Bicycles, typewriters, and sex!?!? Cultures of the Erotic in early 20th Century Spain

Among the many articles and books I consulted for my last article on La Venus mecánica, Maite Zubiaurre’s Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939 (from Vanderbilt UP, 2012) was by far my favorite. Not only does Prof. Zubiaurre‘s monograph recover and examine popular Spanish erotica from the turn of the twentieth century, but it contains over 300 color illustrations – postcards, magazine covers, advertisements, photography, etc. She focuses her analysis on popular erotica and pseudoscientific essays in order to better understand how these marginalized discourses dialogue with the more sanctioned, authoritative voices of Spanish literature and culture as we understand them today. Specifically, Zubiaurre argues that the erotic cultures of 20th century Spain inevitably lead us to re-examine the works of “enshrined male figures” like philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset and physician/essayist Gregorio Marañón (I’ve written about Marañón’s “defense” of conscious maternity here). In doing so, Zubiaurre discovers that these well-known figures also had a great deal to say regarding sexuality and eroticism, but that “their work on these topics has been largely ignored in the canonical studies of their ideas” (2). By juxtaposing canonical works on love and sexuality with popular erotic culture, Zubiaurre’s Cultures of the Erotic illustrates that, even as they struggled to react against this “vulgar” trend, many respected intellectuals could not entirely escape its influence (2-3).

Maite Zubiaurre’s investigation of popular erotica and sexual pseudoscience reveals a “Third Spain” that challenges the traditional liberal/conservative dichotomy.

The book also makes a compelling argument for the recognition of an “Other”, third Spain that “cuts a different cross section through the dualist historiographies… [that] cuts across class and gender, and bridges the divide between high and low culture” (1) . As Zubiaurre notes, it is precisely Spanish erotica that points to the breakdown of these dualist historiographies: “So-called liberal Spain was often as staunchly conservative and ‘un-European’ in its attitudes towards sexual matters as were its political opposition. Conversely, ‘conservative Spain’ showed itself to be far more sexually open and sophisticated than is usually acknowledged” (1). Thus Cultures of the Erotic points to larger themes, such as history and politics, which often informed the subtle subtexts that surfaced in visual and literary depictions of sexuality and eroticism.  She employs the Spanish word “sicalipsis” (which may suggest the erotic, burlesque, or even pornographic) to refer to the sudden proliferation of erotica and accompanying erotic liberation at the end of the 19th century. According to the Wunderkammer homepage(which I’ll discuss below), Zubiaurre draws heavily on Javier Rioyo’s interpretation of sicalipsis as an erotic invasion: “I use the term… to highlight the explosion of erotic artifacts and discourses on sexuality that infused Spanish popular culture during the Silver Age when Spain had a fully stocked erotic Wunderkammer that included a wide variety of erotic artifacts, ranging from hilarious indecency to the more somber aspects of sexuality”. You can read a few excellent academic book reviews at Literal Magazine and Taylor and Francis Online.

In reading over these reviews, I discovered the absolutely amazing companion website: “A Virtual Wunderkammer. Early Twentieth Century Erotica in Spain”.  I’ve bookmarked it; it’s phenomenal. Regardless of you research interests, discipline, or even profession, you have to check it out! There are so many fantastic free resources: a 28-page Image Gallery (much of which is NSFW) that appears to contain the majority of the images included in the printed book; samples of Spanish erotic magazines and short novels (novelettes) from the early 20th century;  nudist literature; and essays on genetics, eugenics, and sexual education published in 1920s-30s Spanish journals. The essays are open-access and may be downloaded as PDFs. I was able, for example, to obtain a copy of “Maternidad Consciente” [“Conscious Maternity”], written by the ill-fated Hildegart Rodriguez (whom I’ve written about previously in my post on the short film The Red Virgin). I’m currently torn – I have several projects to work on this summer, including a conference in just two weeks – but now I want to delve into erotic literature and eugenics essays!
In my reading of the book, I especially enjoyed the chapter on technology and the machine – “machine” in this sense is not necessarily what you might think. The most popular 20th century “machines” that appeared in Spanish erotica were in fact the bicycle and the typewriter. Apparently, women on bicycles and young girls using typewriters (often typing with only one finger) were the epitome of naughty eroticism. With Freud’s writings on sexuality and masturbation fresh in the minds of many well-read Spaniards, the double-meaning inherent in such representations would not have been lost on contemporary audiences. Here are a few “scandalous” women on bicycles, followed by coy Lolitas “playing” with the “buttons” of their “typewriters” (can you follow those euphemisms?!?). Be sure to read the captions, if I’ve placed them.

Image from 1903

“Maternity and the Bicycle” — Apparently, this couple’s bicycle became damaged and the woman goes off with the mechanic to fix it. Her partner takes a nap and awaits their return. His wife returns with the young man and is “very happy” – 9 months later, she has a child!

This caption uses an erotic and suggestive play on the word “conejo” (rabbit), a popular double entendre – “A difficult trip and a rabbit in trouble”

Moving on to the “typewriters”:

“Very Particular Correspondence” — “Today my machine is working very well! I will be able to answer the 13 or 14 that have solicited me!”

“The Good Boss” – ‘What have you written today? Well… that’s enough. Later you’ll have “extraordinary hours”.

Finally, in closing, here are a few more of my favorite images. Many are the covers of Alvaro Retana‘s short novels, which are often cited as examples of early Spanish homosexual literature for their portrayals of travestism, same-sex relationships, and ambiguously gendered characters.

Cover: Alvaro Retana's erotic novelette, "Fuego de Lesbos" (1921)

Cover: Alvaro Retana’s erotic novelette, “Fuego de Lesbos” (1921)

Alvaro Retana’s “pathological novel” entitled “The seeker of pleasures” (or, self-indulgences; carnal desires).

“The ambiguous ones”, a 1922 novel by Alvaro Retana

This last one I love for the title, “Más hombre que cura,”  or “More Man than Priest. Page 10 of the gallery also includes a novel titled “El hijo del cura,” or “The Son of the Priest,” and throughout Zubiaurre’s book and the online Image Gallery you can see that the sexuality of priests and nuns was a quite scandalous yet recurring theme in popular erotica.

Are you familiar with early 20th century erotica in other countries – US, France, or England, for example?  Are any of the same images or representations employed? How do they compare in “subtlety” and directness?


Zubiaurre, Maite. Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939. Nashville: Vanderbilt U P, 2012.

Zubiaurre, Maite. A Virtual Wunderkammer. Early Twentieth Century Erotica in Spain. Companion site with image gallery and PDFs of Spanish essays from the 1920s-30s:

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
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6 Responses to Bicycles, typewriters, and sex!?!? Cultures of the Erotic in early 20th Century Spain

  1. ensondeluz says:

    ¡Un trabajo magnífico, Rebecca!

    Tu blog no cesa de abrir filones en la sociedad y el imaginario de la España de mis padres y abuelos. La cuestión del eugenismo ha periclitado así como el uso racista que se hizo de esa pseudociencia, la de la “crianza” cambió de sentido pero sigue siendo materia de debate incluso hoy. Hay alguna guía reciente al respecto.

    Sobre bicicletas y prejuicios machistas, te incluyo un enlace a un pequeño cuento que escribí en mi blog hace tiempo:

    Gracias por tu artículo que circularé.

    Un cordial saludo


    • rebeccambs says:

      Gracias por comentar, Ramon. ¡Y que lindo el cuento que escribiste! Me gusta mucho la ideas de “asesinar” a una bicicleta, ¡jaja! 🙂 Tienes razon en cuanto a la cuestion del eugenismo – me fascinan las lecturas y los ensayos de principios del siglo que utilizan tal concepto con fines distintos (y a veces cuestionables).

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