The Ringing Correspondence Columns of Troy

In the summer of 1951, the city of Troy, New York, was riven by controversy – about spanking!

It began when a wife named Helen wrote in to the local newspaper, the Troy Record, to give her views on the subject, seemingly apropos of nothing. Her letter was published Monday, June 4, and it provoked a storm of sales-friendly debate in the correspondence columns. And though we may legitimately wonder whether some or all of it was an editorial fabrication, it is also worth pointing out that the whole thing died down a week or so before the start of the silly season in August.

‘Helen of Troy’, if it really was she and not a concoction of the paper’s editor, Dwight Marvin (1880-1972), had some firm opinions about modern young women and the ‘shock, horror’ they would typically express when a particular subject was mooted:

‘It’s amusing to listen to the reactions of some of the modern girls when any article, person or opinion holds forth they should be subjected to discipline.’

Many teenagers, and also ‘their older sisters’, needed to be spanked, she opined. She herself had decided at the time of her marriage to subject herself to some form of discipline, and opted for the hairbrush rather than a financial penalty:

‘I’ve never regretted it, despite the difficulty of sitting through a double feature sometimes. … I am a modern and attractive woman, but if my husband wasn’t able to put me across his knee and give me a sound spanking I’d think he was “chicken” or getting old.’

If this was just the editor trying to provoke a reaction, he certainly succeeded. At the end of the same week, on June 8, a letter was published from ‘Anne’ which insisted that men and women were equal and that husbands had no right to discipline wives, by spanking or any other means. Not that she had anything against a good spanking, if administered in the proper spirit:

‘I have never associated a friendly paddling with punishment. To me it’s been synonymous with sorority institutions. I’ve been spanked at my own birthday parties but only in the spirit of fun and good taste. Even today when my birthday rolls around I get over my husband’s knee to receive the customary number of spanks – the only joke is when he should stop.’

Stronger views were expressed by ‘Prudence’ the following day, June 9: she denounced ‘Helen of Troy’ as a traitor to her sex. But even so, she had to admit that she too was a spanked wife:

‘When I was first married my husband put me over his knee and spanked me in fun several times, but it stopped after his enthusiasm ruined several expensive items of clothing.’

Both these women were obviously and interestingly ambivalent about spanking: neither liked the idea of being the inferior partner in a power relationship, but both had been spanked and accepted it as an enjoyable part of life – even though in Prudence’s case the spanking must have been pretty hard and vigorous to have such a deleterious effect on her wardrobe!

But views polarized as the correspondence continued. Some writers were all in favor of a good marital spanking. ‘Veritas’ wrote on June 12:

‘As a happily married wife of seven years I can confess without regret or blushing that a gal hasn’t got a man unless he’s strong enough to put her over his knee and spank her in the manner to which she’s grown accustomed.’

And a week later on June 19, ‘Spankee’ wrote in to say that one in ten women did need spanking, and admitted:

‘I was spanked quite emphatically over hubby’s knee too many times the first years of my domestic life. I resented it at the time but know its wisdom today.’

And she admired her husband for it:

‘By putting me over his knee and spanking me like an errant girl he thrilled me with his forcefulness.’

But there were others who just didn’t want to be spanked, like ‘Esther’ (June 12):

‘I do not believe in draping myself over anyone’s knee and remaining patiently in one position while he or she wallops me. Yet this practice seems to be more widespread than I imagined. I’d have to like someone an awful lot to take that and like it from them.’

Likewise ‘Jennie’ (also June 12):

‘I am not as yet enjoying connubial bliss, but if a walloping goes with it, it’s not for me.’

Some objected to being infantilized, like a different ‘Helen’ from the one who started it all off (June 15):

‘I have always considered spanking childish and I think any wife who cannot remember and respect the fact that she is a wife doesn’t deserve the time or trouble it takes to give a spanking. I certainly wouldn’t think much of a man who would stoop to spanking a wife.’

And likewise ‘Up-to-Date’ (June 14) had definite views on equality in marriage:

‘Today when a man marries he prefers a dependable teammate by his side to an overgrown problem child across his parental knee.’

A more overtly emotional response came from ‘Duchess’ on June 16: she found the very idea ‘nauseating’.

‘The wives who think they need spankings may take a lesson from a girl I once knew who married a man she was sure would give her the physical sort of discipline she felt she needed. He did oblige for several years and spanked her frequently.’

But he eventually ‘became bored with that routine’, and the upshot was that she got battered on other parts of her anatomy, which is obviously not what anyone should want. But according to ‘Duchess’ it was what every spanked wife had to look forward to:

‘When you get too old and fat to look cute across hubby’s knee you might get more discipline than you bargained for.’

But nausea notwithstanding, there is still a revealing assumption there: by arguing that one thing leads to another, ‘Duchess’ implicitly draws a distinction between a ‘cute’ spanking and serious domestic violence, rather than seeing it as in itself a form of that violence. If there’s a spectrum of ‘normal’ behavior, then she latently accepts that spanking is on it, even as she argues that its long-term consequences are beyond the pale.

Other writers made this point explicitly by looking at the wider culture around them rather than just thinking about themselves and the experiences of women they knew. On June 25, ‘Rusty’ overtly disclaimed any personal knowledge to bring to bear on what she had found a ‘bewildering’ correspondence: she was ‘an early twenties girl who was never chastised’. But she still had some relevant experience, for she had seen a performance of Kiss Me Kate in New York:

‘I recall one scene wherein the heroine was without warning put over the leading man’s knee and spanked.’

‘I had never seen anyone spanked before, least of all a beautiful Broadway actress, and my reactions were primitive.’

In view of what she went on to say, she presumably meant she had never been physically present when someone was spanked, rather than that she had never, ever seen a spanking scene. But the context, performed live in an auditorium full of spectators, gave her a definite sense of where this sat in sophisticated American culture at large.

‘The theater is a reflection of everyday life and romance and were it crude and vulgar to spank then spanking would not be woven into the play to offend the theater patrons. And if it were unromantic or unbecoming the charming actress would not have submitted to it for so many shows.

‘Admittedly the scene was acting. It was nevertheless performed before an audience whose complacency I believe was confirmation of the normalcy of the deed. I’ve seen the same thing on television, in other plays and in movies. Therefore this professed outrage to dignity does not ring true to me.’

‘Rusty’ comes across as an intelligent young woman trying to make sense of an unfamiliar phenomenon. Four days later, on June 29, ‘Mrs M’, a recent arrival in Troy after her marriage two years earlier, seems smugly proud of her sophisticated metropolitan attitude, enhanced by experience on the burlesque stage. But she was no different from one wing of upstate opinion when it came to understanding the fundamental difference between punishment and flirtatious social interaction:

‘A woman does not need discipline, but a spanking is neither wife beating nor physical violence. In the case of these local objectors, the only injury is to their pride and swollen ego. I’ve seen some of the prettiest chorus girls and leading ladies spanked backstage on their birthday and everyone got into the act. It was and is nothing more unusual than a goodbye kiss among friends. A good trouper thought no more of it than if it were in their act on the stage.’

And what’s more, she liked being spanked by ‘Mr M’, because it showed he was still interested in her and not somebody else. And so:

‘The local girls are really naive if they fail to understand why it is the attractive ones are those who get spanked.’

Admittedly it is possible to pick holes in the contributions on the ‘pro-spanking’ side of the debate. Another correspondent, ‘Onora’ (June 18), also looked beyond her immediate social circle when considering the question of whether or not women should be ‘untouchable’, by drawing attention to the case of John Barrymore in My Dear Children a decade or so earlier:

‘In one scene he took Miss Barrie – who played his daughter – and rather forecefully flung her over his knee and proceeded to spank her with great vigor. That play ran quite a while and as long as it did Miss Barrie was spanked twice a day, six times a week.’

But it’s less certain whether ‘Onora’ also looked beyond her own predispositions, for she went on to talk about Elaine Barrie’s attitude to being soundly spanked by her husband:

‘In an interview in a Chicago paper a reporter touched on this delicate subject and her reply struck me as a classic. The gist of it was that it proved her husband was a real man and the forcefulness and realism during that one scene confirmed his virility and personal magnetism for her.’

And the problem with that is one of simple accuracy. In truth, Elaine Barrie so objected to her husband’s ‘forcefulness and realism’ that she walked out of the show before it reached Chicago, and only returned after it opened in New York. For the entire Chicago run, her role was played by Doris Dudley,

who was a professional and obviously wouldn’t have said any such thing about Barrymore in any interview she might have given to a paper in Chicago or anywhere else. So this wasn’t after all a piece of objective testimony from the world at large: ‘Onora’ must have imagined it, or misremembered it, or perhaps even made it up, and what she said had been said only served to confirm what she wanted to think in the first place.

And not everyone advocated spanking for reasons to do with masculinity or fun. ‘Mature’ (June 22), who reads like an irascible older man, professed himself amused by the indignation of women about the subject:

‘They parade in bikini bathing suits, in shorts, and think nothing of it. But to be spanked – perish the thought. The trouble with women is they want equality but no responsibility. The hairbrush is what they need. Nothing else seems to work.’

The correspondence rumbled on for nearly two months, coming to an end on July 25 when someone signing themselves ‘In Hope of Higher Standard’ wrote in to express contempt for the discussion:

‘No one but a crude savage of a husband would dare think of spanking his wife. Certainly any man who does it is no gentleman.’

What did it achieve, other than help to sell copies of the Troy Record? Some minds were clearly not for changing: ‘Not to Be’ (July 12) wrote that spanking was ‘old-fashioned nonsense’ and was worried that there weren’t any ‘red-blooded girls’ answering the ‘devotees of the hairbrush’ (having presumably missed the ones who did).

‘There is just one thing to say about these backward women. Maybe their husbands are trying to pound some sense into their brains and by spanking them show that they know their location.’

Sarcasm was also offered by ‘Paddlehappy’ (July 3) in a parody of the ‘pro-spanking’ letters:

‘Gaze upon me boys, I’m attractive (makeup helps me out on that); well groomed (I always keep a supply of safety pins handy); personable (I giggle a lot and know loads of jokes); intelligent (I went to school), and I draw loads of wolf whistles. My hubby loves me because he spanks me and I love it.

‘We have such fun. I’ve never been on the stage but all the actresses get spanked so I know I’m in the groove. Theater people lead such glamorous lives and are so wise. Everyone should pattern after them.

‘There is one other thing about me that is cute. You can look into my right ear and see clear through to my left one.’

But other minds were opened, just a little, like that of ‘Perplexed’ (July 2), who described herself as ‘a very bewildered young woman’. She used to think she knew it all, but she had become confused by the suggestion ‘that an adult woman should be spanked like an adolescent over someone’s knee’. She was amused by the first letter, amazed when others supported it, and had now grown unsure.

‘Why, in my present mental state, I might actually be talked into letting myself be spanked, without knowing if it was right or not.’

And she was even considering adding a hairbrush to her hope chest, labeled ‘Hers’.

And the feminine mind wasn’t the only thing to be affected (unless ‘Not to Be’ was right about the whereabouts of a spanked woman’s brains). ‘One Who Knows’ had Found Out, as she explained on June 18, as a result of a discussion with her husband occasioned by the letters. She told him that no girl should be treated like that; but then the next day she laughed at him because he was unable to repair a household implement.

‘With that I was dumped unawares over his knee and spanked quite efficiently for such an inexperienced person. I kicked and squirmed but I still got it good.’

Some were able to take a more detached view of it all, like ‘Bashful Beatrice’ on June 22. She found it all rather primitive (‘shades of darkest Africa and the jungles’), but recognized that the correspondence was ‘all in fun’ and was glad that at least some of those who got spanked liked it.

And we’ll give the last word, even if it wasn’t chronologically the last, to someone who doesn’t get scare quotes because he used his real name. Arnold Gunn was a regular correspondent to the paper in the early 1950s, and still alive in 1971. On June 30, he summed it all up sagely:

‘It seems that the boys and girls have arrived at the conclusion that if you like it, it is wonderful; if you don’t, it’s dreadful.’

And that gets right to the point of all this: the diversity of opinions honestly held about this subject around the middle of the last century. Spanking was contemptible or salutary, humiliating or great fun, and all shades of viewpoint in between. And that would still be the case even if some or most of the letters were editorial inventions: they still embody a range of thinkable, imaginable, expressible attitudes that could be published in a newspaper and taken seriously. Some of them are uncannily similar to the kind of citric outrage we still hear being expressed today. The pertinent question is: why is it nowadays so rare to hear alternatives to that?

There is a short postscript to the story. Later in the year, on December 19, ‘Sally’ wrote in to the Troy Record to advocate sterner discipline for young people: ‘I am a successful modern miss in the business world,’ she wrote, ‘but it’s only two years since I knew what it was to be spanked.’ If this was Dwight Marvin trying to reactivate a sure-fire debate topic on his letters page, and even if it really was a relatively-recently-spanked young businesswoman named Sally, nothing seems to have come of it.

Spanking a wife, it seems, was controversial, but spanking a naughty teen daughter?

Too commonplace for correspondence!

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