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28 April 2023

US Post Office, censorship, sex and gender - Comstockery

First published March 2013.

Most countries use their postal systems to censor correspondence and publications.   This is in addition to censorship though the court system.  The usual excuse is that of security, but once censorship is in place it often extends to sex and gender topics.   And of course this censorship means that somebody at the post office opens your parcels to check inside.

Anthony Comstock
This article is just about the US.

1872.  Post Office Act, §148 made it illegal to send any obscene or disloyal materials

1873.  The Comstock Law.  An amendment to the Post Office Act of 1872 made it illegal to send any "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials “or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, or shall write or print, or cause to be written or printed, any card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind, stating when, where, how, or of whom, or by what means, any of the articles in this section…can be purchased or obtained, or shall manufacture, draw, or print, or in any wise make any of such articles”.  The law was named after Anthony Comstock who became postal inspector,  He was also head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  He prohibited the sending of anatomy books to medical students.  Comstock bragged in 1913, two years before his death, that he had been responsible for the criminal conviction of enough people to fill a 61-coach passenger train -- over 3,600 people.  He was responsible for the destruction of 160 tons of literature and pictures.

1876. A pamphlet by Edward Bliss Foote, inventor of the rubber diaphragm, was the first US publication on birth control to run afoul of the Comstock law. Foote was fined $3,000 for publishing his pamphlet, Confidential Pamphlet for the Married; Words in Pearl for Married People Only.  Birth control information went underground: even in medical textbooks, contraception was unmentionable.

1895. The English playwright, George Bernard Shaw wrote an editorial for the New York Times making fun of Comstock's rules, and mocked them as 'Comstockery'.

1897.  Henry Addis and Abner J. Pope, publishers of a Portland, Oregon anarchist newspaper, Firebrand were arrested and their paper closed for sending an allegedly obscene poem by Walt Whitman through the mail.

1901.  Lois Waisbrooker of Home, Washington (an anarchist colony) was fined $100 for The Awful Fate of a Fallen Woman.  The postmistress for Home, was also charged for mailing it, but was acquitted.

1902Discontent: Mother of Progress also printed in Home, Washington, an article written by James W. Adams defending free love and criticizing formal monogamous marriage as hypocritical. Federal officials charged the editor, James E. Larkin, the printer, Charles L. Govan, and Adams with mailing obscene literature.   However the judge deemed the article to be, though radical, not obscene.

1903.  Home, Washington, being ‘a settlement of avowed anarchists and free lovers, the members of which society on numerous instances, with the apparent sanction of the entire community, have abused the privileges of the post office establishment and department’ lost its post office and did not get it back until 1958, but even then was not allowed its traditional name.

1911.  A report by the Chicago Vice Commission, headed by Dean Summer of the Episcopal Church, was banned from the mails.

1915.  Architect William Sanger was charged under the New York law against disseminating contraceptive information.  Anthony Comstock, at the height of his power, appointed by President Wilson as the International Purity Congress delegate in San Francisco, testified at his trial. Sanger died shortly after on September 21st.

1916. Ricardo Flores Magón, anarchist and Latino activist, arrested on charges of defamation and sending indecent materials through the mail. He was sent to USP Leavenworth. In 1922, he died in his cell, maybe murdered by a guard.

1918. Sanger’s wife, Margaret similarly charged.  On appeal, her conviction was reversed on the grounds that contraceptive devices could legally be promoted for the cure and prevention of disease.

1920.  The US Post Office seized and burned four issues  of The Little Review, edited by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, that contained excerpts from James Joyce’s Ulysses. The next year, they were tried and found guilty of obscenity, fined $100 and forced to discontinue serializing the book.

1921.  William Hays appointed new Postmaster General.  He was quoted in The New York Times:  “It is no part of the primary business of the Post Office Department to act as censor of the press. This should not and will not be”.  Mary Ware Dennett met with Hays who implied that he would recommend to congress that contraceptive information be removed from the definition of what is obscene.

1922.  William Hays quit as Postmaster General without keeping his promise to Mary Ware Dennett.  He became president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.

Mademoiselle de Maupin by Théophile Gautier, a tale of a cross-dressing woman,was cleared of obscenity in the 1922 case Halsey v. New York.

Mary Ware Dennett’s pamphlet, The Sex Side of Life-An Explanation for Young People, after having been in circulation over four years, was declared unmailable as obscenity.

1927.  The Post Office and the Customs Bureau issued a list of 739 books and pamphlets to be banned by department officials. The arbitrary list included many foreign books that had been published in the US in English for years without prosecution. “Other volumes were passed in the English version and excluded in the French or Italian; or excluded in Spanish while being passed in French or Italian.”  However the list was withdrawn in 1930 after pressure from a New Mexico Senator.

H.L. Mencken, editor of The American Mercury was arrested for selling obscene literature. His April contained “Hatrack”, a chapter from an upcoming book about a prostitute by Herbert Asbury, and “The New View of Sex”, an editorial essay by George Jean Nathan. Mencken was tried and acquitted two days later. The day after the trial and after all the April issues were mailed to subscribers, the Solicitor of the U.S. Postal Service Department, Horace J. Donnelly, decreed the issue obscene and unmailable.

1928.  Mary Ware Dennett was fined $300, for distributing her pamphlet. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), appealed her conviction and won a reversal, in which the judge ruled that the pamphlet's main purpose was to "promote understanding".

1929.  Radclyffe Hall’s pioneering trans man novel, The Well of Loneliness, was published in the US after already having been banned in the UK. It was seized in New York.  This was successfully challenged in court.

1930. Ex-Postmaster General, William Hays, introduced the Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code, which removed most adult representation of sex and gender for the next few decades.

1932.  Margaret Sanger arranged for a shipment of diaphragms to be mailed from Japan to a sympathetic doctor in New York City. When U.S. customs confiscated the package as illegal contraceptive devices, Sanger helped file a lawsuit. In 1936, a federal appeals court ruled in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries that the federal government could not interfere with doctors providing contraception to their patients.

1933. The Nudist was banned even though genitals were airbrushed.  The US Supreme Court disagreed.

1935.  Ban on contraceptives declared unconstitutional.

1938.  A Catholic Group, The National Office for Decent Literature, was founded with a list of topics including homosexuality and transvestism that were to be proscribed. To avoid trouble most publishers and editors engaged in self censorship, and avoided such topics.

1953.  The August issue of ONE Magazine, a homophile publication, was confiscated by the Los Angeles postmaster.  However the Federal Solicitor General determined in 3 weeks that the issue was not obscene, and the confiscated copies were returned.

1954.  ONE Magazine October issue was seized because of “Sappho Remembered”, an advertisement for a Swiss magazine, Der Kreis “with beautiful photos”, and a poem about homosexuality in England.

1957Samuel Roth’s American Aphrodite, containing literary erotica and nude photography was convicted.   The Supreme Court upheld the ruling.

Attorney Eric Jilber refused help from the ACLU, and lost ONE’s case in the Court of Appeal.  The three judges deemed the issue “morally depraved and debasing”

520 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, being imported from a printer in London, were seized by US Customs.  Then the manager of City Lights Bookstore and publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, were tried for publishing and selling the book. The ACLU  supported the defendants and nine literary experts testified on the book’s behalf.  It was acquitted on appeal.

1958. The US supreme Court ruled, re One Magazine, in its first ever case involving homosexuality, that the Post Office was discriminating and denying equal protection.  Hence homosexual content is not obscene simply because it is homosexual.

1959. The US publisher of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover won his case and its appeal against the US Post Office’s censorship.

1960. Nan Gilbert in New England, a publisher of petticoat-punishment fantasies, had his mail stopped and was fined $500.

1961. H Lynn Womack, gay erotica publisher, successfully sued the post office for confiscating Grecian Guild magazine.

Susanna Valenti was summoned by postal officials. Two of her correspondents had been charged with mailing obscene materials, and Susanna’s name had come up. Tito, her male persona, pleaded respectability and denounced the obscenities.

Virginia Prince was actually arrested re personal correspondence to another transvestite, thought to be a woman, who was already under investigation. Prince pleaded guilty in a plea bargain to sending obscene material through the mail. With a five-year probationary sentence, he was liable to be imprisoned if caught cross-dressed in public. However his lawyer persuaded the court to include educating the public about cross-dressing as part of the probation order.

1963.  Sanford Aday & Wallace de Ortega Maxey, mail-order erotica publishers, both of the homophile Mattachine Society, indicted on 18 counts of Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material, convicted of 5.  Of the 8 books named, only Sex Life of a Cop was found obscene. They were fined $25,000 each and sentenced to 25 years in prison (although the conviction was reversed by the US Supreme Court a few years later).  There is now a Sanford Aday collection at California State University, Fresno.

1965. The U.S. Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut struck down one of the remaining contraception Comstock laws in Connecticut and Massachusetts. However, Griswold only applied to marital relationships.

1972. Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) extended its holding to unmarried persons as well.

1973.  Abortion became legal under privacy laws

1996.  The Comstock Act was revived into Title V of the Telecommunications Act.

2023.  Mifepristone, an abortion pill was subject to litigation, and the never-repealed Comstock laws were cited to ban its mailings.  If the right wing succeed in banning mailings of  mifepristone, will viagra, the drugs used by gay men and hormones for trans persons be likewise banned?

  • Darrell Raynor. A Year Among the Girls. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1966. New York: Lancer Books, 1968: 74.
  • Lori Klatt Maurice.  Stamping Out Indecency: The Postal Way. March 8, 2004.   Online
  • Richard F Docter. “Battles with the Postal Authorities”.  Chp 12 in From Man to Woman: The Transgender Journey of Virginia Prince. Docter Press, 2004: 109-112.
  • Jed Birmingham. “Obscenity and the Post Office”.  Reality Studio, 18 May 2006.  Online.
  • Lillian Faderman & Stuart Timmons. Gay L. A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. New York: Basic Books, 2006: 116-120.
  • Susan Stryker.  Transgender History. Berkeley: Seal Press.  2008: 52-3.
  • Stephen J Gertz.  ““Sex Life of a Cop” Chows Down Big Donuts at Paperbacks Show for Record $”.  Seattle PI, 2010/03/22.  Online.
  • Tanya Lewis. "This 19th-Century Obscenity Law Is Still Restricting People's Reproductive Rights". Scientific American, April 28, 2023.

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