1873 March 3

Comstock Act Passed; Era of Censorship Begins


Named after Anthony Comstock, a U.S. postal inspector, the Comstock Act became the most notorious censorship law in American history. The law was used to censor publications, particularly with regard to information and devices related to birth control and abortion, through the first decades of the twentieth century. It also added the word “comstockery” to the American language. The term was created by the noted playwright George Bernard Shaw after Comstock had notified the New York City police about his play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873 and led its anti-obscenity crusade until his death, on September 21, 1915. He was succeeded as head of the Society by John Sumner, who continued his crusade.

The Comstock Law prohibited: “[any] obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper or other material, or any cast instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion . . .”

Learn more about Anthony Comstock: Heywood Broun and Margaret Leach, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (1927)

Learn about Comstock at the U. S. Postal Inspection Service here.

And about the censorship crusade: Paul Boyer, Purity in Print: The Vice-Society Movement and Book Censorship in America (1968)

Read Margaret Sanger’s 1915 denunciation, “Comstockery in America”: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/webedition/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=303242.xml

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