Banned in Boston

HARVARD 1914 is a novel where the characters’ lives are impacted by censorship. Concerns for military security led to censorship and the forced interning of Germans and German-Americans. (See this essay to learn how the Boston Symphony Orchestra was impacted by this type of censorship.)

This essay is about a second focus of censorship:  protecting morals.  The legal sense of “what is going on” is informed by Prof. David Rabban’s FREE SPEECH IN THE FORGOTTEN YEARS, 1870-1920. The specific details emerge from a variety of sources. In the novel, a prominent activist is jailed for distribution birth control information through the mail.

Historians remind us to view actions within the context of their time, not our own contemporary sense of right and wrong. And even then, Boston has had some notable forays into censorship.

For instance, in 1659, Massachusetts banned Christmas. The ban was in place for 22 years. Only after the U.S. Civil War did New Englanders begin to enjoy the holiday.

New York Leads the Charge

After the Civil War, during the Gilded Age, the city of New York had a postal inspector,Anthony Comstock, who was committed to “Victorian morality.” In 1873 he formed theNew York Society for the Suppression of Vice which was eventually dissolved in 1950. The society was behind raids, lawsuits, and claimed fifteen suicides to their credit.

Comstock’s influence led to the U.S.  passing the Comstock Act in 1873. This outlawed the distribution of pornography or birth control information through the U.S. mail. Twenty-four states enacted state laws.

Birth control challenge

Family illustrated limitedIn this era, U.S. women were considered “baby machines.” They had very few rights. Educating a “baby machine” made little sense with the prevailing mindset. Activists works hard to change this mindset. Part of this change meant educating women about their health so that women could preserve their own health and improve the health of their families.

Margaret Sanger published FAMILY LIMITATION with illustrations and began to mail it, challenging the Comstock Act. Here is an illustration (click on image to see entire pamphlet; in the book is also an anatomical illustration of fitting the pessary).

Boston’s own vice suppression society

In 1878, six years after Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock led a meeting in Boston to launch a chapter in New England. The next year the group, an all male group from Boston’s upper crust, began to operate in earnest, later changing its name to the New England Watch and Ward Society. This society, coupled with Boston’s city licensing department (the “city censor”), led to Boston racing to the nation’s forefront in its efforts to suppress art and censor mail. A list of banned works -from Walt Whitman to Ernest Hemingway – can be found here. Boston’s Public Library even had a locked room where banned works could be viewed.

Banned in Boston becomes a national slogan

Boston’s city censor office was only disbanded in 1982.

Enterprising artists of risque works found that if they put “Banned in Boston” on an album or act sales would actually increase. Yet mainstream works were brought into the ban. H.L. Mencken famously challenged the laws with his arrest, found here.

But even in the 1970s such works as Welcome Back Kotter (“not a good time in Boston for this TV show”) , the Jackson Five (“dangerous fans”), and Marvin Gaye (“bad timing for Boston for mixing races”) were banned for reasons that through today’s lenses are preposterous.

Today’s Boston

For many, this aspect of Boston’s history is quite foreign to their experience today. While Boston maintains a reputation for being stubbornly closed to outsiders (e.g. is the intent of such incredibly poor street signage to embarrass and lose visitors?), the reality is that it hosts a vibrant international culture that brings to the world gifts of science, art, music, and philanthropy.  The description of these past years in Boston history should not let us lose sight of the reality that Boston has changed a lot about its past in ways that make our world better.