‘damaged goods’ and venereal disease

The phrase damaged goods denotes:
– literally: merchandise that has deteriorated in quality through unsaleability, exposure to the elements, etc.
– figuratively: a person considered to be inadequate or deficient in some way—in the past, when women were viewed as commodities to be evaluated in a commercial manner, the phrase especially referred to a woman’s loss of virginity.




The phrase came to specifically denote a person suffering from venereal disease, especially with reference to Damaged Goods (1911), the translation of Les Avariés (1901), a play by the French dramatist Eugène Brieux (1858-1932) about the dangers of ignorance concerning sexually transmitted infections.


Notes on the English and French texts:

– The translation by John Pollock (1878-1963) of Les Avariés was first published in Three plays by Brieux member of the French Academy. With preface by Bernard Shaw. English versions by Mrs. Bernard Shaw, St. John Hankin and John Pollock (New York: Brentano’s, 1911). The literal translation of damaged goods into French is biens endommagés.

– In the original play, Georges Dupont, the young notary who suffers from syphilis, is described in the dramatis personae as L’Avarié. In both the title and the description of Georges Dupont, Eugène Brieux uses nominally (i.e., as a noun) the adjective avarié, meaning (of food) gone off, rotten, and (of a ship) damagedavarié is the past participle of the verb avarier, itself from the noun avarie, denoting damage caused to a ship or to its cargo.


This is the synopsis of Damaged Goods, from the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Monday 19th March 1917:

The first act is laid in the consulting room of a Paris doctor. George Dupont, a youthful notary in comfortable circumstances, is suffering from venereal disease, the result of “a wretched lark.” He explains to the doctor that he is not a rake, but has been unfortunate. Other men lead rackety lives and escape the evil effects, whereas he, as the result of a single transgression, is ruined and his whole life poisoned.
The doctor explains that the case is not hopeless, that in fact a cure can be effected, and blames the secrecy which prevails with regard to the disease. The public needs to be educated. […]
The doctor informs Dupont that it will take three or four years to cure him, and then he will be able to marry. Dupont retorts that he is to be married in a month, and that the engagement cannot be broken off. There is property at stake, his relatives have a hand in the affair, and the circumstances are such that the marriage cannot be delayed for three or four years.
The doctor retorts that he is a physician. Such circumstances do not weigh with him. Dupont will be a criminal to marry before three or four years have elapsed. The doctor explains the terrible consequences he may inflict on his intended wife and any children of the marriage, but is compelled to admit that such consequences may not arise.
Dupont clutches at this straw, and declares that he can postpone his marriage for six months, but no longer.
In act two the young couple are married, and there is a baby. The relatives are delighted, but suddenly the baby sickens, and is taken to the doctor whom Dupont consulted prior to his marriage. The doctor discovers that the child is suffering from hereditary disease, and in order to protect the nurse from contamination forbids it to be nursed any longer.
There are protests from the relatives that the child will die if fed by hand. Finally, the innocent wife learns from the nurse the nature of the baby’s illness, and realises the terrible result of her husband’s past conduct.
The Deputy [i.e., parliamentary representative] Loches, Dupont’s father-in-law, who takes great interest in social questions, appears in act 3. His daughter has fled to his bouse from her husband, and the Deputy calls on the doctor for a certificate which will provide grounds for a divorce.
This the doctor refuses to grant, and takes up the attitude that a separation would be a calamity for all concerned. […]
Dupont’s father-in-law agrees to a reconciliation, and is made to shoulder his share of responsibility. He inquired as to his future son-in-law’s financial position, but he neglected to inquire into the most important matter of all—his health.
The Deputy, after the manner of his kind, asserts that a law should be passed, but the doctor emphatically replies: “We want no new laws. There are too many already. All that is needed is for people to understand.” The Deputy is urged to infuse common sense into the Chamber of Deputies, so that the subject of this disease may be delivered from the conspiracy of silence and secrecy that surrounds it.

The following is a passage from Act III of the play. The doctor is receiving the visit of the Deputy Loches; he was expecting Loches to visit as parliamentary representative, not as Georges Dupont’s father-in-law:

– English text, from Three plays by Brieux member of the French Academy. With preface by Bernard Shaw. English versions by Mrs. Bernard Shaw, St. John Hankin and John Pollock (New York: Brentano’s, 1911):

Doctor. I must tell you that when I received your card yesterday I imagined that it was in your public capacity that you were about to interest yourself in these matters. Consequently, after naming the hour of your visit, I told off two of my hospital patients to show to you. You need not be alarmed. I shall not shock your nerves. To outward appearance they have nothing the matter with them. They are not bad cases; they are simply the damaged goods of our great human cargo. I merely wished to give you food for reflection, not a lesson in pathology.

– French text, from Les Avariés (Paris: Pierre-Victor Stock, 1902):

Le Docteur. Voici ce qui s’est passé. Hier, en recevant votre carte et en y lisant votre qualité, j’ai cru que vous désiriez vous documenter, et après vous avoir fixé, ici, l’heure de votre visite, j’ai fait sortir de mon service deux personnes que je voulais vous montrer. Rassurez-vous, je ménagerai vos nerfs, aucun de ceux et de celles que vous allez voir n’a de tare apparente. Ce ne sont pas nos grands malades, ce sont de simples avariés ; je ne veux pas vous faire une leçon de pathologie, je veux vous donner à réfléchir tout simplement.

One J. O. H. Carter used damaged goods in the sense of a person suffering from venereal disease in a letter on sexually transmitted infections, published in The Evening News and Southern Daily Mail (Portsmouth, Hampshire, England) of Monday 19th April 1920:

There has been much talk these last eighteen months of the amateur prostitute as being the great danger to the community. In plain words, what does this mean? It means that a man who does not wish to pay professional prices thinks he will satisfy his desires on the cheap, at the expense of an “amateur.” He feels terribly aggrieved to find, too late, that he is not the first in this field of gallantry! Often he is contemptible enough to blame the girl, whom he thought he was seducing, because he finds to his cost that she was damaged goods. I always want to ask these heroes how the goods first began to shop-soiled. To put it quite frankly: “Did that girl come into the world a born prostitute, equipped with the disease which she has handed to him; or did she get it in the usual way?” And I have always found that the reply to the latter part of this question is in the affirmative. Prostitutes, unlike poets, are, as a rule, made, not born.

The phrase was used in the same sense in the following from The Evening News and Southern Daily Mail (Portsmouth, Hampshire, England) of Saturday 29th May 1920:

Murder Threat in Court.

Threats to apply the unwritten law against a young constable were made at the inquest at Southport yesterday on a young woman, who committed suicide because she wasdamaged goods.”
The deceased, Florence Christine Frost (25), of Leigh, poisoned herself in holiday lodgings, after writing to her sister, making allegations against P.C. Thomas Cavanagh, of Wigan.
Cavanagh stood in Court during the reading of the letter, described by the Coroner as the most pathetic he had ever seen, and denied on oath the allegations it contained.
When the verdict of “Suicide” was returned, the girl’s brother-in-law, a Leigh man named Smith, jumped to his feet and, pointing to Cavanagh, protested that there was no law to punish “such fiends as these.”
The Coroner observed that there was no punishment he could give, and Smith exclaimed:
“Then it seems a case for the unwritten law, for if Cavanagh comes across my path I shall murder him.”
Cavanagh heatedly warned Smith against using threats.

This is Florence Christine Frost’s letter to her sister, as published in the Gloucestershire Echo (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England) of Friday 28th May 1920:

For twelve months I kept a terrible secret that has taken all hopes of happiness away for ever, and when I tell you you will loathe and despise me. One fateful day on a tram I met Tom Cavanagh, and after a time he asked me to marry him. I thought he really meant what he said, as you will see by the letters from him left in my box. Then one night he got the better of me. He seemed to fascinate me, and I have lived to suffer, for he left me with a fatal disease. Heaven alone knows what he wanted to ruin me for, as I am sure he could not have a grudge against me for anything. I am not afraid where I am going. For the last nine months I have suffered for my sin. I know I am at the end of the road, like the film play I was telling you about. I am not worthy to be called your sister, so try to forget me. Goodbye.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.