Abstract of Book Project in Process:
American Visual Culture during the Reign of Anthony Comstock
Amy Werbel


Between 1872 and 1915, Anthony Comstock confiscated and destroyed a vast array of American visual culture intended to inflame desire. During his forty-two years as Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) and Inspector for the U.S. Postal Service, his haul of “obscenities” included more than three million pictures and postcards; thirty thousand negative, steel, and copper printing plates for books; seven hundred pictures hung in saloons; three-and-a-half million circulars; eighty-eight thousand newspapers advertising sexual materials; and twenty thousand “figures and images.” Most of Comstock’s raids took place in the vicinity of his office in lower Manhattan, however thanks to far-reaching telegraph wires his activities soon became a common topic of conversation throughout the United States.  H.L. Mencken termed Comstock a “Puritan Gladiator” – the most successful censor in American history – for his dogged and relentless efforts to police the nation’s morals.

The ultimate failure of Comstock’s campaign to rid America of arousing culture is inarguable – for all his labors men (and some women) continued to produce and buy enormous and increasing quantities of explicit images. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that his influence was profound.  Artists, photographers, gallery owners, collectors, curators, publishers, theatrical promoters, saloon managers, and private citizens all learned to analyze images through a Comstockian lens, one that focused more on an image’s prurience than its artistic value. Pornographers were forced to shift their modes of production and distribution, and numerous organizations formed both pro and con -- from the New England Watch and Ward Society to the forerunners of the American Civil Liberties Union.  While many Americans adopted self-censorship, others took advantage of Comstock’s fame, and purposefully crafted provocative displays designed to attract his prosecutorial attention, and with it profitable news coverage.  By publicizing each new manifestation of vice, Comstock unwittingly played a pivotal role in the evolution of indecency as a hallmark of American modernity.  His aggressive tactics had another unintended consequence: spurring legislatures and courts to reform judicial procedures to better protect  a defendant’s rights and basic civil liberties.

Extensive and original research conducted in dozens of public and private archives makes it possible for the first time to fully tell the story of Comstock’s censorship of visual culture, and to publish examples of the “obscenities” he suppressed.  American Visual Culture during the Reign of Anthony Comstock offers an unadulterated and surprising new view of the risqué behaviors, beliefs, and complex sexualities of Americans in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.  Comstock’s story offers profound lessons for the study of American sexuality, culture, and art, as well as our nation’s quest to live up to the promise of the First Amendment.