The Comstock Act or Law is a federal act passed by the United States Congress on March 3, 1873, as the Act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use”. The Act criminalized usage of the U.S. Postal Service to send any of the following items:
* sex toys,
* or any information regarding the above items.In places like Washington D.C., where the federal government had direct jurisdiction, the act also made it a misdemeanor, punishable by fine and imprisonment, to sell, give away, or have in possession any “obscene” publication.The law was named after its chief proponent, Anthony Comstock. Due to his own personal enforcement of the law during its early days, Comstock received a commission from the postmaster general to serve as a special agent for the U.S. Postal Services.
The Comstock Act 17 Stat. 598
Be it enacted…. That whoever, within the District of Columbia or any of the Territories of the United States… shall sell… or shall offer to sell, or to lend, or to give away, or in any manner to exhibit, or shall otherwise publish or offer to publish in any manner, or shall have in his possession, for any such purpose or purposes, an 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, 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, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof in any court of the United States… he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court.
New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV or SSV) was an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public, founded in 1873. Its specific mission was to monitor compliance with state laws and work with the courts and district attorneys in bringing offenders to justice. It and its members also pushed for additional laws against perceived immoral conduct. While the NYSSV is better remembered for its opposition to literary works, it also closely monitored the news-stands, commonly found on city sidewalks and in transportation terminals, which sold the popular magazines of the day.
The NYSSV was founded by Anthony Comstock and his supporters in the Young Men’s Christian Association. It was chartered by the New York state legislature, which granted its agents powers of search, seizure and arrest, and awarded the society 50% of all fines levied in resulting cases. After his death in 1915, Comstock was succeeded by John S. Sumner. In 1947, the organization’s name was changed to the Society to Maintain Public Decency. After Sumner’s retirement in 1950, the organization was dissolved. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice is not to be confused with its namesake, the earlier, 19th-century Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Beisel, Nicola. 1997. Imperiled Innocents: [[Anthony Comstock]] and Family Reproduction in Victorian America. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Gurstein, Rochelle. 1996. The Repeal of Reticence: A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. New York: Hill & Wang.
March 3, 1873: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875. Statutes at Large, 42nd Congress, 3rd Session. Page 598 of 1131. online