Thursday, 12 June 2014

Comstockery - Art Blanched

Mr Anthony "Not Much Fun" Comstock Whatever would he have thought of the interweb? 


Noun. Capitalised and uncapitalised. Early 20th century.
[from Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), member of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.]

Excessive opposition to supposed immorality in the arts; prudery.

Anthony Comstock does not leap from the history books as a particularly likeable fellow. A ferocious crusader in the name of public morality in the U.S, his eponymous Comstock Act of 1873 criminalised the publication, distribution and possession of obscene or immoral literature. Falling foul of these laws could land you with a fine of up to $2,000, and even imprisonment with hard labour.

Although the Act was primarily written to tackle pornography, its application was so broad that it was used to attack such things as anatomical textbooks, medical literature on birth-control and contraception, guide books on sex and sexual health, and various works of art and literature that were deemed obscene.

While obscenity is, by its nature, a subjective debate, it was Comstock's rabid prosecution of his targets that perhaps leaves the worst taste in the mouth. He boasted, for example, of making over 4,000 arrests during his career, and of driving 15 of his marks to suicide, including the campaigner for free speech and women's rights Ida Craddock, who took her own after being imprisoned for her manual for married couples The Wedding Night.

Because of such passionate prosecution, history does not look with much favour on the barbarously burnsided Anthony Comstock. The noun Comstockery, meaning excessive opposition to supposed immorality in the arts, was coined by George Bernard Shaw, who wrote in The New York Times: "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States."

Do please leave any comments in the box below.
(thought any obscenity will be comstocked)


  1. The most appalling thing is that he probably meant well. The path to Hell...

    1. One couldn't help but detect a modicum of glee in his well-meaning do-goodery.

  2. As is usually the case with the puritanical it would be interesting to know what Mr Comstock got up to behind closed doors? Sadly I can't find any evidence although there's plenty of salacious anecdotal evidence of a certain admirer of Comstock, most notably a young law student named J. Edgar Hoover.

    1. Ha! A nail in the coffin of my assessment of Mr Comstock was when I read he was admired by Hoover. Bleugh!