Given people’s perennial fascination with sex, it is no surprise that the production of erotic images is often one of the first uses of a new media. Nude photographs appeared as early as 1835, the year the Daguerreotype, the first form of photography, was developed. Likewise, the first pornographic films appeared almost immediately after the technology was developed in the 1890s.
In a sense, erotic photography and film can be considered the original pornography. While erotic art has existed virtually since humans could draw on a cave wall, there was no serious conception of pornography or obscenity until the mid 19th century. The English word “pornography,” literally meaning the depiction of prostitutes, first entered the language shortly after the invention of photography, and obscenity laws first entered the books in 1857. Though explicit literature had been circulating underground for over 100 years, it was rarely prosecuted before the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 made selling pornography a statutory offense.
The incendiary nature of early pornographic photos was due not to the ease with which the images could be distributed, but rather to their realism, which greatly exceeded that of other available media. In fact, until about 1860, photographs were extremely expensive to make and could only be reproduced by photographing the photograph, leading to a reduction in quality. Only photographers themselves and the very rich had access to the first erotic photographs, which cost much more than simply paying for a sexual encounter.
The earliest nude prints were purportedly for artists’ reference only, and in France, they required government approval before they could be sold. The first pornography was necessarily softcore and usually depicted a woman by herself, as the length of time it took to make a print made action shots impractical. The dirtiest pictures available at the time were of a woman exposing her genitals. Stereoscopic nudes, in which two images are used to create a three-dimensional one through optical illusion, were also popular in the 1850s.
As soon as the technology to make multiple copies of photographs from a negative emerged, the porn trade began in earnest. Sexually explicit photographs became cheaper and more plentiful, and were sold at specialty retailers or by street vendors. Most pornographic models in the 19th century were prostitutes, exotic dancers, burlesque actresses, or artists’ models. Pornographers were limited only by the limitations of the genre itself. When the technology allowed pictures to be taken more quickly, photographs of all sorts of couples and sexual acts soon followed.
One of the earliest forms of moving picture, the mutoscope, invented in 1894, was colloquially called the “What the Butler Saw” machine after a well-known pornographic film of the era depicting a woman in the action of undressing. As the mutoscope was a type of peep show machine, in which the film could be seen by only one person at a time through a small viewer, “What the Butler Saw” was intended to replicate the voyeuristic act of looking trough a keyhole. Mutoscopes were typically found in penny arcades, where each machine offered a different film that could be viewed for a penny. While “What the Butler Saw” was the most famous naughty offering, it was only one of many.
The advent of the sexually explicit film, first called a “stag film” or “blue film,” quickly followed the technology of projecting a film onto a screen for the enjoyment of multiple viewers. While the first pornographic films, such as those shown on mutoscope, usually depicted women undressing, more sexually explicit material was not far behind. Early stag films are typically a few minutes long, showing only one or two sexual encounters. They were often shown in the waiting rooms of brothels to get clients in the mood before they could be serviced, and perhaps to give them ideas as well. Actresses in such films were usually prostitutes, and often, everyone involved was anonymous, even going to the point of wearing costumes to obscure their identity.
Though many of the very early pornographic movies are tame by today’s standards, by the 1920s, some themes had become quite bizarre. It seems that, since all stag movies were underground anyway, there was nothing to stop people from making them as kinky as possible. Porn was also not as defined by subgenre as it is today, and sexuality was likewise not as compartmentalized. Scenarios including naughty monks and nuns, black masses, sexual slavery, corporal punishment, bisexual orgies, and even zoophilia can be found in some of the earliest blue movies. Vintage porn lacks the extreme close ups and sharp image quality available in today’s offerings, but is often astounding in the variety and nature of the acts it depicts.
Early pornographic film reels were also collected privately by people with the means to view them in their own homes. It is perhaps for this reason that many of the films have survived to the present day. Many stag films from the turn of the 20th century were also archived by the Kinsey Institute.
19th Century Nude: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/72/19th_century_nude.jpg
Chair Pose: http://victoriporn.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/yoga-edwardian-porn.jpg
Girl En Deshabillé:http://intellismut.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/deltaofvenuscom-02.jpg
Victorian Trio: http://postcards.ameanet.org/ecard_images/img_xxx004.jpg
Victorian Orgy: http://www.zilledefeu.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/victorian_couples.jpg