Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock
by Amy Werbel
Columbia University Press, 2018
Reviewed by Marcela Micucci
Anthony Comstock was a household name in nineteenth-century America, so much so that his last name became synonymous with a movement and set of laws that sought to censor obscenity and eradicate vice. Historian Amy Werbel explores this anti-obscenity movement — and its champion — in her provocative and cutting-edge work, Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (2018).
Few nineteenth-century figures reached Anthony Comstock’s notoriety. From the 1870s until his death in 1915, the social purity crusader earned a reputation, for better or worse, as the nation’s most stringent and unyielding defender of Victorian morality. He rigorously prosecuted any business or individual in violation of the “Comstock Act,” of which he was the creator and chief proponent. Passed by Congress in 1873, the law outlawed the circulation of “obscene literature and articles for immoral use,” including “any obscene book or pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation” of sexual nature. During his time as special agent of the United States Post Office, Comstock confiscated hundreds of thousands of books, photographs, and any other material he deemed immoral, ranging from sexual charms and toys to birth control and contraceptive devices to nude paintings and reproductions of classical art.
Amy Werbel's Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock
By Daniela Sheinin
Much has been written on the American “New Woman,” what the historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox calls “both an image and an appellation referring to a generation of women who came of age between 1890 and 1920 and challenged, through their attitudes and appearances, Victorian values and gender norms.” Her identity varied by race, class, ethnicity, and age. The New Woman breached gender norms, pressed for a public voice, and has been tied by some to feminism, the campaign for women’s suffrage, consumer culture, and female sexuality. New and sometimes radical fashion trends marked an expression of New Woman feminism and a break from a gendered, culturally confining past. These included versions of the Japanese kimono and the “ ‘Village smock,’ a bohemian version of the kimono and the dress item most associated with Greenwich Village feminists.” Moreover, there’s evidence that manufacturers produced low-price knockoffs of the kimono and other New Woman fashion trends, eagerly consumed by some working class women.
By Martin Lund
Michael Angelo Woolf was never primarily a political cartoonist in the common sense of the word. He made “[s]ome vigorous cartoons of Tweed during Nast’s raid on the ring, and some cartoons which alternated with Nast’s in the Hayes-Tilden campaign [in the 1880 Presidential election], [which] are remembered as his best work in this line.” But, his obituarist stresses, “he never strayed long from the sketching of types and the preaching of sermons in pictures, half humorous, half pathetic.” The foreword to Sketches of Lowly Life in a Great City, a collection of Woolf’s work published shortly after his death, praised his work and personality:“In the tenderness, sincerity, and simplicity of his work are to be found theelements which were most conspicuous in the personality of the late M. A. Woolf, together with unostentatious charity and a humor, unique in contemporary art, which, while always manly and honest, possessed the power to move as well to tears as to laughter.”
By Martin Lund
“The father of the modern comic picture -- the man who woke the laughter of a generation [...]
-- died at 1 o’clock yesterday morning,” the New York Times declared on March 5, 1899. The deceased was Michael Angelo Woolf, a now largely-forgotten cartoonist who in his own time, as the obituary’s epithets for him suggest, was both well-known and well-liked. Born in London in 1837, Woolf moved to America at a young age and first pursued an acting career in Philadelphia. At the close of the Civil War, he turned his efforts instead to art and went to France for instruction. After returning to America, and beginning in the magazine Wild Oats in the 1870s, Woolf would focus much of his career in cartooning on drawing his then-famous illustrations of “waifs,” a character type that was inspired by New York City street urchins. Returning to the life of the city’s poor time and time again, in a career that spanned some thirty-odd years, Woolf, a generally liberal and sometimes conservative cartoonist, opened up a world of which many of Harper’s Weekly, Judge, and LIFE’s middle class readers had little first-hand knowledge.
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