Posted on August 3, 2011 by


While I was researching my book on salacious historical secrets, The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, I started off in an unlikely corner of London…

The venerable BM

The British Museum is one of the most respectable institutions in the UK, filled as it is with famed archaeological exhibits such as the Elgin Marbles.  But back in the Victorian era, discerning travelers knew that it also boasted a special underground room called the Secretum, which hid the world’s largest cache of historical erotica.  The dingy chamber could only be visited by special arrangement – and thus, of course, became extremely popular.

Many of the Secretum treasures were returned to public view in the more permissive 1960s, and since then, their dispersal has been a mirror of the West’s liberalization.  (Look carefully in the Greco-Roman halls for vases with some graphic sexual images amongst the staid exhibits).

But hidden deep in storage are some fascinating leftovers from the old cache that have not made it out to the museum floors.  There are ancient Roman phallic rings and a volume of classic of Renaissance pornography called “The Sixteen Postures.”  (Perhaps curators couldn’t choose their favorite page).

One of the "Sixteen Positions"

And slumbering in one drawer, delicately cushioned, are four 18th century condoms, hand-crafted from animal membranes.  These were discovered by a shocked librarian inside the pages of a 1783 British self-help book, The Guide to Health, Beauty, Riches and Honour, and hidden from sight in the Secretum.  Today, they seem more like works of art.  They are intentionally pretty, tied at the open end by little pink ribbons of silk – more appealing, if not more practical, than those of today…

Casanova plays with a condom -- regarded as dubious inventions, they were derided for "offering little protection against anything but pleasure."