My research for my historical novel continues and, to my delight, so do the discoveries of past erotic treasures. This month, I want to pay tribute to "eight-pagers," pornographic comics that were small and thin enough to tuck in a man's wallet. Eight-pagers were most popular in the 1920s and 1930s and were sold under the counter for 25 cents in barrooms, bowling alleys, tobacco shops, barber shops and burlesque houses--more or less the same places that sold condoms on the sly. The quality and quantity diminished during WWII due to paper rationing. Later known as "Tijuana bibles," due to a rumor they were smuggled over the Mexican border, these pocket porn comics were fated to be displaced in the post-war period by men's magazines like Playboy.
Thanks to the Internet and faithful collectors, we do not need to jump in our time machines and hurry over to the tobacco shop in male drag, quarters jangling in our pockets, to get a glimpse at the sexual fantasies men consumed nearly a century ago. An impressive collection of eight-pagers can be found at tijuanabibles.org, but the quality of the scans is not optimal. A more readable, if limited, selection is available at www.tijuana-bibles.com.
Be forewarned that eight-pagers reflect the racism and anti-Semitism of their time. "A Sailor Finds Out If It's True About Chinese Girls" being a sterling example of the former--although I have read articles by contemporary Asian American women who sadly affirm that jokes about the orientation of their genitals are still heard today. Certainly the portrayal of female sexuality in the pornographic context has changed little in ninety years. "The Real Silk Hosiery Salesman" by one of the best eight-pager illustrators, Mr. Prolific, is the one I'd recommend for a not-too-distasteful dip into the sensibility of the eight-pager.
Granted this particular comic is richer in story than most of them. We get three full pages of build-up before the signature over-sized erection appears. And at least the two ladies are given a half-believable motive for seducing the traveling salesman--a fairly common character who inevitably encounters bored housewives interested in more than a Fuller brush. Even more popular were comic characters such as Blondie and Dagwood and Dick Tracy. No doubt it gave viewers an extra frisson of pleasure to see familiar wife-next-door Blondie engage in illicit sexual acts with the plumber.
Although my research has already shown me in abundance that people in the past engaged in and enjoyed sex (see "When Sex Was Invented" for more evidence), I was still a wee bit surprised at how easily the couples turned to oral sex of all varieties and at least mention of anal sex, usually in a protest from the woman that the man is trying the wrong hole. Aren't these "advanced" acts now so prevalent in our pornography signs of modern degeneration, whereas our grandparents certainly only did it missionary style in the dark, with no pleasure for the woman ever? Not so in eight-pagers, whether a lot of the fun is wishful thinking or not. Women do have orgasms and always come around to enjoy it. Perhaps it is the huge Japanese shunga-style erections that do the trick (I do wonder if the eight-pager artists were influenced by Japanese erotic comics). Only poor Jimmy Durante has to make up for the more ordinary scale of his member with his generously proportioned nose in one of the few examples I read that dealt with sexual shame.
Although erotic images of all sorts are now available easily and in an abundance unimaginable to the men of the 1920s who first gazed on these little booklets, they do remind us that sexual curiosity and the erotic spirit have always been part of the human experience, no matter how much the authorities try to suppress them. As erotic writers, we are part of that grand tradition. We can add our voices and our vision, our fantasies and our desires so that perhaps, ninety years in the future, we can reach across time and show our descendants how much has changed but how much more is really just the same.