History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 March 2008

The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

I was watching “The History of Prostitution” on the history channel last week and was intrigued (and disturbed) by an establishment called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV or SSV).
The SSV was founded in 1873 by Anthony Comstock and his supporters in the Young Men's Christian Association. The SSV was an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public.

After a few hours of net surfing, I was not surprised to learn of the SSV’s long association with censorship and oppression—the work of this organization had (and still has to some degree) a profound effect on print media and movies of all types. I want to give full credit to the very informative website from which I copied (and edited) much of the information below about the SSV and its founder, Anthony Comstock. For the complete text and lots of photos, see:

The author of the above named website states: “Mr. Comstock was born in Connecticut in 1844 and began his career as a dry goods clerk, but soon recognized his real passion when he witnessed his coworkers stealthily selling what he deemed to be obscene books and pictures. Comstock reported such suppliers to the police and began a lifelong crusade against vice. After poring over an 1866 survey conducted by the Young Men's Christian Association, which mentioned young New Yorker weaknesses for gambling, prostitution and detestable periodicals and books, Comstock in 1873 launched the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Vice societies around the country sprouted.

Comstock passionately lobbied for legislation barring the mailing of obscene matter. His efforts were rewarded with the passage of the bill, which read:

“Every obscene, lewd, lascivious, of filthy book, pamphlet, picture paper, letter, writing, print or other publication of an indecent character … is declared to be nonmailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any post office or by any letter carrier. . .”

With the passage of the “Comstock law,” postal authorities were the new censors, and Anthony Comstock was appointed a special agent of the Post Office. Comstock instructed postal staff on procedure and confiscated objectionable mail. By January 1, 1874, he boasted of confiscating and burning 134,000 pounds of books

Status as a literary classic did not sway him from slapping on the obscenity label. He fought Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, Boccaccio's Decameron, Arabian Nights and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. In an 1894 ruling, Justice O'Brien of the New York Supreme Court prophetically said after clearing the way for Tom Jones that “to condemn a standard literary work because of a few of its episodes would compel the exclusion from circulation of a very large proportion of the best classics” (NYT 6/22/1894). This was a novel declaration since the courts operated on the Hicklin model for judging obscenity. Hicklin was a case in England that determined that if any part of a work could be determined obscene, the entire piece is declared obscene.

Such declarations did not stop Comstock or his colleagues. His counterparts in Boston continued their fight. The Watch and Ward Society managed to have James R. Osgood, a publisher, cancel his contract to put forth a new edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Comstock died of pneumonia in 1915 at the age of 71. The New York Times seemed to connect his death to his crusade, claiming that “his illness was brought on by over-work and over-excitement, resulting from his fight to retain his position as a Post Office Inspector” (NYT 9/22/1915). The Times attributed to Comstock the “blanks [that] occur in the translated pages of 'Zola,' of Boccaccio, and of many modern ancient classics” and noted his fights against “lotteries, policy games, and the operations of the army of ‘green goods' swindlers, who are now but a memory.”

Succeeding Comstock at the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was John S. Sumner. Disputing books like D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, Sumner declared that his intentions to pass new censorship laws that extended to motion pictures and women's (largely) magazines.

As a result of Sumner’s efforts, the of the most important obscenity ruling of the decade (and perhaps the early 20th century) was laid down in U.S. District Court in New York by Judge John M. Woosley on December 6, 1933 . The book in question: James Joyce's Ulysses.

Headed by Bennett Cerf, Random House, Inc., was determined to publish the entire book on American soil. To do so, the company arranged to have a copy seized at Customs, thereby invoking a challenge to the ban against an import of obscene literature, which was enforced by the Section 1305 of the Tariff Act of 1930. As defined by the court, “obscene” meant “tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts.”

Judge Woosley laid out his ruling in fittingly eloquent prose, declaring “in Ulysses, in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic. . . I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes that Ulysses is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.”

In part due to the Woosley ruling, the 1930s saw an easing of censorship in books due to so-called obscenity. Other media, however, did not fare quite as well. Under pressure, Hollywood adopted the famous Movie Code in 1935.”

I must add that there were many, many romance titles and short stories listed as “obscene” by Mr. Comstock. Even Madame Bovary was banned from libraries and public schools for some time. I often wonder what romantic literature and women’s fiction would have looked like today if Mr. Comstock had not been so inspired. I remember my high school English teacher telling my class that the district school board “forbade us to read specific passages of the Canterbury Tales.” You can guess what the result was—35 high school seniors read the ENTIRE Canterbury Tales, searching for the passages they didn’t want us to read! Clever English teacher, aye?

Please forgive my long post. You can tell censorship gets me riled up
. As a reader or an author have you ever experienced censorship?

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Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Fascinating post, Kathrynn! And information (like the burning of 134,000 books) that made me seethe. Anthony Comstock and Oliver Cromwell may be the top 2 censors in my own personal rogues' gallery.

And I keep thinking about the U.S. Supreme Court justice who said famously "I know pornography when I see it."

For a few years I was active with a nonprofit group of artist/activists called The Creative Coalition and one of TCC's core issues was First Amendment rights and protection. We produced a star studded evening called "Seconding the First" which put the spotlight on books and movies which have suffered censorship in the U.S. over the decades. "Romeo and Juliet" -- censored because of teenage [premarital] sex. The J.K. Rowling books because they "promote witchcraft," (ditto for "The Wizard of Oz") the famous Cagney gangster film "Public Enemy" -- not because he violently shoves a grapefruit into his female costar's face, but because they are both wearing pajamas in that breakfast table scene. The list is endless.

I can't recall any of my own work being censored but I do realize that when I read from my novels in front of certain groups that if there is explicit language or graphic sensuality that I will meet with disapproving looks, so on occasion I have found myself sanitizing my own writing when, for a reading/signing, I edit out a sentence or change a word on the fly (let them discover the real text after they buy it) rather than read what I actually wrote and chance that it will put them off from a purchase. And, to be honest, I hate myself for doing such spontaneous editing.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Makes you wonder if Comstock ever read the Bible . . .

Love the stuff about Chaucer. My AP Lit teacher got the class to read Shakespeare the same way: “It’s dirty. Full of sex and innuendo!”.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I was lucky enough growing up that my parents never censored what I read, they were just so happy that I picked up a book! And my school library was very good about having all kinds of books that would probably have been banned, which says a lot since I went to a school founded by a community of Episcopalian nuns. Censorship personally pisses me off. I'm all for people having opinions, but don't tell me what I can or cannot read. Allow me to make up my own mind what is smut and what is not. And even if I consider it smut, that doesn't mean I have the right to tell you not to read it.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post! And it made my blood boil too :-). Loved the bit about Canterbury Tales. When I was a teenager, my family went to see "Romeo & Juliet" at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival with family with friends who were visiting. The other family has a daughter about my age with whom I'm still good friends. When we got back from the play, the two of us sat up half the night with a copy of the script finding all the bawdy double entendres :-).

Like Amanda, I can't recall my own work being censored, but also like her I do give thought to content when I read. I don't think I've ever edited the content as I read it, but I do pick and choose which parts of the book I read. (Those of you who have read "Beneath a Silent Moon" may appreciate that I went to do a reading for the hardcover edition and had the nice representative from the bookstore suggested I read the sequence about the Elsinore League caves. I politely said that I picked out another chapter to read and I thought that the Elsinore League cave chapter would be confusing out of context. Which is true. But I also didn't particularly want to read that chapter out loud. I was less worried about the people in the audience I didn't know than about my family and friends. One thing to have them read the book to themselves. Another to read it out loud in front of them :-).

12:48 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I love the Creative Coalition, Amanda. Way to go...and Public Enemy was censored because of the PJs?????

Kalen, I think I read somewhere that some Victorian Bibles had the Song of David edited out completely--too racey.

You were sooo lucky, Elizabeth, to be educated in an enviornment that was so liberal (I went to school on Military posts and in the surrounding community and often wonder if that had something to do with it).

My personal early experience with censorship was in that very same high school (different teacher) where a teacher made the student editor of the student newspaper cut some of my article on "senoritis" because I used the phrase "But screw your courage to the sticking place!" ---A line from MACBETH (and I was talking about finding yourself after graduation, not murder!) Jeeeeese...it was the best line in my little article and I even referenced the bard. Still stings today.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Oooh-hooo, Tracy, I would have loved to sit up all night with you and your friend to track down the bawdy bits of "Romeo and Juliet."

Little History Hoydens in the making we were!

12:58 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think I read somewhere that some Victorian Bibles had the Song of David edited out completely--too racey.

Growing up working Renn Faire, we always had Sunday morning services, and it was ALWAYS a reading from Songs of Solomon. *grin* Everyone would bounce in their seats and beg for Father Anders to read our favorite passages. It was so much fun.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Oh, man, man, Kalen you are a bad girl. ;-)

I did not discover the Psalms until
late in high school, maybe even later. Always went to conservative churches--- we seemed to have skipped those books of bible in Sunday School.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I got kicked out of Sunday School at age 5 for asking if Cain and Abel married their sisters (who else was there?).

Organized religion and I were not a good fit.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kalen, you totally cracked me up with that last comment.

I think there's probably more sex in the Bible than in any other book in history. I have no patience for censors or prudes. If there is a God and if we're supposed to be made in his/her/its image, and God is allegedly perfect, then our bodies, made in he/she/its image are perfect and not disgusting or shameful. And if God didn't think sex and sexuality was great, meant to be enjoyed and enjoyable, and nothing to be ashamed of, then there would be no one around to worship him/her/it.

Oy and QED.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I agree, Amanda. And you would be amazed at some of the of "investigations" the SVV regulary conducted as part of their campaign to supervise American morality...minutes of their meetings can be read on the web....buy the late 1880's they were routinely arresting 16-20 year olds at boy's schools for circulating bawdy pictures. ARRESTING BOYs for looking at girlie magazines!

And what do you think the SSV discovered when they started investigating girl's schools??? By Golly, the girls were doing it, too---reading and looking at obscene materials!

Gasp, the horror of it . . . young girls sleeping with well-read copies of Ulysses!

9:45 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

You can't get onto my web page from certain libraries. Nor, I'm told, from my last workplace.

I began writing erotica in the 90s because I and many of my fellow feminists were so incensed by Reagan Era feminist challenges to free speech. (Anybody here remember Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon teaming up with Reagan's attorney general Ed Meese to censor books?)

But the incident that really chills me was when in 1983, Members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the rejection of The Diary of Anne Frank because it was "a real downer." (It was, in truth, also challenged for offensive references to sexuality.)

10:21 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

I had a similar experience, Pam-- when I was still working at a law firm, the firm firewall blocked out the History Hoydens site as inappropriate content!

7:54 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Amazing (or maybe not, having also worked at "white shoe" law firms which have their own arcane and labyrinthine methods of operation) that a law firm would flout the First Amendment.

"The Diary of Anne Frank" a downer? Gee -- ya think? Wonder why!

I'm back to one of my favorite literary quotes, written by Charles Dickens in "A Christmas Carol." When the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces Scrooge to the ragged looking boy and girl and cautions him (and I'm likely paraphrasing) "The Boy is Ignorance. The Girl is Want. Beware them both -- but most of all [wish I had italics here] BEWARE THE BOY."

I'm hard to stop when I get on my soapbox about the dangers of Ignorance on Society.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sheesh, the hoydens net-nannied out of sight??!! I feel so naive. Why do you suppose...??

And thanks for the reminder of the Dickens quote, Amanda.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Yes, the hoydens have been net-nannied out..it happened to me when I tried to post "What's underneath the skirts" --a bit about what women historically wore underneath their riding habits..

Jeese, BlogSpot wouldn let me post the title and I got all kinds of repremanding email from them until I came up with something that worked...

2:07 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Amazing, Kathrynn! Pam, I've never before seen the phrase "net nannied" but it's certainly perfect. And goes to show that computers are only as intelligent as the people who program them. Ridiculous that educational and historical information faces a sluice gate, same as porn, and we need to rephrase in order to slide through.

I want to shout to the censors, "Grow UP, people! Educate your kids -- who will be curious anyway. God forbid someone should read about body parts, or even hate speech, which I deplore, but prefer the First Amendment. Censorship is not the answer. Take 10 minutes away from the TV and teach your kids WHY hate speech (or, for some people, porn) is so damaging! Use another C-word -- 'conversation' -- and another -- 'communication' -- with your kids."

But of course, I'm "kid-free" to use Kalen's fab phrase, so maybe I have a different perspective from parents -- but I WAS once a kid and my parents and grandparents did a bloody good job of educating me (along with the Ethical Culture Society's prep school).

4:39 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I do wonder about how all the kids being overprotected from the world at large will fare. I had two very simple rules growing up: Get good grades and don't get pregnant. They pretty much covered all the others that I see people heaping on their kids.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


Right below the comment box it says: You can use some HTML tags such as *and then there are some examples*. It's hard for me to show them in the comment though. I'm going to try, just remember to take the spaces between the symbols and letters out.

< i > = italics

< b > = bold

Place the needed HTML tag in front of the words you want to emphasis, and then close the tag by placing the same tag with a backslash in front of the letter at the end of the phrase, like so:

< i >The Boy is Ignorance. The Girl is Want. Beware them both -- but most of all < b > beware the boy < /b >."< /i >

when done correctly it comes out like this:

The Boy is Ignorance. The Girl is Want. Beware them both -- but most of all beware the boy ."

9:20 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, I'm not child-free -- though at this point Jesse, aka My Son The Victorianist, is hardly a child. But we never told him there was anything he couldn't read or watch. We limited TV, quantity-wise -- no daytime viewing unless you were sick, no idle evening viewing; you had to have a particular show you liked. And we watched his shows with him: Dukes of Hazard, Incredible Hulk, The Twilight Zone (in roughly chronological order), because we were genuinely curious about what he cared about watching.

But the quantity stricture was never a problem -- we didn't treat it as a discipline; it was more a shared assumptionthat aimless TV watching was for people less fortunate than ourselves, who for one reason or another didn't have access to the great and wonderful pleasure of reading.

Actually, Michael and I did decide to take the three of us out of a movie when Jesse was about 10 -- Mad Max, which had a scene that was sadistic and nasty, and which we didn't want to be sharing with him. But Michael and I might have walked out even if Jesse wasn't there.

The challenge and heartbreak came not in helping him adjust to fictional representations, but when he had to learn that Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Ku Klux Klan are matters of historical fact.

8:50 AM  

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