Obscenity and the Comstock Act 1873

Obscenity and the Comstock Act 1873

Obscenity and the Comstock Act 1873
The Comstock Act, named after moralist Anthony Comstock who is shown here, banned the circulation
of educational materials related to legal birth control – Obscenity and the Comstock Act 1873

Anthony Comstock (1844–1915), George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)

Sending “obscene, vulgar, or lascivious,” “immoral,” or “indecent” books over the mail was made criminal by the Comstock Act of 1873. Selling, giving away, or possessing an obscene book, pamphlet, photograph, sketch, or advertisement became a misdemeanour under the law.

Even if prepared by a physician, the legislation’s scope encompassed writings or documents relating to contraception and abortion. Although the act was formally named An Act for the Suppression of Trade in and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use, it lacked a definition of obscenity.

In reaction to the growth of obscene materials in the 1870s, Congress passed the Comstock Act. The leader of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock, had showed members of Congress filthy images and pushed legislators to adopt the bill to prevent juvenile crime and corruption.

Anthony Comstock enforces the new obscenity legislation by arresting people

After the bill was approved, Comstock was assigned to the United States Postal Service as a special agent charged with executing the legislation. Comstock was able to arrest people under the new statute with the support of his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Cupid’s Yokes, written in the 1870s by Ezra Heywood, a feminist who researched women’s roles in society, stated that women should have the freedom to regulate their own bodies. Heywood was arrested by Comstock because he thought this was indecent.

De Robigne Mortimer Bennett, a libertarian, was also detained after receiving a copy of Cupid’s Yokes through the mail. During Bennett’s federal trial, the court dismissed the defense’s move to present the complete work to the jury, claiming that only the obscene parts were relevant.

“I suppose the test is this, if the tendency of the substance accused as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt individuals whose minds are subject to immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this type may fall,” the judge said, referring to a British ruling in Regina v. Hicklin (1868). The federal courts applied this approach until 1933, when in United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses, Judge John M. Woolsey concentrated on the literary worth of the full work of James Joyce’s Ulysses, rather than a few parts (S.D.N.Y. 1933).

Petitioners ask Congress to repeal the law but are refused

In 1878, the National Liberal League and the National Defense Association presented Congress with a petition calling for the repeal of the Comstock Act, which had been signed by more than 50,000 persons.

The petitioners claimed that the law’s anti-obscenity provisions were “implemented to undermine the liberty of conscience in questions of religion, against the freedom of the press, and to the grave detriment of the learned professions.” The appeal was refused by the House Committee on Revision of Laws because the post office was not founded to transmit obscene words, indecent images, or filthy literature.

Comstock Act banned information about birth control

The portions of the statute dealing with birth control were zealously enforced by Comstock. Several physicians were arrested and convicted for distributing written materials that explained pregnancy and how to avoid it. This alarmed social reformers since it made it difficult for women to limit the number of their families, which was especially difficult for those with low means.

Margaret Sanger, an activist, fought for the act’s birth control requirements to be overturned, which the courts did in United States v. One Package (2d Cir. 1936). Doctors could now lawfully ship birth control devices and information across the country as a result of this judgment.


The First Blue Laws (1629);

Censorship and Ulysses (1933);

The Limits on Obscenity (1957);

The Body and the Right of Privacy (1965);

A New Obscenity Standard (1973);

The FCC and Filthy Words (1978).


Obscenity and the Comstock Act 1873

Anthony Comstock

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)