1840s New York Smut Revisited


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Last Tuesday’s Village Voice included a great review (by Tom Robbins) of The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. Robbins writes:

Like [Al] Goldstein’s Screw, the publishers [of long-forgotten sex rags from the early 1840s] chose titles that got right to the point: The Whip, The Rake, The Libertine, The Flash, and others with even shorter publishing lives. One of these, The New York Sporting Whip, offered a kind of mission statement: “Man is endowed by nature with passions that must be gratified,” the newspaper asserted, “and no blame can be attached to him, who for that purpose occasionally seeks the woman of pleasure.”

The so-called “father of the smutty papers” was William J. Snelling, a hard-drinking Bostoner who dropped out of West Point, hunted with the Dakota Indians, and helped found anti-slavery organizations. Inspired by a sex scandal involving a wealthy theater producer, Snelling launched The Sunday Flash in 1841 together with an eccentric minstrel singer named George Washington Dixon. They didn’t mince words: The theater producer in question, they wrote, was “a hoary leper,” a “Scoundrel whom even Texas vomited from her afflicted bowels.”

The papers were an immediate hit. Newsboys hawked them for six cents apiece at ferry landings and oyster bars. Paid circulation averaged 10,000 to 12,000 per issue. Among the surefire circulation-building devices were in-depth reviews of the city’s hundreds of brothels. “Princess Julia’s Palace of Love,” a story in the June 6, 1841, edition of a weekly called Dixon’s Polyanthos, depicted a popular brothel run by a fashionable madam named Julia Brown: “On ascending the second story, up the splendid steps, you fall in, with apartment No. 1. This room is occupied by Lady Ellen, and a glorious lady she is, with the dark flashing orbs, and full of feeling—so full of intellect that one might stand and gaze, and gaze . . .”

The full review is here.

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