By Pickup Culture
The art, and science, of pickup is as old as, well … many a good simile. The art of pickup affects us all in some way or another; either through stories shared amongst chatty college girls, or boys bragging about their success on the weekends; it culminates in greater narratives of how wives met their husbands, your father asking your mother out to that local darts match back in the early 1970s, as my own father fondly likes to recall.
Sexual seduction is all around us, yet despite its cultural importance, historians care very little for it. Jack Hanley’s 1937 Let’s Make Mary makes this very point when he writes:
All history is interwoven with stories of seduction. Historians, however, are much too meagre with details, which may be one reason why history is an unpopular subject with our youth. This thought is offered to our educators. We learn that Soandso went to Whatsisname’s tent or palace or whatever and they did Thusandso, this saving the day, or winning the war or stuff. But how? Why? By what method?
Academics are even worse, with only the French philosopher Baudrillard taking the subject seriously. Before disappearing into the historical void that we know as postmodern theory, he was cited as the inspiration for The Red Pill concept in The Matrix.
The idea that modern society is more a Simulacra than reality implies that we should not take anything at face value, including Hollywood Rom Coms or corporatist feminist media campaigns. Pickup Artists have known these truths for a long time, and their ability to cut through public façade and political correctness should give them an important place in our understanding of history.
Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) – The Master of Touch
Ovid’s Ars Amatoria was written way back in 2AD, and its explanation of the seduction process in book one gives it the reputation of being the first recorded pickup guide. The second volume looks more at seduction in the relationship, whilst the final book focuses on the woman’s side of things – and how to keep her man happy in marriage. Like most latter day pickup advice books (though not all), there are suggestions on how to set up a date, what to say, and where to go. The best suggestions for locations are the chariot races, the theater and, yes, even the circus. Choosing the right seat, in the most spacious part of the amphitheater is important; but so too is the conversation:
Enquire whose chariot this, and whose that horse?
To whatsoever side she is inclin’d,
Suit all her inclinations to her mind;
Like what she likes, from thence your court begin.
Not big on pickup lines per se, Ovid often emphasised the importance of physical proximity in the courtship process. Whilst the conversation was meant to be polite and cordial, nothing could happen if you didn’t sit ‘Close as ye can to hers-and side by side’. From here the more mundane methods for physical seduction could be pursued:
If dust be on her lap, or grains of sand,
Brush both away with your officious hand.
If none there be, yet brush that nothing thence,
And still to touch her lap make some pretence.
Ovid was a master of what today’s pickup artists call ‘kino’, or techniques of kinaesthetics – the art of touch. Finding an excuse to brush the dust off her dress might seem a little lame when written this way, but it’s the intention behind the action which is important:
Touch any thing of hers, and if her train
Sweep on the ground, let it not sweep in vain;
But gently take it up and wipe it clean;
And while you wipe it, with observing eyes,
Who knows but you may see her naked thighs!
It’s always best to be a true gentleman in these situations, remembering to treat her with the utmost dignity. Advice about the personal hygiene should be headed too, as it’s never a good idea to date a woman smelling like a farm animal. Other dating suggestions are more enduring, such as ‘not asking about her age’; and ‘letting her miss you – but not for long’.
Confidential Chats with Husbands (1922) – Mr Lay’s seduction advice
Economic prosperity – however brief during the 1920s – created a brief consumer economy, based on spending which expanded new opportunities for dating. Publications like Readers Digest (1922), Time (1923) and the New Yorker (1923) rapidly established themselves as general interest magazines, focusing on issues such as politics, science, lifestyle and culture. But it was the Little Blue Book series which combined its interest in these subjects, with frank and open advice about sexuality that helped them corner the market on the topic of seduction.
There were no pickup books as such, rather advice focused on the seduction process within marriage. Wilfred Lay’s (perhaps the coolest pseudonym for a relationship expert) Confidential Chats with Husbands (1925) is an excellent example of this genre, advising husbands on how to make their wives happy – both inside and outside the bedroom. Many feminist accounts of 1920s draw attention to sexology’s interest in ‘frigidity’ as ‘the dominant way that women’s disinterest in coitus was understood’, but popular writers like Lay show that the ‘problem’ of frigidity was more about educating men about female needs and desires.
A precursor to today’s seduction books for single men, Confidential Chats with Husbands outlines seven steps a man needs to observe to escalate with his wife. Noting the need for self-control at the beginning, the first two steps highlight the importance of observation – paying attention to the woman’s feelings, through her words and actions, before and after the love ritual. Step number 5 entails an active, and sensitive responsive to these feelings: ‘He should continue to caress her with his hands and listen… He needs only to let her know that he is awake, and is with her, and avid to know that she can tell him of her soul’. Moving towards the passionate phase of the encounter, the next step assumes that the man is artful in his lovemaking, advising that he pay attention to whether or not the woman:
… has her eyes open or closed, whether she opens her mouth, whether, in this ecstasy of erotic feeling, she pants or stiffens or moves convulsively, as the spirit of love descends upon her, whether she loses consciousness, or for a moment seems even to lose her mind.
At this point Lay makes it clear that ‘most husbands have not observed these phenomena, because their love ritual has not caused them in her’.
These are skills the man needs to learn, yet are seldom considered by most men due to an excessive interest in their own pleasure. ‘Autoeroticism’ interferes with the masculine desire, and diminishes the man’s virility in pleasing the woman’s taboo desires – in short, it makes the man more like a woman, focusing his energies on himself, rather than his wife’s more responsive body.
A useful book that highlights just how rare sexual enlightenment is in modern society, not just in men but in women too. Encouraging men to be responsive to their woman’s desires sounds like a very feminist idea, in a book which has never been embraced by actual so-called feminists.
Let’s Make Mary (1937)
Jack Hanley’s book Let’s Make Mary (1937) is often considered the first book about ‘game’, and the art of pickup. From the opening pages, he reminds the aspiring pickup artist that seduction is a two-way process, and so husbands also need to be mindful when leaving their wives at home when the traveling sales man pays a visit!
Let’s Make Mary is a parody of the times, as much as it is an actual guide to picking up girls. His description of the approach phase clearly illustrates the ‘inner’ barriers that get in the way of meeting a fine woman, the psychological hurdles reinforced by social constraints of the era. Just to underlie the ridiculous simplicity of ‘acting naturally’ when approaching a woman, he sends up the state of apprehension most men tend to feel:
Assuming that Mary is some twenty feet distant from you, you face directly towards her, lift the left food from the ground, swing it forward and place it down firmly in front of the right. Shift the weight to the left foot and repeat, swinging the right foot forward and placing it down firmly before the left. After a little practice you will be able to carry on this action continuously, with alternate feet. It is a process of locomotion, known as ‘walking,’ and if practiced correctly, will bring you in close proximity to Mary.
Other approaches include using roller skates, crawling on hands and knees, and the most elaborate of all – approaching on a stretcher. Not only does this approach involve having a stretcher (well, duh), but also the assistance of two helpers: stretcher bearers who, for some reason, need to be Chinese.
The logistics of kino and escalation are discussed – how to get Mary to sit beside you, or standing up seamlessly without drawing attention to your injury. It’s unlikely anyone would try such an outlandish approach, given that the reply involved warning her of a pack of charging Elephants descending upon you; but the creative nature of the advice illustrates a need to be interesting, engaging and confident – no matter how crazy your approach might be.
For such a conservative era, it was a book that criticized many social taboos and contrivances of the day. Etiquette around alcohol; what to do when you take a dull girl out (or when you become the dull one on the date); dating the politically-motivated ‘Emancipated Woman; and being caught having an affair by your mistress’s husband; are all topics that this book explores … with a lot of surreal solutions.
The despised art remembered…
A cursory internet search for any of these texts will uncover a range of derisory views about these books, and very few criticisms provide any reference to the actual texts. Ovid’s work has been the target of much academic feminist criticism which bemoans the suppression of female voice – well, that does make sense, given that it’s a guide written for men on how to pick up women! Jack Hanley’s book is described as sleazy on a website called ‘Awful Library Books’, though the blogger can’t decide if it’s a ‘hilarious attempt at dating advice or semi-serious’.
Virtually nothing has been written about Wilfred Lay’s fantastic and creative book, which says a lot about how we choose to think about seduction in the time of our grandparents’ (and for some of us great-grandparents’) time. In part two of the history of pickup, I’ll follow the trajectory of the art through the nineteen-forties up to the swinging sixties. Despite the crippling effects of the war, the very first gentleman’s guide to pickup emerged in that era – a book complete with lifestyle tips, advice about etiquette and knowing your way about town.