Photo courtesy of Tony Perrottet
You might remember our article about Napoleon’s Penis in New Jersey, but did you know about the “enlightened” sex clubs in 18th century London, the Victorian “Secretums” housed in the world’s most famous museums, or the history of prostitution in France? During a recent talk at Obscura Society NYC, Historian Tony Perrottet was brilliantly able to demonstrate that we are not to be blamed for our lack of knowledge about the most titillating historical facts: we all suffer at the hands of an historical education that entirely omits the good bits. He is the author of several books, including Napoleon’s Privates — 2500 Years of History Unzipped, which happened to serve as both inspiration and source to our previous piece about the Emperor’s current whereabouts.
A fascinating and engaging scholar that has made a living tracking down perverse antiquarian relics, Mr. Perrotet entertained his audience for 90 minutes with illustrated stories of both his esoteric intellectual pursuits and his adventures tracking down some of the treasures of our debauched pasts. Here are some of the best tidbits of the evening:
1) The nineteenth century was arguably a conservative one. However, there were several quirks about our Victorian friends that are surprising to revisit. Members of the highest social classes seemed to develop keen fascinations with the ‘pornographic’ relics of ancient civilizations. One major institution, the British Museum, founded the “Secretum” in 1865 exclusively to house these obscene mementos in the bowels of the museum. Housing sexual images, phallic ceramics and other goodies, only a select few were granted access to this collection. And yet delightfully, one can still request a map from the help desk that will explain specifically how to access a number of these pieces, which have been redistributed throughout the public galleries of the museum.
2) In the end of the 19th century, Paris legalized prostitution. In the stunning neighborhood surrounding the landmark Opera House, one could find a number of high-end brothels. “Le Cabaret” was the most famous of these institutions, and clients could enjoy a variety of themed rooms — including a “pirate room,” in which behind-the-scenes workers would splash water against the windows to create a certain je ne sais quoi.
3) Seemingly conservative 18th century Britain gave birth to a group of thrill seekers called the “Beggar’s Benison,” an ‘enlightened’ sex club which emerged during the Georgian era and was generally referred to as the “Hellfire club”. This gentleman’s club grew and developed branches in various parts of the country, increasingly developing a reputation due to its various sexual rituals, including (yet not limited to) masturbating onto a silver platter. Thankfully, the platter still exists, and it is engraved with a dainty penis, and we got to see a slide of it. Incredible.
Frankly, these points are but a small sampling of the fascinating stories that filled Perrottet’s lecture. However it is remarkable that, despite the shear entertainment value of these fun facts, learning about these points in history still gives us a glimpse into major facets of our own popular culture, though our occasionally puritanical educations may sometimes choose to ignore them. There is a unique relevance coupled with a good sense of humor that makes history like this so appetizing, and Tony Perrottet’s accessible yet articulate narratives are more than worth checking out.
The Obscura Society NYC, which hosted the event, offers fascinating programming such as the upcoming Victorian Bar Crawl, and is ultimately the meet-up group affiliated with the phenomenal site and archive Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica. If you are one to delight your friends with strange and curious conversation, I strongly recommend checking them out.
Get in touch with the author @MlleFauxFrench