The Federal Anti-Obscenity Act of 1873
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded by Anthony Comstock in 1872. Among its mottos were “Books are Feeders for Brothels,” and “Morals, not Art and Literature.” Comstock, through the support he engendered through the Society and his influence as Postal Inspector (appointed by President Grant), was instrumental in persuading Congress to pass the Anti-Obscenity Act of 1873. The act, which remains on the books today, prevented the US Post Office (then a branch of the federal government) from sending through the mail books and other materials deemed to be “lewd.” “indecent,” or “obscene.” Mr. Comstock provided the guidance defining those terms.
Comstock included in his zeal materials and books which cover the topics of birth control, human sexuality, and reproduction. This included health textbooks for schools as well as literature, poetry, plays, librettos, and medical tomes and articles. The finding of a violation could be from anyone who petitioned the courts or other authority (such as a school board) and obtained agreement that the material in question was inappropriate for American consumption.
Comstock and his associates prosecuted more than 3,500 cases over the next four decades. Their efforts and those of the United States Post Office, required by law to destroy materials which were attempted to be shipped through the mails, led to over 120 tons of books, magazines, and newspapers being destroyed. Of the persons prosecuted for either producing materials which did not meet someone else’s purity standards or was offended by them, only about 10% were found to be in violation of the law.
Some of the materials which failed to meet the standard for shipping through the mail included The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Lysistrata by Aristophanes, and Gargantua by Rabelais. That many of these and other works considered to be classics were part of the educational curriculum throughout the country was of no consequence to Comstock and his devotees, and they didn’t stop with classical literature.
Contemporaneous writers fell under the censorship of the government through the Post Office as well. Honore de Balzac, Eugene O’Neill, Hemingway, Victor Hugo (for Les Miserables), F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and John Dos Passos, were all censored under what became known as the Comstock law. It is still in effect, although the passages affecting birth control have been excised from the law.