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What Antique Porn (1899-1960s) Reveals About Sex

Over more than a century, sex films evolved—and remained the same.

In 1895 in Paris, Auguste and Louis Lumiere screened the world’s first motion picture. Soon after, French filmmakers began producing pornography and by World War I, Americans had joined them. Most early porn is lost to history, but some survives, usually identified on the Internet as “antique porn,” which generally includes X-rated movies from 1899 into the 1960s. If you’re interested in the evolution of this corner of sexual culture, antique porn illuminates it over six decades.

Lights, Camera, Hardcore Action

In the earliest porn films, the reproduction is grainy, but the action is clear and remarkably modern. Boy meets girl and faster than you can say “lights, camera, hardcore action,” the actors quickly disrobe and get down to business.

Antique porn pre-dates sound tracks. Like other silent films, the visuals cut from live action to dialogue slides. Early French slides refer to women’s genitals with the word chat, meaning “cat,” or in English, its synonym.

Porn is all about voyeurism, and in antique loops, it’s a major theme. In one film from the 1920s, a sexually frustrated wife can't persuade her husband to get it on. She storms out of the bedroom, and throws open her living room shutters, revealing her neighbor’s garden, where she spies a young couple strolling arm in arm. They kiss, and the man tries to run his hand under the woman’s skirt. She bats it away once or twice, then happily welcomes it between her legs. The man drops his pants, and the two have intercourse on a bench. Above them, the scene excites the wife. She calls to her husband, who joins her at the window. The sight of the couple in the throes drives him wild—and he carries his grateful bride off to bed.

Many of the earliest French loops begin with two women playing sexually. Then a man appears. The women are momentarily embarrassed, but almost immediately, a threesome ensues. Oral sex abounds in these scenes, both fellatio and cunnilingus. And in one remarkable loop, a woman dons a strap-on dildo, lubricates another woman’s anus, and…you can imagine. Who knew there were strap-ons a century ago?

Early American Porn: Comparatively Reserved

American porn production began during the 1920s. In contrast to the anything-goes sex of its French predecessors, antique American porn is more reserved. In American loops of the 1920s—and continuing into the 1940s—the men are slower to approach the women, and the women play at more reluctance before going wild.

In a typical loop, a casting director interviews a young woman eager to become a movie star. He produces a bathing suit and asks her to change in a dressing room. Then the director peers through the keyhole and gets an eyeful. When the girl is naked, he opens the door and tries to drag her to a sofa. Horrified, the girl pushes him away, and he backs off, disgusted. The girl gets dressed and is about to leave, when she sees a book in the dressing room: How to Become a Movie Star. She leafs through it and we see a close-up of one page: “Always give the casting director everything he wants.” This instantly transforms her into a nymphomaniac, and she and the director wind up writhing on the couch. But compared with the French porn of a generation earlier, movies like this one are more prudish.

“Blow On It”

Early French porn is full of fellatio, but its American counterpart is more ambivalent about oral sex. Some American loops from the 1920s show actors quick to engage in fellatio and cunnilingus. But in many others, the men don’t provide oral at all, and must coax the women to perform it. In one scene from the 1930s, a naked man asks a woman to “take a closer look” at his erection. Then he tells her, “Blow on it.” She opens her mouth—and guess what happens.

Could this be the origin of the term “blowjob”? No one knows. A word-origin search shows that the derivation is “obscure.” One theory suggests that the term coms from “blowsy,” an archaic term for sex worker. Another ventures that it’s an extension of “blowing the flute” a centuries-old euphemism for fellatio. Who knows …but in antique porn, there it is: “Blow on it.”

Oral Sex Wanes, Then Waxes

By the early 1950s, cunnilingus all but disappears from American porn, and fellatio becomes infrequent. In one sequence from the early 1950s, a man and woman engage in enthusiastic intercourse. But the man wants oral, and pushes her head into his lap. She resists and jumps out of bed. For a moment, it looks like she’ll walk out. But no, she reaches for the bedside phone and dials. In the next scene, her girlfriend arrives, and happily gives the man what he wants.

By the late 1950s, “beatnick porn” filmed largely in bohemian quarters of New York City, showed more oral sex, but not until the 1960s did it become routine—with fellatio shown much more than cunnilingus because porn is all about male fantasy.

Body Fashions Evolve

While the sex in antique porn looks modern, the bodies don’t. Ideas about sexually attractive bodies have changed considerably since the Lumiere brothers. The actresses of a century ago were generally plump, small-to-medium breasted, and thick in the thighs and buttocks—like most women really are. And none shaved their pubic hair. The men were usually skinny with little discernible muscle definition—and normal-size penises.

After World War II, the bodies change. Post-War American porn actresses began aping movie stars: taller, leggier, thinner thighs and waists, and often, larger breasts. But none of the women shaved their pubes, and most of the men remained skinny into the 1970s when they, too, buffed up like body-builders—though they were selected not for the size of their biceps, but for something else. By the 1970s, the era of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones, a distinct porn body-type had emerged: svelte Ken-and-Barbie twenty-somethings, the women with huge breasts, the men with monster penises.

But since the millennium, as the digital revolution has drastically reduced the cost of making movies, porn has gone from a single standard body type to anything and everything. Visit any of the porn-sampling sites (e.g. lobstertube.com ), and the women’s ages range from “teens” (18 to 20) to “grannies” (50+), their weights from anorexic to obese, breast size from flat to enormous, pubic hair from natural to bald, with solo sex to orgies involving every imaginable setting with actors of every race and ethnicity.

Male Fantasy

Meanwhile, ever since the first couple had sex for the camera, one element of porn hasn’t changed at all—the male fantasy it depicts of sexual abundance without the complications of real relationships. There’s no conversation, no courting, and no tenderness, just genital sex that shows little, if any, regard for women’s erotic pleasure and satisfaction.

Personally, I believe in freedom of fantasy. If men enjoy masturbating to porn, it’s fine with me. I just wish men understood the difference between porn fantasies and real sex with real women. If you’re interested in my critique, check out The Real Problem With Porn—It’s Bad for Sex

Nonetheless, antique porn provides a window into men’s erotic fantasies over the past hundred years. It shows what our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers watched in very private, smoke-filled rooms in the backs of bars and men’s clubs when they were “out with the boys.”

 

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

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