Photo Bits

Photo Bits

In Brief

Unlike the suggestively named but clean Tit-Bits (another penny weekly), the London-produced Photo Bits was, by Edwardian standards, a softcore pornography publication. It offered "Thirty-Two Pages of Pictures," many of them prurient but presented in a consistently lighthearted way. It was the first magazine in the UK to offer pin-up photos, which is how Bloom obtained "The Bath of the Nymph over the bed. Given away with the Easter number of Photo Bits." The magazine was published from July 1898 to December 1914 and supplied Joyce with many different kinds of subject matter.

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Photo Bits featured short stories and bits of comic whimsy (as did Tit-Bits), photographs of attractive women (invariably clothed, but with glimpses of underclothes and skin), and drawings and paintings depicting naked or partially naked women. The first three images here are taken from a 19 September 2015 weblog page by Anthony Quinn ( that displays several pages from a 1902 issue of the magazine. The captions under the first two give a sense of its erotic spirit––urgent, but comically light and constrained by contemporary mores of marriage and public display. Below the cover image of a man kissing a very compliant woman, there is some text beneath the title "LOVE'S ANXIETY." She says, "Kiss me again." He protests, "My dear, I’ve just kissed you seventeen times in seventeen seconds." She replies, "(reproachfully)––Harold, you love another!"

Thus assured that female desire is fully as pressing as their own, male readers could feast their eyes on a pin-up page displaying two fully clothed but unmistakably inviting women gazing out at them. The text below the reclining one, titled "SWEETS ON A SHELF," teasingly notes, "which any well-endowed viscount (K of K not excepted) can enjoy with the assistance of a wedding-ring and a brief but dignified ceremony at St George’s, Hanover Square." (Quinn notes, "Quite why K of K––Lord Kitchener of Khartoum––is referred to is unclear.") The lower image shows an attractive woman scandalously and quite happily kicking up a leg to reveal the frilly undergarments beneath her high-hemmed beachgoing dress. Under the title "ON BLACKPOOL'S SANDY BEACH," the text reads, "A delightful memory of a week at the delightful Lancashire watering-place."

Like the more daring photos and cartoons in Playboy in the 1960s, these images invite the reader to imagine the adventures that certain luckier men––most likely aristocrats––are enjoying. In Penelope Molly appears to express an impatience similar to what a wife in the 60s would have felt if her husband had left copies of Playboy lying around: "Im glad I burned the half of those old Freemans and Photo Bits leaving things like that lying about hes getting very careless."

Some pages of the magazine were also crowded with a mongrel mix of ads. They were directed at both genders, but men appear to have been the primary target. In addition to more photographs, and some printed texts, the ads promised relief from ailments, augmentation of physical attributes, and satisfaction of sexual fantasies. Gifford gives some examples: "everything from 'Aristotle's Works' to 'Flagellations and Flagellants,' 'Rare Books and Curious Photographs,' 'Rose's Famous Female Mixture...will Positively Remove the most Obstinate Obstructions,' 'Bile Beans For Biliousness,' and innnumerable books and pills that promised 'Manhood Restored.'" The page reproduced on Quinn's webpage offers, among other things, treatments for hernias and hemorrhoids, diet pills, products for improving the appearance of moustaches and beards, cures for flatulence and alcoholism, racy photographs from Paris, stereoscope pictures, advice on how to win a woman, advice for wives, and advice on how men can avoid "weaknesses" and "premature decline."

These ads take center stage in Circe when the Nymph first accosts Bloom: "Mortal! You found me in evil company... I was surrounded by the stale smut of clubmen, stories to disturb callow youth, ads for transparencies, truedup dice and bustpads, proprietary articles and why wear a truss with testimonial from ruptured gentleman. Useful hints to the married.... Rubber goods. Neverrip brand as supplied to the aristocracy. Corsets for men. I cure fits or money refunded. Unsolicited testimonials for Professor Waldmann's wonderful chest exuber. My bust developed four inches in three weeks, reports Mrs Gus Rublin with photo." Bloom timidly asks, "You mean Photo Bits?" The Nymph replies, "I do."

In the early 1990s Tess Marsh examined every issue of Photo Bits stored on microfiche in the British Library and published an article on the magazine's presence in Ulysses. She notes that, in addition to the ads, the Nymph mentions "highkickers, coster picnicmakers, pugilists, popular generals, immoral panto boys in fleshtights and the nifty shimmy dancers, La Aurora and Karini, musical act, the hit of the century." At least some of these details reflect images commonly displayed in the magazine. "On page after page," Marsh observes, "readers are presented with pictures of frilly-skirted highkickers, knickers on view, jokes about high kicks, and instructions on how to achieve the greatest agility. There are pictures, too, of girls wading, skirts held up high, and some on swings revealing underwear. The frilly-skirted highkickers and their audience are vividly evoked in Nausicaa" (884).

The photographs of "highkickers," and men's masturbatory responses to them, are replicated on the Sandymount beach: "His hands and face were working and a tremour went over her. She leaned back far to look up where the fireworks were and she caught her knee in her hands so as not to fall back looking up and there was no-one to see only him and her when she revealed all her graceful beautifully shaped legs like that, supply soft and delicately rounded, and she seemed to hear the panting of his heart, his hoarse breathing, because she knew about the passion of men like that, hotblooded, because Bertha Supple told her once in dead secret and made her swear she'd never about the gentleman lodger that was staying with them out of the Congested Districts Board that had pictures cut out of papers of those skirtdancers and highkickers and she said he used to do something not very nice that you could imagine sometimes in the bed."

Photo Bits probably contributed also to the scenes in Circe in which several women (notably Molly, Mrs. Mervyn Talboys, and Bella Cohen) wear male clothes, raising issues of cross-dressing, transsexuality, and female domination. Marsh remarks, "Not only are there innumerable pictures of famous leggy panto boys of the period, but the daring practice of cross-dressing is presented in many photographs of the models who were pushing forward the bounds of convention at the turn of the century. The cover picture of an early number, 17 September 1898, is one of several examples of a handsome woman in men's attire. She poses in a male stance, legs wide apart, left hand raised towards her face holding a cigarette. She wears a jaunty hat, a fitted coat with exaggeratedly large shoulders, knickerbockers, and boots. The caption is 'A Bit Strong'" (888).

Starting in mid-1909 the magazine went further, depicting strong cruel women dominating puny timid men. On the cover of the 13 May 1911 issue, Marsh notes, "a large woman is seen beating a man with a slipper," and the caption jokes about "Those Dear, Athletic, Strenuous Wives!" (888). Bloom's subservience to Molly, and his fantasized subjection to the whoremistress Bella, clearly fall within the scope of this cultural preoccupation. In these years Photo Bits was moving closer to the hard-core themes of Bits of Fun, a magazine with which it eventually merged. "In the latter publication," Marsh observes, "extremes of sadomasochism were presented in lurid special features such as ‘Fads and Fancies,' 'Confidential Correspondence,' and 'Torture in all Ages,' and the paper came under fire repeatedly from the censors, as we know from Joyce's letters to Budgen" (891).

Marsh remarks that "the appeal to depraved tastes" in Bits of Fun spoke to "a different kind of reader from those who, like Leopold Bloom, subscribed to Photo Bits in 1904, where the emphasis was on naughtiness and saucy humor to be enjoyed within the bounds of 'good taste'" (891). It is true that Bloom's daylight thoughts never venture into such dark corners, but the sadomasochistic fantasies that surface from his unconscious mind in the whorehouse suggest that Joyce may well have been paying attention to the stronger themes emerging in the popular pornography of the 1910s. Circe unquestionably explores the realm of "depraved tastes."

Marsh points to still other motifs in Ulysses that may have been inspired by Photo Bits: music hall artistes and songs, seaside girls, affectations of classical Greek style, interest in what the upper classes are doing, tableaux vivants (quasi-theatrical staged scenes), Milly's association with photography. Joyce could have been (and no doubt was) exposed to these things through other channels, but collectively they suggest how important Photo Bits was to him as he wrote his great novel.

John Hunt 2023

The cover of the 18 October 1902 issue of Photo Bits.

Pin-up center spread from the same issue of Photo Bits.

Page of ads from the same issue of Photo Bits.

Photograph of a "highkicker" in the 10 January 1903 issue of Photo Bits.
Source: Tess Marsh, JJQ 30/31 (1993).

Image of a cross-dressing woman in the 29 April 1899 issue of Photo Bits. Source: Tess Marsh, JJQ 30/31 (1993).