Photo Bits

In Brief

Unlike the more suggestively named Tit-Bits (another weekly selling for one penny), "Photo Bits" was, by Victorian and Georgian standards, a softcore pornography publication. It offered "Thirty-Two Pages of Pictures," many of them prurient, and 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." After many decades of searching, no scholar has succeeded in locating this "Splendid masterpiece in art colours," so the image may very well be fictional, generated by Joyce's desire to associate Molly with the nymph Calypso.

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In addition to many photographs, Photo Bits featured short stories and bits of comic whimsy (as did Tit-Bits), and drawings of theater girls (some of them naked). The captions below the accompanying images from a 1902 issue give a sense of the pornographic spirit of the magazine, urgent but comical, and constrained by contemporary mores of clothing, marriage, and public display. Below the cover image of a man kissing and not yet fondling 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!"

With its male readership thus assured that female desire is just as pressing as their own, the issue offers a pin-up page displaying two fully clothed but unmistakably inviting women gazing into the viewer's eyes. 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." (Anthony Quinn, who displays the image on a weblog page, notes, "Quite why K of K – Lord Kitchener of Khartoum – is referred to is unclear.")

The lower image shows an attractive female 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 photos and cartoons in Playboy in the 1960s, this image invites the reader to imagine the adventures that certain luckier men 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."

Circe calls exaggerated attention to the mongrel mix of ads that crowded most pages of the magazine, pin-up centerfolds excepted. 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.'" When the Nymph first accosts Bloom in Circe—"Mortal! You found me in evil company"—she evokes the assortment of stories and ads in the magazine: "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."

From its beginning in 1898, Photo Bits was in the sights of the British social organizations that sought to root out pornography and other forms of indecency. In James Joyce, Sexuality, and Social Purity (Cambridge UP, 2003), Katherine Mullin notes that after it was renamed Bits of Fun and came out with "a particularly racy number," the magazine's editor was prosecuted and fined (172n). Joyce, who was tormented by the same enforcers of "purity" throughout his attempts to publish Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist, and Ulysses, may very well have included Photo Bits in his big novel from a sense of solidarity with the publishers, no matter how trashy their product.

JH 2017
The cover of the 18 October 1902 issue of Photo Bits. Source: wagforum.wordpress.com.
Pin-up center spread from the same issue of Photo Bits. Source: wagforum.wordpress.com.