Mar 3, 1873: Congress Bans Sending Obscene Materials Through the Mail

Portrait of Anthony Comstock

Congress enacts the so-called Comstock Law, making it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” book through the mails. Also unlawful under the law is sending anything “designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.”

The law was named after Anthony Comstock, the one-man moral majority of his time. Comstock, a salesman from Connecticut, found allies for his campaign at the New York YMCA. He devoted his entire life to fighting what he perceived as vice, particularly obscenity and gambling. As he once explained, “the place for a woman’s body to be denuded is in the privacy of her own apartments with the blinds drawn.”

Many of today’s armchair moralists who have attacked Hollywood for an alleged role in the 1999 Littleton, Colorado killings would have appreciated Comstock’s views. He described children as a glass of pure and clean water that is easily tainted with a drop of ink. Mixing metaphors, he then said that “vile books and papers are branding-irons heated in the fires of hell.”

The Comstock Law prompted many states to add laws of their own, and heavy-handed restrictions on sexually oriented material continued for many years. James Joyce’s Ulysses was even barred from the United States until court challenges finally determined that it was not obscene. The current Supreme Court standard exempts from obscenity prosecution any material that has literary value.

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