Anthony Comstock, Censorship and Obscenity


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lust on trialAmy Werbel’s new book Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (Columbia University Press, 2018) takes a look at Anthony Comstock, America’s first professional censor.

In Lust on Trial, Werbel presents a colorful journey through Comstock’s career that doubles as a new history of post–Civil War America’s risqué visual and sexual culture.

Born into a puritanical New England community, Anthony Comstock moved to New York in 1868 armed with his Christian faith and a burning desire to rid the city of vice.

From 1873 to 1915, as Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock led a spirited crusade against lasciviousness, salaciousness, and obscenity that resulted in the confiscation and incineration of more than three million pictures, postcards, and books he personally judged to be obscene.

Werbel describes how Comstock’s opposing women who preached sexual liberation and empowerment, suppressing contraceptives, and restricting artistic expression, drew the ire of civil liberties advocates, inspiring more open attitudes toward sexual and creative freedom and more sophisticated legal defenses.

Amy Werbel is associate professor of the history of art at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She is the author of Thomas Eakins: Art, Medicine, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (2007).

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