March 3rd, 1873 – The Comstock Law Vs. Pornography

Today-In-History

On March 3rd, 1873, the U.S. Congress enacts the Comstock Law, making it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” books through the mail.

Vic Porn 680

The law was named after its chief proponent, Anthony Comstock. Due to his own personal enforcement of the law during its early days, Comstock received a commission from the postmaster general to serve as a special agent for the U.S. Postal Services.

NewYorkSocietyForTheSuppressionOfViceAccording to Paul R. Abramson, the widespread availability of pornography during the American Civil War (1861–1865) gave rise to an anti-pornography movement, culminating in the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873, but which also dealt with birth control and abortion issues. The main support and active persecutor for the moral purposes of the Comstock laws was the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, led by Comstock.

The Act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use”. The Act criminalized usage of the U.S. Postal Service to send any of the following items:

  • erotica,
  • contraceptives,
  • abortifacients,
  • sex toys,
  • or any information regarding the above items.

In places like Washington D.C., where the federal government had direct jurisdiction, the act also made it a misdemeanor, punishable by fine and imprisonment, to sell, give away, or have in possession any “obscene” publication. Half of the states passed similar anti-obscenity statutes that also banned possession and sale of obscene materials, including contraceptives.

Vic Porn 2The Comstock Act targeted pornography, contraceptive equipment, and such educational materials as descriptions of contraceptive methods and other reproductive health-related materials. Of particular note were advertisements for abortifacients found in penny papers, which offered pills to women as treatment for “obstruction of their monthly periods.”

Comstock’s ideas of what is “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” were quite broad. During his time of greatest power, some anatomy textbooks were prohibited from being sent to medical students by the United States Postal Service.

The Comstock Act clearly hinges on definitions, particularly of obscenity. Though the courts originally adopted the British Hicklin test, an American test was put into place in Roth v. United States, in which it was determined that obscenity was material whose “dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest” to the “average person, applying contemporary community standards,” and was, “utterly without redeeming social importance.”

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

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