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[Knowledge, Sex and the Censor in

I have never yet heard of a girl being ruined by reading a book.1 James J. Walker, 1923.
Where the conditions of political liberty and intellectual emancipation have been first fulfilled,
we may expect the [sex] censorship to appear.2 Morris Ernst, 1928.

1 Jimmy J. Walker, mayor of New York City in 1929, quoted in Herbert Mitgang, Once Upon a Time in
New York: Jimmy Walker, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Last Great Battle of the Jazz Age (New York: Free
Pres, 2000), 59. Quoted again in John E. Semonche, Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through
American Media (New York: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), 9.
2 Morris L. Ernst, founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and William Seagle. To the
PureA Study of Obscenity and the Censor (New York: The Viking Press, 1928), 151.

On the morning of Monday April 15, 1929 children crowded the rear windows of St.
Francis Xaviers school in Brooklyn, their eyes on the old-fashioned brownstone across the
street. Five women were being ushered into Checker Cabs by police officers laden with
evidencewaste baskets stuffed with files, diagrams and artifactsfrom within the
headquarters of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau on West Fifteenth Street.
Accompanying the women, the waste baskets and the officers was the Bureaus director, a Mrs.
Margaret Sanger, who would wait in the Jefferson Market Court for her employees to be released
on $300 in bail apiece.3 By Tuesday afternoon Sanger would be in Boston, where she had been
invited to attend the Ford Hall Forum on Free Speech. However, it was not Margaret Sanger who
spoke that day. She watched, a gag taped across her mouth signifying the local injunction issued
against her by Mayor Curley for promoting family planning, while Harvard Professor Arthur M.
Schlesinger delivered her words to over 700 people.4 Only a few blocks away a smaller
assemblage of working class Bostonians listened to celebrated litigator Clarence Darrow read
passages aloud from Theodore Dreisers novel An American Tragedy. Darrow hoped he would be
able to appeal the publishing ban that had been placed on Dreisers book two years previous, and
in so doing provoke a reexamination of the laws that had inspired the telling phrase Banned in
3 "Raid Sanger Clinic on Birth Control." New York Times (1923-Current File), Apr 16, 1929. 25,
4 Darrow Pokes Fun at Book Censorship: Attorney in Boston Address Also Takes Up Cudgels for Birth
Control Advocates. New York Times (1923-Current File), Apr 16, 1929. 12,
5 Paul S. Boyer, Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America From the Gilded Age to the Computer Age
(Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), 192-194.

Such were the events that graced the headlines Americans in the 1920s turned to when
golf and automobiles, flagpole climbers and aviators grew stale. Luckily for the American
publics thirst for diversion, the 1920s fostered an endless stream of cases involving the legal
censorship of literature and print materialscases that swallowed up works by Joyce, Voltaire,
Hemingway, Rabelais, Aristophanes and Sinclair.6 The origin of these disputes was a series of
overlapping laws, regulations and court decisions, both federal and regional, which strictly
prohibited the distribution of any print artifact whose content could potentially be termed
obscene. In 1929 obscenity in print extended to more than just the overtly explicit. It
constituted the mere allusion to sex or sexuality, profanity, anatomy or to distasteful subject
matters in general. The laws that forbade the publication of the odd erotic novella also barred the
circulation of printed information related to sexual health, anatomy, abortion and birth control.
Although Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League, and Clarence
Darrow, leader in the defense of John T. Scopes in the infamous Scopes Trial of 1925, did not
cross paths on that significant day in April, they would remain united in one crucial respect. They
both fought for a repeal of the censor. The ultimate purpose of literary and print censorship in the
1920s was to prevent information about sexuality from being disseminated to the public.
However, in attempting to completely subvert channels of information, censorship created its
own opposition in advocates for free speech and birth control.
The foundation upon which censorship law in the United States in 1929 was built was the
Comstock Obscenity Act of 1873. Drafted by the Victorian moralist and politician Anthony
Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, it was enacted by Congress

6 Felice Flanery Lewis, Literature, Obscenity and Law, (Southern Illinois University Press, 1976), 97.

within the same year.7 Its purpose was, like most reform efforts that emerged during the
Progressive Era, to improve the moral fiber of society at large by extracting from it any
potentially damaging influences. Anthony Comstock acknowledged that the most destructive
influence of all was desire when he made dirty books and diaphragms his first targets. The
language of the act, commonly referred to as Comstock Law, expressly forbade the publishing,
distribution, and possession of any print materials found to be obscene. It also prohibited the
circulation of contraceptives or any printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or
notice of any kind giving information8 relating to contraception, abortion, birth control or
anatomy. Finally, it asserted that no articles of an immoral nature9 could be distributed by way
of the U.S. Postal Service, or imported by way of U.S. Customs. Comstock Law made it the
responsibility of the federal government to prevent the circulation of all printed materials and
physical instruments, medical or otherwise, relating to sex or sexuality.
The Comstock Act was entirely the product of 19th century religious revitalization, social
interest and staunch sexual practices of the previous century. Beneath the reluctant references to
articles of immoral use10 was the conviction that knowledge of sex would encourage the act
itself,11 especially if that knowledge fell in the way of impressionable young women. It was this
7 Boyer, Purity in Print.
8 Comstock Law of 1873. Comstock Law of 1873, (2009). (Text of the
original Comstock Obscenity Act of 1873)
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Alison M. Parker, Purifying America: Women, Cultural Reform, and Pro-Censorship Activism, 18731933 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 22.

idea that women like Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldmananarchist, political advocate and
vocal supporter of contraceptionresisted most in their fight against the censor. There was a
deep seeded irony contained in the fact that it was a group of white, middle class women with a
professed interest in the greater good, much like Sanger and her contemporaries, who first
advocated for literary censorship. The Womens Christian Temperance Union, which would later
be known for championing Prohibition as a means of safeguarding family values, was the first
organization to call for literary censorship as a way of protecting the most vulnerable members of
society.12 During the late 19th century the idea of most vulnerable applied primarily to children.
The efforts of the WCTU and other such womens organizations consisted of petitioning
librarians to remove certain texts from bookshelves, or holding supervised reading circles and
book talks in which appropriate texts could be shared and discussed.13 Apart from the book talks
the women of the WCTU were not invested in carrying censorship to the same lengths as
Prohibition. The reading programs began to die out as a greater emphasis was shifted to the cause
of womens temperance.14 The book clubs had been a minor program of reform intended for the
edification of grammar school children. It was not until censorship was adopted by the New
England Watch and Ward Society and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice that it
became a means for influencing and restricting the spread of information.
By 1929 white, middle class women had re-adopted their old interest in helping to
improve the lives of children. This time it was by fighting to allow working class mothers some
modicum of control over their bodies, and thus the number of mouths they might be required to
12 Parker, Purifying America, 19.
13 Parker, Purifying America, 19.
14 Parker, 26.

feed. Female birth control advocates in 1929 fought against the stipulation under Comstock Law
barring not only contraceptives, but literature that could be used to help educate women about
their own anatomies and how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. As untried and unregulated as
most methods of birth control were in 1929, they were still only available almost exclusively to
middle and upper class women.15 Due to the lack of information available to those without the
means or the knowledge to seek it out, as ensured by the advent of Comstock Law, contraception
had come to be regarded as an untrustworthy practice reserved exclusively for the upper
classes.16 In the instance of working class women Comstock Law had thus far been successful in
preventing the spread of information on sexuality and sexual health. True to form, the female
reformers of 1929 had an immediate answer to the plight of overcrowded working class families.
Education, espoused Sanger in her 1931 memoire My Fight for Birth Control, on proper
preventative measures was the surest way to escape the poverty, toil, unemployment,
drunkenness, cruelty, quarreling, fighting, debts, jails [associated] with large families.17
Though Sanger was far from the only woman involved in in the repeal of Comstock Law,
her position as the founder of the organization that would one day become Planned Parenthood,
in addition to her tendency toward public spectacle, made her one of the most notorious female
reformers of her day. When asked some weeks afterward what she thought about the police raid
on her clinic in Brooklyn Sanger replied confidently, I think we have public opinion back on
15 Reed, From Private Vice to Public Virtue, 45.
16 Ibid.
17 Margaret Sanger, My Fight for Birth Control (New York: Farrar & Rinehart Incorporated, 1931), 4.
(Founder of the American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau.
Appeared gagged on the stage of the Ford Hall Forum. For more information visit the Suffolk University
electronic archive.)

us.18 Meanwhile, her co-director and several of her doctors still languished in jail, awaiting the
verdict of a single judge who would decide whether or not they had broken federal law by
disseminating information on birth control to their patients.19
In the meantime, the American public languished in its new favorite pastime; celebrity.
Every trial of every publisher who had dared to sell a copy of A Farewell to Arms became the
subject of public spectacle aimed at making obscenity law and its supporters appear all the more
ridiculous. If they werent made an example of before representatives from the Departments of
Commerce and State first, that is. More often than not the spectacle turned out to be a success for
anti-censorship advocates. It seemed that the more Federal authorities and moralists attempted to
make examples out of those who violated the censor, as with the unprompted ransacking of the
headquarters of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, the more popular opinion tended
toward them. The debate over censorship was still a serious ongoing legal battle involving the
First Amendment and a budding concept, information rights. However, the media circus that
surrounded the key figures on either side tended to make caricatures of them all. Within the span
of a generation the memory of the blustering figure of Anthony Comstock had turned ridiculous.
That Comstock Law and moralist reform in general had been welcomed by the American public
not twenty years previous was now completely forgotten in 1929. In its wake there arose a kind
of false nostalgia for a time when the classics could be read in innocent enjoyment, without the
18 SEES GOOD IN CLINIC RAID.: Mrs. Sanger Says It Brought Friends to Birth Control Movement. New York
Times (1923 Current File), May 8, 1929. 11,

19 DOCTORS ARE FREED IN BIRTH CLINIC RAID: Court Holds Prosecution Failed to Show That
Giving of Information Violated Law .MRS. SANGER SEES VICTORY Defense Counsel Citizens
Decision in Limiting Instruction to Married Women. Rules "Good Faith" Is Test. Mrs. Sanger Sees Gain
of Years. Limitation in Ruling Criticized. New York Times (1923 Current File), May 15, 1929. 20,

hand of government censorship imbuing the works of Rousseau or Aristophanes with

perversion.20 In that regard Comstock Law was not unlike Prohibition, another Victorian arbiter
of social vice. Just as outlawing the consumption of alcohol seemed only to increase its appeal,
sapphism or race or doubt in ones government, though far from welcome in the living rooms of
most Americans, were thrilling because they were inherently forbidden. Sanger understood this
and it had prompted her to attract as much attention as she could to her cause from the beginning,
be it in solidarity or frustration over the fact that she wasnt behind bars herself. It had certainly
helped that only a few days previous the New York Times had reported that the seizure of over
one hundred medical records from the Brooklyn clinic had been declared a violation of standard
professional decency law respecting patient confidentiality.21
To Morris Ernst, founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney to
Margaret Sanger, every obscenity trial seemed a farce and a mockery of due process. More often
than not the verdict on whether or not a book might be termed obscene or fit for public
consumption, whether a publisher might be sent to prison simply because he took a chance on a
new manuscript without consulting the authorities beforehand, was already decided before the
trial had even begun. In no other field of law does the temperament of the presiding judge reach
such importance,22 he wrote in 1928 in the work he co-authored with fellow attorney William
Seagle, To the PureA Study of Obscenity and the Censor. soon it will be evident that there is
20 Boyer, Purity in Print.
21 BIRTH CONTROL RAID ASSAILED BY WOMEN: City Club Directors "Shocked" at Interference
With Clinic Operated Within Law. PROTEST DENNETT TRIAL Condemn Barring of Professional
Evidence--Defense Committee to Be Organized by Eight Today. New York Times (1923 Current File),
May 3, 1929, 14,
22 Ernst, To the Pure, 9.

no definition in the entire law that so clearly violates the fundamental principle that a criminal
charge must be clear, precise, and definite23
Even though Anthony Comstock and the Clean Books Crusade of the early 1920s were
both inhabitants of the past in 1929, the question of whether or not the federal government
should have a role in controlling the spread of information was still a polarized one. The phrase
Banned in Boston, a commentary on the Puritanical zeal that manifested itself in the late 1920s
and made Boston the censorship capital of the United States, still carried weight enough to
prevent Margaret Sanger from being able to speak there on April 16.24 It also meant that support
for legal censorship existed outside the Departments of Customs and State to such a degree that
in cases concerning literary censorship the verdict was almost necessarily bias, at least according
to Ernst. A challenging predicament, considering no precedent had ever been set for what
obscenity actually meant in the eyes of the law.

The effect was that the burr of obscenitylewdness, lasciviousness etc.could be

applied to nearly any publication given the right jury and a willing judge. Even the bawdy,
occasionally scatological humor contained in the works of Shakespeare and Aristophanes could
not escape censure. Aristophanes Classical Greek comedies were banned completely for a time.
Many of Shakespeares works, now considered sanctified and assured cannons of literature, were
bowdlerized, or scrubbed clean of offensive passages.25 While this did spare readers of
bowdlerized works from the shock of having to read a few lines of harmless smut, the constant
23 Ibid.
24 Boyer, Purity in Print.
25 Parker, Purifying America, 69.

threat hanging over writers and publishers alike of being dragged into court over a few lines
incited the publishing industry to begin to regulate itself in order to avoid the censor altogether.
Established publishing houses began to turn away manuscripts, simply to avoid the risk. Smaller
publishers began to close their doors altogether. No professional wanted to take the risk of
distributing a work they had never considered to be obscene, only to be heavily fined and
possibly imprisoned for accidentally violating the Comstock Act. Merchants refused to assume
the responsibility of importing works from overseas, only to have Customs workers take one
look at the cover or the title, register its foreignness, and simply send the whole shipment back
from whence it came.26 By the end of 1929, customs workers working on the docks of Boston,
Maryland and New York had to be able to recognize over seven hundred different blacklisted
titles in several different languages.27 Many simply gave printed materials a cursory glance
before rejecting them, just to err on the safe side.
Senator Cutting of New Mexico emphasized this outrageous statistic in his addresses to
the Senate on October 10, 1929, as announced by the cover of The New York Times the next day.
The front-page article described a bill that would allow manufacturers and labor unions to
intervene in customs cases involving the appraisal and classification of imported
merchandise.28 In other words it was a first blow, a small economic battle won against
Comstock and censorship law that would allow manufacturers some measure of control over the
26 Boyer. Purity in Print.
27 A Chronology of Censorship in America." Congressional Digest 9, no. 2 (February 1930): 35-37.

28 "Republican Forces Win Tariff Victory on Appraisal Item." New York Times, (1923 Current File.) October 11,

sale and distribution of imported materials. The Cutting Amendment, as it was called, was
formally adopted on October 21. It opposed tariffs made possible by the hyper-strict regulation
of imported goods demanded by the Comstock Law. The proposition and acceptance of the
Cutting Amendment was an important moment in the history of literary and print censorship, for
it constituted the first legal break with the Comstock Act and the various laws and regulations
that stemmed from censorship. And yet the speech Senator Cutting delivered in Congress on
October 10 was at its core a protestation against the overextension of federal powers to a level of
what he deemed absurdity. He ignored entirely Section Three of the Comstock Act, which
prohibited the distribution of both contraceptives and literature on the topic. On the whole it was
the first time that sex and censorship seemed not to belong to one another.
Of course, this could have been because Senator Cutting and his constituency were
presumably concerned with censorship in a strictly legislative sense. The invocations of the First
Amendment delivered by Cutting in his addresses spoke to his position as a typical 20th century
Republican in favor of diminishing federal interference in trade, as well as in constitutional
interpretation, as much as possible. Senator Cutting of New Mexico was not necessarily
concerned with the moral, religious, and socio-economic climate that had produced and
reinforced the Comstock Obscenity Laws until 1929. His views on censorship, according to the
front page of the New York Times on October 11, were limited to the relationship between the list
of 739 works blacklisted by the United States Post and Treasury Departments and the freedoms
of speech and press safeguarded by the Bill of Rights. Cutting was by no means an advocate for
women or social liberality. He championed commerce, which would undoubtedly improve with
the elimination of tariffs on imported goods regardless of their subject matter. It wasnt merely
that Senator Cutting wasnt going to be the one to discuss womens sexuality and contraceptives,


even in relation to the law that he was trying to eventually repeal. He and his contemporaries saw
the concerns of women and suppression of sexuality under Comstock law as separate from the
part of the act that free speech advocates would assume as their own cause.
In 1936 the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached a decision on the case United States v. One
Package. The part of the Comstock Obscenity Act that prohibited the transportation or
possession contraception and birth control had been reversed. As with the Cutting Amendment,
the Progressive Era way of thinkingabout sex, about trade, about values and about the
ownership of informationcould no longer exist simply to project itself onto a society of which
it could never be a part.

Primary Sources:
A Chronology of Censorship in America." Congressional Digest 9, no. 2 (February 1930.): 3537. EBSCOhost.
Comstock Law of 1873. Comstock Law of 1873, (January 18, 2009.) Accessed March 6,

Ernst, Morris Leopold, and William Seagle. To the Pure ... A Study of Obscenity and the Censor.
New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1928.
New York Times Articles Used:
BIRTH CONTROL RAID ASSAILED BY WOMEN: City Club Directors "Shocked" at
Interference With Clinic Operated Within Law. PROTEST DENNETT TRIAL
Condemn Barring of Professional Evidence--Defense Committee to Be Organized
by Eight Today. New York Times (May 3, 1929): 14.
DOCTORS ARE FREED IN BIRTH CLINIC RAID: Court Holds Prosecution Failed to
Show That Giving of Information Violated Law .MRS. SANGER SEES
VICTORY Defense Counsel Citizens Decision in Limiting Instruction to Married
Women. Rules "Good Faith" Is Test. Mrs. Sanger Sees Gain of Years. Limitation
in Ruling Criticized. New York Times (May 15, 1929): 20.
DARROW POKES FUN AT CENSORSHIP: Attorney in Boston Address Also Takes
Up Cudgels for Birth Control Advocates. New York Times (April 16, 2013):12.
"Raid Sanger Clinic on Birth Control." New York Times (Apr 16, 1929): 25.
"Republican Forces Win Tariff Victory on Appraisal Item." New York Times, (Oct 11,
1929.) Accessed March 6, 2013
SEES GOOD IN CLINIC RAID.: Mrs. Sanger Says It Brought Friends to Birth Control
Movement. New York Times (May 8, 1929): 11.
Sanger, Margaret. My Fight for Birth Control. New York, NY: Farrar & Rinehart, inc., 1931.
Secondary Sources:
Boyer, Paul S. Purity in Print Book Censorship in America From the Gilded Age to the
Computer Age. 2nd ed. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002
Foster, Henry H., Jr., The Comstock LoadObscenity and the Law. The Journal of
Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 48, no. 3 (September-October 1957)

Lewis, Felice Flanery. Literature, Obscenity and Law. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1976.
Parker, Alison M. Purifying America: Women, Cultural Reform, and Pro-Censorship Activism,
1873-1933. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Reed, James. From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American
Society Since 1830. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1978.
Semonche, John E. Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media New York,
NY: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.