Featured Document Display: Vicecapades: 150th Anniversary of the 1873 Comstock Act

Thursday, March 2, 2023 - Wednesday, April 26, 2023
East Rotunda Gallery

An Act for the Suppression of, trade in, and circulation of obscene literature and articles of immoral use known as the Comstock Act

Anthony Comstock (1844–1915), a self-appointed guardian of public morality, successfully lobbied Congress for stricter obscenity laws and secured an appointment as a special agent to the United States Postal Service with broad powers to police the mails. The law did not define obscenity—Comstock did. In court cases, he often barred jurors from seeing the item in question, saying that it was too vile to show them.

Among the many items banned by the 1873 Comstock Act were books on anatomy, works by British author D. H. Lawrence, information about contraception, and photographs of boxing matches. Anthony Comstock boasted that in his lifetime he seized 150 tons of books, made 4,000 arrests, and drove 15 people to suicide. 

Letter from Anthony Comstock to M.D. Wheeler
In this letter to the Chief Post Office Inspector, Comstock informs him that someone he had charged with mailing obscene material pled guilty in court and was fined $500. 

Letter from Anthony Comstock, Post Office Inspector, to M. D. Wheeler, Chief Post Office Inspector, 1894
National Archives, Records of the Post Office Department


Image Credit:  “St. Anthony Comstock, the Village Nuisance” (vignette) by Louis M. Glackens, 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress (detail)


Thursday, March 2, 2023 - Wednesday, April 26, 2023