Documenting Censorship’s Pyrrhic Victories

This week, our featured title is Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock. Today, we are happy to present a guest post from author Amy Werbel.

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For the better part of a decade, I scoured archives, historical societies, and eBay searching for surviving examples of the materials seized and destroyed by Anthony Comstock, Secretary and Agent of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice [NYSSV] between 1873 and 1915. The images and texts I unearthed, many of which now are published in Lust on Trial, effectively demonstrate an enduring lesson about the effects of censorship campaigns in the United States: While it is certainly possible to temporarily ‘cleanse’ the public sphere, doing so provokes more resistance than compliance, thus resulting in short-lived, Pyrrhic victories.

Take for example the following creations of American provocateurs, which ultimately circulated in far larger quantities thanks to zealous efforts to suppress them:

Issued by Allen & Ginter (American, Richmond, Virginia), Annie Sutherland, from the Actors and Actresses series (N45, Type 1) for Virginia Brights Cigarettes, ca. 1888.  Albumen photograph, 2/3/4 x 1 3/8 in. (7 x 3.5 cm). The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick. Metropolitan Museum of Art. (63.350.203.45.546)

In 1884, the photographer Jose Maria Mora was compelled to destroy a photographic plate representing the actress Annie Sutherland dressed in pants with a supposedly suggestive crotch-height fringe. Although Sutherland was termed a “strumpet” in the course of the trial, the publicity seems only to have helped her career. A photograph of Sutherland taken in 1888 shows the actress once again wearing a man’s wide-brimmed hat and vest, with tights, leather shorts, and the addition of large “loops” strung at the level of her crotch. The “loops” and “shadows” that had been termed suggestive of her “private parts” now were a popular and well-publicized part of her brand. Perhaps most damaging to hopes of suppressing these “indecent” features is the fact that by 1888, they also were reproduced on hundreds of thousands of trade cards as branding for “Virginia Brights Cigarettes.” Censorship had helped to make cross-dressing chic, modern, and profitable on a corporate scale.

Knowlton, Photographer, The Famous Rahl and Bradley Living Bronze Statues: Orpheus and Euridice, ca. 1895. Albumen print on card mount, mount 17 x 11 cm. (cabinet card format). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Living Statues exhibitions of unmoving stage performers in classical poses might sound like a snooze today, but their tantalizing glimpses of flesh veiled only by white or bronze body paint were enough to bring out audiences in droves. When a judge in New York in 1895 acquitted arrested performers on the basis that body paint was “less immodest than tights,” the Buffalo Morning Express quipped that this was “a worse blow to business than a conviction would have been. The popular demand now will be for an immediate return to tights.” Dozens of stage acts across the country took advantage of publicity surrounding the New York City trial to add “living bronze sculptures” to their vaudeville acts in 1895, thus capitalizing on the potential for higher profits.

What I Saw Through the Keyhole, ca. 1909. Postcard. Collection, Frederick S. Lane

In the NYSSV’s Annual Report for 1905, Anthony Comstock complained: “In the early part of the year it seemed as if the streets were flooded and shop windows filled with foul pictures, displayed upon post cards.” The quantities were staggering. In 1905, NYSSV agents seized nearly 110,000 postcards in Brooklyn alone. Comstock recorded seizing a series of postcards titled “Through the Keyhole in the Door,” which mirrored a similar subject already popular in kinetoscope slot machines. Both media now were saturated with voyeuristic scenes promising an engagement with the realities of sexuality unhindered by censors determined to slam the door shut between private encounters and the public domain.

As Lust on Trial amply demonstrates, forty years of zealous American censorship of visual culture produced Pyrrhic victories far more often than stated objectives, offering a cautionary tale for our own time.

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