.) Defending his writing as scientific knowledge to which every person had a natural right, Knowlton described in great detail the anatomy of the penis and the vagina, as well as the current scientific understanding of menstruation, conception, and pregnancy. Although Knowlton and his contemporaries suspected that it was semen which caused pregnancy, Knowlton did not appear to understand the concept of eggs and fertilization.
Most controversial of all, however, was the section concerning and four different methods of contraception, including withdrawal, early condoms, vaginal sponge inserts, and the injection of spermicidal compounds to “destroy the fecundating property” of semen (Knowlton n.p.). None of these contraceptive practices were new or radical discoveries, but the publication of this list in mainstream media, accompanied by many pages of why these practices were moral and important to society, would soon bring Knowlton plenty of criticism and prosecution.
During its initial print run, Fruits of Philosophy did not sell particularly well. At first Knowlton did not publish it widely at all, giving copies of it only to those close to him, and when it was finally published in 1832, roughly 10,000 copies were sold during the first eight years (Marden n.p.). Knowlton, however, was tried and sentenced to three months in jail by a Massachusetts court for “distributing birth control literature.” (Langer 679)
Knowlton died in 1850, but the real controversy began almost 30 years later, when British publishers Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant republished the book in England. “We republish [this book], in order to text the right of publication,” Bradlaugh and Besant wrote. “We republish this pamphlet, honestly believing that on all questions affecting the happiness of the people… fullest right of free discussion ought to be maintained at all hazards.” (published in Knowlton n.p.) They were arrested in 1877 and convicted for publishing obscene material that would drive the Queen’s subjects to “‘indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy, and immoral practices.’” (The High Court of Justice qtd. by Langer 685)
Although it took decades for its importance to be acknowledged, Knowlton’s book began a change in the way America thought about contraception. Even today, the debate rages on in the worlds of politics and religion, but Knowlton’s writing and that of others that followed began to show the nation that contraception was not a taboo but in fact normal. It was healthy and could even be helpful to society. Knowlton’s writing is now acknowledged by some scholars as “the most influential of all of the early writings on the subject.” (Langer 680)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonah Raider-Roth is an undergraduate student at Case Western Reserve University.
Knowlton, Charles. Fruits of Philosophy; Or, The Private Companion of Young Married People .. London: J. Watson, n.d. Project Gutenberg. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.
Langer, William L. “The Origins of the Birth Control Movement in England in the Early Nineteenth Century.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Vol. 5, No. 4, The History of the Family, II (Spring, 1975) (pp. 669-686). PDF file. Accessed 16 September 2014.
Marden, Parker G. “A Man Ahead of His Time.” Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. January 1967. Web. Accessed 14 September 2014.
Reed, James. “Knowlton, Charles.” American National Biography Online. February 2000. Web. Accessed 16 September 2014.