Textbook History started as a journal of social history as filtered through twentieth century American biology textbooks. Inspired by the work of Jim EndersbyJohn RudolphDonna J. Drucker, and Ronald L. Numbers, among other notable historians, it has evolved into an exploration of the intersection of popular history, popular science and popular culture since the industrial revolution.

It can get a little weedy. So, I thought I’d provide a short sampler of the more approachable stories found here.

Students of popular culture (with a dash of academic cred) are invited to dig into the Piltdown hoax, the masturbation panic of the nineteen century, eugenic pornography, the racist origins of Alfred E. Neuman, and everyone’s favorite, girl Nazis with whips.

The (even) geekier stuff can wait.

Ron Ladouceur

Henry Fairfield Osborn and the Tragic Legacy of Piltdown Man

Piltdown man’s dramatic entry into textbooks starting in the mid-1930s was a reactionary effort by Henry Fairfield Osborn to infiltrate the debate on human origins and freeze in place his favored ideas of human evolution and the necessity of eugenic management.

The consequences were tragic.

By flooding the market, Osborn, with sympathetic textbook authors and a socially conservative public as accomplices, advanced a racialized theory of evolution that resisted countervailing evidence for decades, survived Piltdown’s fall in 1953, and tainted the teaching of biology in high schools and colleges well into the 1970s.

Read more

I Speak to You Through Electrical Language: Traveling Into the Nineteenth Century with the “Nervous Icon”


Tracing the history of an image of the human central nervous system, reproduced in more than 100 texts, above reveals surprising connections between the seemingly disparate topics of printing technology, print piracy, electricity, telegraphy, spirituality, abolition, and that most central of nineteenth century anxieties, masturbation. In its hyper-nakedness, the image warned of the dangerous interconnectedness of the body, where stimulation, or over-stimulation, of any one part would cause damage to the entire system.

Read more

A Degenerate in the Classroom: Alfred E. Neuman and the Textbooks He Hid Behind

MAD magazine was a rare treat when I was a young teenager, a little expensive and difficult to acquire on a regular basis, but a standard newsstand pickup ahead of road trips and summer weeks away. At the time, the early 1970s, MAD was hitting its highest circulation numbers. Yet its humor always felt weirdly out of step, recycled, even a bit reactionary. Of course that’s partially why I liked it. It was creepy anthropology, a moist record of the guilty id of my older siblings and younger aunts and uncles, subversive if a little toothless.

The magazine had its culturally relevant bits, like Don Martin’s ononmonpidic explosions and Sergio Aragones’ slapstick marginals, but on balance MAD was weighed down by filler of a sensibility that went out with Eisenhower.

Then there was Alfred E. Neuman.

Read more

Purity, Pornography and Eugenics in the 1930s (Parts I & II)


By the mid-nineteenth century, an often violent and sexualized culture of alcohol, fistfights and prostitution had emerged in cities. Physicians and ministers, who held to nineteenth-century fears of the debilitating and insanity-producing effects of non-marital orgasms, came together with women seeking political authority and independence in a “purity” coalition to fight what both groups saw as a common locus of evil, prostitution (Lefkowitz Horowitz, 2002). Organizations like the YMCA, through its activist arm, Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, became vigilantes of morality, policing back allies and bookstores, and confiscating printing presses, diaphragms and copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

But not all purists were social conservatives.

Period political radicals too saw the social dislocation caused by rapid industrialization as a driver of “degeneracy.” While the efforts of Margaret Sanger and many others in the first decades of the twentieth century to legalize birth control is today often gauzily viewed as visionary advocacy of a sex-positive culture, the motivation driving this advocacy was often less about liberating the physical self and more about controlling the spread of the teeming masses.

Read more

Adventure! Domination! Biology!

These images both depict ceremonially scarred women, face on, naked at least to the waist. The one on the left is from a popular college textbook from the 1940s. The one on the right is from a Men’s Adventure magazine, otherwise known as a “sweat” or “armpit” pulp, from the 1950s.

In this article I suggest, despite their quite different contexts, these images served a common purpose. They invited the viewer to enter a protected sphere where fantasies of superiority and domination were reinforced and could be comfortably indulged.

Read more

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Post comment