Originally posted by Chris Cuilla
Care to at least cite a source on this?
I hadn't wanted to do this, but I'll bite. Here's my song and dance on the evolution of the notion of private.
First, the bit from the OED that you quoted is significant, since once you get past the Latin definitions at the beginning, you wind up with a bunch of stuff about the distinction between "common" folks and gentry. Hence
Grew popular 17c. as a preferred alternative to the snobbish overtones in common. Meaning "not open to the public" is from 1398.
Then we get a bunch of stuff about the relationship between the individual and the state: government and military officers.
Now, beginning 10 years after the Am Rev kicks off, we get the first inkling of a modern notion of "privacy" in
Private parts "the pudenda" is from 1785.
This makes a great deal of sense that "parts" of the body would become "private" (that is, objects not open to public consumption (no pun intended) or display. This usage probably existed a little before then, but I'd be surprised it was much before about 1750. The idea that the body needs to be covered at all times and that sex, the sex-act and sex-organs are inappropriate for public display is telling here. As William Manchester notes in A World Lit Only By Fire
, for a long stretch of European history (up until probably 1200 [I'm guestimating; I don't have it on me]), peasants would have gone naked in the summers and wouldn't have had a last name.
Over the course of the 18th century, there were a number of "purity" movements (roughly analogous to modern movements) that attempted to cut down on public displays of vice. Edward Bristow has composed the seminal work on the subject; see especially his sadly out of print Vice and Vigilance
. Bristow reprints a good many records of these purity movements, and at one point a vigilance group is ecstatic over having gotten fornication in public down to a bare minimum.
Around the same time, Boswell's London Journal
records a number of public trysts with prostitutes—most famously his having had sex with a woman on (I believe) Westminster Bridge in London (again, I don't have it on me, but I think this is right).
These purity movements are, essentially, the first steps in moving certain activities into the home—and effectively an attempt to distinguish between what is private and what is not.
This is, of course, all about "respectable" culture. The poor were still fucking anywhere they pleased. I'll get to that in a minute.
By the latter part of the 18th century, when America revolts and France comes in our our side, most of the southern half of England is turned into an armed camp. Once the American Revolution morphs into a full-fledged war with France/Napoleon, issues of privacy and the home and sedition and private speech become significant matters in England. For instance, Jane Austen writes a number of characters who take it upon themselves to be on the lookout for potentially seditious behavior (again, roughly analogous to the right-wing blogs of today).
One thread running through all of this (from about 1740) is that there is an increasing interest in and valuation of the individual—and specifically, the "regular" joe. It's no coincidence that the history of the novel in England, and of English poetry after the death of Pope in 1744, is deeply concerned with regular folks—Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Clarissa, Tom Jones, etc. Sure, these tend to be middling or gentry classes, but they're not Greek or Roman heroes. By the time Wordsworth writes the preface to Lyrical Ballads
in 1798, he is interested in the self, the individual, and the language and lives of common men.
Whew. OK. While that bit about poetry may have seemed like a tangent, it's not. Here's how it connects.
During and after the war with France, England had enacted a series of protective measures, first to protect agribusiness (the Corn Laws) and then later to ensure that the agrubusiness got as much money as it could (like the Bush admin). There were poor people starving left and right. There were revolts. On top of this, there were crop failures, economic collapses, and cholera and typhus outbreaks.
What's this got to do with privacy?
Well, by the 1830s, folks began to agitate for enfranchisement—that is, regular folks began to demand a say in the shape of their government. That is, regular folks demanded to determine for themselves their relationship to their government. Prior to this, they had no say and largely didn't care, since it was simply accepted that the King was the King and the aristocrats were the aristocrats. But now, suddenly, we've got the idea of a limited class mobility. Now, all of a sudden, we've got the idea that individuals can be self-determining. We can thank the Am Rev and French Revs for this, largely.
So in 1832, the first of several "Reform Bills" made their way through parliament, effectively turning England into a democracy (the first, I believe, granted the vote to any man owning £10 worth of property).
The poor were still screwed. And screwing. A lot.
Now roll all of this business about self-determination and government and vice into a big ball, and you get another wave of anti-vice movements in the 1820s and 30s running all the way through 1885. For the most part, they go in and bust up brothels and casinos and whatnot and they're mostly tied to an evangelical revival at mid-century.
One of the things that happens from about 1840 to 1860 (see Engels's Condition of the Working Classes
and then Mayhew's London Labout and the London Poor
and then all of Dickens [especially Hard Times
] and Dombey and Son
and Oliver Twist) is that increasing attention begins to be paid to the poor.
And we're back to privates.
See, one of the things that Engels describes is how the poor live
. Ten or 12 to as room. Parents having sex next to the kids. People defecating out the window.
Hell, in discussing mining work, Engels describes how the women would go topless as they pulled the coal carts up the tracks.
So there's a massive push to instill in the poor this notion of privacy and "modesty." It works, mostly, but we can still see the remnants of it today in all the web pages about trailer-trash and redneck culture, which is really no different than making fun of them for not subscribing to the same set of class-bound definitions of private, public, proper, and modest that others do.
But the idea that there's oddness with the definition of privacy really rears its head in 1864. There's a massive outbreak of syphillis in the port cities, and the "wrens" (roving bands of prostitutes) were all infected and passing it on to other sailors. The government's response, which is odd considering the English parliament was pretty laissez-faire, was to pass the Contagious Diseases Acts. These CD Acts authorized and member of the constabulary to order any woman suspected of being infected to submit to compulsory inspection of her genitals
The fight to repeal them lasted 20 years.
So...you still think that a government that passes a law forcing any
woman to be forcefully inspected (often doing damage in the process, as the inspectors were not always doctors) has the same idea of privacy that we do?
The movement to repeal it would suggest that that definition was changing—rapidly.