July 7, 2009
Nowadays you can get just about any sort of pornography you want with a few clicks of the mouse, and much of it is free. Before that, New York City, especially Times Square, was known as the headquarters for porn movies, and when porn was available only in print media, New York’s Nassau Street in lower Manhattan (close to City Hall) was its hub.
Historical factors made it so around 1840. Donna Dennis, a law professor, has taken the history from that beginning through the end of the century in “Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth Century New York” (Harvard University Press). As you’d expect from her background, there are plenty of legal case studies here, with descriptions of court arguments and eventual punishments or lack thereof.
There are amusing descriptions also, however, of the sort of poetry, prose and pictures that were considered hot stuff in their day, as well as profiles of the publishers who were part of the incipient American pornography fascination. Of course, the fascination continues, and although plenty of the porn mentioned here has more of a historic rather than prurient appeal, many of the legal issues still stand.
Dennis begins her history with the sad and funny story of John McDowell, who came to the big city in 1830 from theological seminary. He was aghast at the sin he saw, and prepared a study to show that the city had 10,000 prostitutes (which would have been one in 10 of the city’s female residents). He railed against the books and pictures of naughtiness anyone could buy.
Many denounced his claims as exaggerated, and he himself was charged with indecency for bringing the subject up and describing it. When he watched brothels and reported the names of patrons going in, he was condemned by a grand jury for being a public nuisance.
His monthly journal was condemned as obscene. If people doubted how serious the problem was, he would pull out of his valise a book like “Fanny Hill,” which might have erased all doubt but might also have made viewers angry to have smut thrust into their faces.
He died in 1836, at only 38, broken and impoverished. He became a symbol for the excess of evangelical reform, but the reformers who followed him had more effect; part of the lesson of Dennis’s book is that pornography proponents and opponents began a symbiotic relationship that has never let up.
A descendant of McDowell’s report on prostitutes was the “1839 Prostitution Exposed: or, A Moral Reform Directory, Laying Bare the Lives, Histories, Residences, Seductions &c of the Most Celebrated Courtezans and Ladies of Pleasure of the City of New York.” The anonymous author advised, “This will be an interesting work for those residing at a distance from the city, not only because it displays the amount of evil practiced therein, but if they ever visit our busy Gotham, it may be used as a guide to direct them how to shun the dangers.”
You could shun them, sure, but if you were otherwise compelled, the book was full of advice on locales, styles, and prices. It may be that the guide was produced at the behest of some successful brothel madams, and if there were really any doubt about its intent, it was dedicated to “The Ladies Reform Association for the Suppression of Onanism.”
Printing, selling or possessing pornography was not a property crime, and the rudimentary police force of the time concentrated on recovering stolen property and receiving compensation for doing so. Prosecutors helped redress economic loses and abate nuisances, but had little interest in protecting public decency.
This began to change with the coming of the “flash” weeklies like “The Whip or The Weekly Rake.” The papers were aimed at sporting fellows of the city. “The Sunday Flash,” for instance, offered an 18-part series on “The Lives of the Nymphs,” a euphemism for prostitutes. Each installment profiled a particular prostitute. The papers sometimes took the tone of reproaching the city for allowing such immorality, but at the same time willingly offered themselves as guides to the best and worst of available commercial sex.
The papers were marketed in public places and on Sundays, and they highlighted New York’s seamier side, all of which bothered the moral. What really troubled those in power, though, was that the papers made much of their income by blackmail, offering to hold particular stories about public figures for a fee. Some of these figures started filing suit, all for the good of the public. Part of the defense the flash papers mustered was that New York law did not prohibit fornication or adultery, so it was senseless for the papers to be prosecuted because they might promote fornication or adultery, which were not crimes.
There were subsequent changes in morals regulation, which led to the rise of papers like the long-running National Police Gazette. It took its sensational stories straight from police blotters and trial transcripts. There was a new concentration on descriptions of violence, but descriptions of erotic crime seduced many readers, and the publisher could maintain he was just reporting the facts.
New York also became a center for the publishing of “fancy books,” relatively expensive, well-bound texts illustrated with engravings. Some of the standards were “Fanny Hill,” “The Lustful Turk” or “The Cabinet of Venus Unlocked.” Dennis shows that the books did reflect a change in the understanding of female sexuality in acknowledging that it even existed. The women in the books enjoyed sex and experienced lust at a time when it was the men who were supposed to be carrying on that way. The men reading the books obviously enjoyed thinking about women with such attitudes.
In 1856 came the nation’s first sex magazine, “Venus’s Miscellany.” One of its most popular features was its letters column, a forerunner of “Letters to Penthouse” or blog entries, wherein men and women would describe their sex lives and secret desires (no matter that most of the letters were written by magazine staff).
At a time when moralists were blaming Europe (especially France) for importation of smut, the letters in the “Miscellany” reflected that ordinary Americans were interested in the sex lives of ordinary Americans. The magazine took advantage of distribution by mail, and Dennis describes the history of postal inspections for the purpose of rooting out naughty magazines as well as rubber sex toys and condoms. The 1873 Comstock Act made it illegal to send such things via the U.S. mail.
With the book covering the 19th century, Dennis closes with the career of Anthony Comstock, who became extremely adept in getting pornography, sex education materials and contraceptives banned and burned. In fact, some of the publications Dennis refers to here are no longer available anywhere due to Comstock’s tenacity. He was a mere clerk in a dry-goods store but took it upon himself to rid the city and the nation of obscenity.
The act that bears his name appointed him a commissar within the Post Office to snag pornography in the mail. Comstock was so vigorous in his crusade that he alienated the YMCA that had hired him to investigate smut. His work was initially wildly effective, and literally tons of erotic mailings were seized and burned.
He became less effective as he assumed controversial stances, like prosecuting women’s rights leader Victoria Woodhull for articles in her feminist journal, or writing decoy letters to lure pornographers to send out their wares. His prosecution of producers of fancy books published with quality meant that neophytes got into the publishing business, churning out lighter, smaller and more ephemeral photos, poems and playing cards. In addition to prosecuting those who sent out objective scientific articles about sex or contraception, Comstock prosecuted those who sold classics like “Tom Jones or The Decameron,” and he arrested the owner of an art gallery on Fifth Street for selling photographs of painti
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.