meaning and origin of ‘Comstockism’ and ‘Comstockery’

Of American-English origin, the nouns Comstockism and Comstockery denote strict censorship of, or excessive opposition to, alleged immorality in art or literature.

These nouns are from the name of Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), an anti-vice activist, United States Postal Inspector, and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The following is his obituary, published in The Daily New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) of Wednesday 22nd September 1915:

Anthony Comstock died at Summit, N. J., Tuesday evening. His death was caused by pneumonia. He was seventy-one years old. From the battlefields of the civil war he returned to New York city in 1867 to pass through various stages of work before he found his real battle in life—the fight against vice and obscene literature, as he saw it; a crusade against the atrocious in literature and the base in business; activities which made him a national character and one of the best known figures of his time.
Before he made his first arrest of venders of obscene books, on March 5, 1873, he worked as porter, stock clerk and salesman in wholesale dry goods houses, from 1867 to 1873. In 1873 he became secretary and special agent of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He held that position until his death.
In addition, he was appointed a special agent in the Postoffice Department on March 5, 1873. He held that position, which is now known as an inspectorship, and served the Government without pay until January, 1907. During that time he mare [sic] more than 3,600 arrests and, according to figures published, he seized more than 155 tons of obscene literature and other printed matter.
What he accomplished in his attacks on these various iniquities has been shown by the laws and statute books. The act of Congress of 1873, with the amendment of 1876, making it a felony to send obscene matter through the mails, was drafted by Mr. Comstock. In his office was drawn up the amendment to the Revised Statutes of the nation that furnished a basis for prosecution against various fraudulent schemes, the bill which drove the lotteries from the country and many other laws.
In 1897 Anthony Comstock and one of his agents seized 150 copies of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s book, “The Triumph of Death,” [note 1] in a New York office; In 1906 he got a patrol wagon and raided the rooms of the Art Students League at 215 West Fifty-seventh street, carrying off all of the copies of the June number of the magazine published by the school. This number of the magazine contained many art studies, including pictures of nudes. His most recent act in the milieux of art which became widely known was his opposition to the displaying of the painting known as “September Morn,” [note 2] which was on view in a shop in the Forties, between Fifth and Sixth avenues.
He not only objected to “September Morn,” Chabas’s painting of a nude girl standing in a stream, but he seized postcards with a reproductions [sic] of the picture. This was a year ago. In 1913 he raided Mitchell Kennerley’s bookshop and had the publisher arrested for the publication of the novel “Hagar Revelly.” [note 3]

The following editorial, published in The New York Times (New York City, New York) of Thursday 12th December 1895, evokes the misery and human damage that Anthony Comstock’s actions inflicted:

COMSTOCKERY.

Our esteemed contemporary the Courrier des Etats-Unis relates the melancholy sequel of Mr. Comstock’s latest raid, or latest but one, in the interest of outraged morality. This was the raid upon a poor Frenchman who was trying to support his family by keeping a little book shop in Fifth Avenue, and was bewildered into pleading guilty of the charge of dealing in obscene literature, and who had in stock a costly volume which is alleged, and not, we believe, denied, to have been mutilated and rendered valueless by the censor. The poor man had no money to pay his fine, and is therefore sentenced to serve it out to the extent of a hundred and fifty days. His wife, to preserve what was left of the business, had to engage a shopman. Both she and her child have fallen ill. The neighbors have made up a purse to pay the fine, but the amount not being sufficient, they make a public appeal through the Courrier. We are glad to add, for the benefit of sympathetic persons not of the French colony, that any sums they may be moved to contribute for this purpose may be addressed to Mr. Bruwaert, the French Consul General.
Comment upon this case, to those who have followed it, would be either needless or hopeless. We observe with pleasure that in a more recent case of what will be readily understood if classified as Comstockery Justice Jerome has expressed the opinion of sane persons; and with pain that his colleagues on the bench have outnumbered him.
Meanwhile the French bookseller languishes in prison and his family is in extreme misery. But their persecutor has “protected the morals of the young and inexperienced” by preventing prurient boys from appeasing their pruriency by the purchase of fifty-dollar books.

The earliest occurrence of Comstockism that I have found is from an editorial published in The New York Herald (New York City, N.Y.) of Sunday 17th November 1878—this editorial also contains the adjective Comstockian:

Curiosities of Comstockism.

The recent action of Mr. Anthony Comstock, the agent of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, in compelling a Fulton street confectioner to remove from exhibition in his window a copy of Hans Makart’s great painting of “Charles V.’s Entry Into Antwerp,” [note 4] on the ground that it is an “obscene picture,” is an affair of great cry and little wool. Many people have supposed it to have been only an advertising trick, like Mrs. Tom-Ri-Jon’s fancy dress [note 5]. But the President of Mr. Comstock’s society treats it as a serious matter, and draws some curious distinctions to show when, in the society’s opinion, art is art and when it becomes obscenity. For instance, copies and photographs of the original of the picture that excited Mr. Comstock’s anger may be imported and sold by booksellers, exhibited in print stores or reproduced in engravings in pictorial papers. That is Comstockian art. But they must not be displayed in confectioners’ windows, where bull’s-eyes and lollipops attract juvenile customers. That is Comstockian obscenity. Powers’ Greek Slave [note 6] in an art gallery would be a very proper female; in a retail store window a very improper one. But the President of the Comstock society says that the offending picture was never ordered to be removed from the candy man’s window. This conflicts with the statements of the confectioner and the agent, the former of whom states that its removal was ordered under penalty of seizure and arrest, while the latter has declared that he would have carried out his threat if the exhibition of the picture had continued.
The Society for the Suppression of Vice has, no doubt, accomplished much substantial good in this community. So has the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [note 7]. The public morals are better protected now than they were a few years ago, and dumb animals of the present generation are better off, thanks to Mr. Bergh, than their ancestors were. But Mr. Bergh’s excellent society does not add to its popularity and usefulness when it interferes with pigeon shooting and turtle tying, and Mr. Comstock’s society will not win laurels by taking up the cudgels against works of art on the ground of the naughtiness of slimly draped figures.

The following humorous paragraph from Notes and Comment, in the Buffalo Morning Express (Buffalo, New York) of Saturday 23rd November 1878, plays on the figurative and literal meanings of the adjective naked:

Comstockism has gone so far, according to the New-York Commercial, that a good many of us are afraid to face the naked truth.

The earliest occurrence of Comstockery that I have found is from Gossip of the Day, in The Daily American (Nashville, Tennessee) of Saturday 13th April 1889:

Mr. Anthony Comstock appears to have carried terror into the peaceful town of Summit, N. J., by insisting on the enforcement of absolute blue laws [note 8] which prevent Sunday comfort. The good people of Summit are afraid to ride abroad, or buy a newspaper or a cigar, or get shaved on Sunday. We suggest to the Summit yeomen that they look into the blue laws for themselves, and see what statutory use there may be for horse-ponds [note 9]. They will no doubt find such connection between Comstockery and horse-ponds as may prove very suggestive and comforting.

 

 

Notes

 

1: Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938) was an Italian novelist, playwright and poet; Il trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death) was published in 1894.

 

2: This is September Morn (circa 1912), by the French painter Paul Émile Chabas (1869-1937)—source: Wikimedia Commons:

Paul Chabas - 'September Morn' (circa 1912)

 

3: Hagar Revelly (Mitchell Kennerley – New York, 1913), by Daniel Carson Goodman (1883-1957), is a naturalistic novel that deals with the problems that two poverty-stricken sisters, Thatah and Hagar Revelly, face in New York.

 

4: This is Der Einzug Karls V in Antwerpen (The Entrance of Emperor Charles V into Antwerp – 1878), by the Austrian painter Hans Makart (1840-84)—source: Wikimedia Commons:

Der Einzug Karls V in Antwerpen (The Entrance of Emperor Charles V into Antwerp – 1878) - Hans Makart

 

5: Mrs. Tom-Ri-Jon (born Suzi Donli), wife of Tom-Ri-Jon Elliott, wore men’s clothes when hawking her husband’s newspaper, The Volcano, in New York City.

 

6: Carved in 1846 by the American sculptor Hiram Powers (1805-73), The Greek Slave was the first publicly exhibited, life-size, American sculpture depicting a fully nude female figure—source: National Gallery of Art, Washington:

B29414.jpg

 

7: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1866 by Henry Bergh (1813-88).

 

8: The term blue law designates a statute regulating work, commerce and amusements on Sundays; it originally denoted one of numerous extremely rigorous laws designed to regulate morals and conduct in colonial New England.

 

9: According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1st edition, 1899), the noun horse-pond, denoting “a pond for watering and washing horses”, was “proverbial as a ducking-place for obnoxious persons”.

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