dust jacket

Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940

by Jay A. Gertzman

University of Pennsylvania Press

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432 pages /approximately 50 illustrations /$35 (cloth) / ISBN 0-8122-3493-6

"Absorbing account of an often overlooked corner of American publishing history. . . . Only by understanding the quintessentially American nature of the business, [Gertzman] argues, can we understand the eroticized culture we inhabit today. Publishers Weekly, May 3, 1999

"... a major work of scholarship on the book trade that should be of considerable interest." AB Bookman's Weekly, July 26, 1999.

"... an important contribution to understanding the growth of free expression in the twentieth century." BOOKS-ON-LAW/Book Reviews, December 1999 (read the review)

WARNING : In this site are materials, and links to materials, which contain sexually explicit images and language specified as "indecent" by current legislation governing internet communications in some states. It may be unlawful for some--especially including minors--to access these texts and images in this way, although it would not be to obtain books containing them. 

image by Karin Thieme, Edgewater, N.J.

Chapter Summaries--click on the chapter number to go to its summary

Chapter One Traders in Prurience

Chapter Two "Sex O'Clock in America"

Chapter Three The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

Chapter Four Taste and Class in Obscenity Legislation

Chapter Five Mail Order Erotica and the Post Office

Chapter Six The Two Worlds of Samuel Roth

Epilogue Prurience Continues

Some relevant websites

Some booksellers

To read the excellent promotional copy prepared for my book by the U of Pennsylvania Press, click here.

My thesis

A very personal experience with this subject

Chapter Summaries

Chapter One: Traders in Prurience: Pariah Capitalists and Moral Entrepreneurs

clipping from NY Journal American "Morgue," Humanities Research Center, U. of Texas at Austin

During the 1930s, books confiscated as obscene were often burned under the supervision of police and "moral entrepreneurs" such as those in charge of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, as their publishers--"pariah capitalists"--made futile protests. Incinerated work ranged from sex pulps and pornographic booklets to copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer. more....

Chapter Two: "Sex O'Clock in America": Who Bought What, Where, How, and Why

During the 1920s and 1930s, it was "sex o'clock" in America. There were many reasons for this: an accelerated pace of social change brought about contempt for conventional attitudes toward reticence in sexual expression and toward marriage as its only sanctioned outlet. During this time, the balance of the population shifted from rural to urban areas. Greater social mobility, esp. for women, led to a rise in premarital intercourse and stress on female desire. more....

Chapter Three: "Hardworking American Daddy": John Saxton Sumner and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

clipping from NY Journal American "Morgue," Humanities Research Center, U. of Texas at Austin

Above is a photograph of John Saxton Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), taken in a New York courtroom in 1937. State law endowed his organization with statutory power to uncover violations of the anti-obscenity statutes (the Comstock Laws). Anthony Comstock was the Society's founder; Sumner succeeded him in 1915. The aim of the NYSSV was that of other Progressive reform agencies: to alleviate the exploitation of the weak and innocent in areas where the social fabric was infested with crime and vice.  more ....

Chapter Four:"Fifth Avenue Has No More Rights Than the Bowery." Taste and Class in Obscenity Legislation

frontispiece to The Adventures of Hsi Men Ching (privately printed by "The Society of Facetious Lore," 1927).

Since the works of modern writers who dealt explicitly with sexual desire, such as James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Theodore Dreiser, were as vulnerable as Cleland's Fanny Hill, everyone was at risk from moral entrepreneurs. Out of the desire for a respectable public image emerged a false dichotomy between responsible "bookmen" and "smut-mongering" pariahs, driven by the policies of publishers' and booksellers' professional organizations desirous of protecting the public image of their profession. But both the carriage-trade book stores and those with shady reputations stocked various genres of banned erotica,  more ....

Chapter Five: "Your Casanova Is Unmailable": Mail Order Erotica and Postal Service Guardians of Public Morals

courtesy of Chris Eckhoff, Brooklyn, NY

A very powerful part of the authority structure which controlled eortica was the postal inspector (with his decoy-letter aliases). Even before Comstock lobbied the federal anti-obscenity laws through Congress in 1872, the Post Office took as its mandate the purging of the mails from the "twin pollutants" of fraud and obscenity.    more....

Chapter Six: The Two Worlds of Samuel Roth: Man of Letters and Entrepreneur of Erotica

Sam Roth's arrest record

a checklist of Roth's publications, 1920-40

photograph from New York Tribune, June 1, 1956

Samuel Roth gave James Joyce "the jawache" with his piracies of Ulysses, both in expurgated and complete editions: "Rothim! . . . With his unique hornbook and his prince of apauper's pride, blundering all over the two worlds." He openly issued an "exposé" of Herbert Hoover which was taken seriously enough to occasion secret investigations of his income sources by the President's supporters. Throughout the forties and fifties, he engaged the attention of squads of postal inspectors with circulars and books declared "unmailable" either for their obscenity, or their fraudulent promises thereof. He indignantly defended, before Senator Kefauver's 1955 investigating committee, the titillating books and magazines he mailed in great numbers, denying that they either reached or influenced teenagers. Rewarded with a federal indictment, he became absolutely identified with "the virulence of sex." On one occasion he was dubbed "the dirtiest pig in the world" for contributing to juvenile delinquency, on another, "the louse of Lewisburg" (he was an inmate there during 1936-39 and 1957-61).more....


In bare but essential outline, the rules which governed the bookleggers and smuthounds of the 20s and 30s are still in effect. Sexually-explicit video and audio tapes, telephone communications, and cyberspace websites, usually not print media, now occasion fear that American youth are being debauched, but insistent calls for government censorship or self-imposed rating systems are part of the same strange symbiosis of condemnation and popularity.

Look at the Clinton scandal and its parasites: the prattlers on Eyewitness News; the talking heads and the jackals who host them; the sleuths from the Independent Counsel's office. Oral sex (keeping this a crime and a sin is important to conservatives in an age of gay rights) and semen-stained dresses are too provocative to refrain from publicizing, regardless of the age and sophistication of the viewer, just as sex pulps, Tillie and Mac cartoons, or sexological texts with salacious titles were three generations ago. In the epilogue I want to show how endemic prurience has been in American discourse about sex since the interwar period. I cover Ralph Ginzburg, cyberspace erotica, the Communications Decency Act, the FCC guidelines, censorship of public school textbooks, Larry Flynt, and end with a group who--heroically if quixotically--want prurience to go away: the "post-porn feminists".

Artists and merchants subject to attack as sleazy or indecent today could easily identify with their predecessors, and profit from considering what was won and lost as they went about their business. I hope so.

In Memoriam Gershon Legman (1917-1999): an extraordinary prose stylist and bibliographer and historian of erotica. He learned about the erotica business in the thirties by working with New York erotica publishers and booksellers, and had his own troubles with the postal suppression of his highly original study of American sexual taboos, Love & Death A Study in Censorship (1949), the epigraph for which is "love is strong as death." Also author of The Horn Book (1964), Rationale of the Dirty Joke (1968, 1975), and The Limerick (1970). May his Peregrine Penis: An Autobiography of Innocence soon find a publisher.  His obit. appeared in the New York Times on Sunday March 14, 1999 (p.49, Metro section).  He is credited with originating the phrase "make love, not war." Other watchwords: "illegitemati non carborundum" and "la vie est belle." 
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Special thanks to Phil Ogden, Mansfield University, and Stefan
Theime, Edgewater, NJ, without whose help I could hardly
have begun this website.

contents copyright 1999, Jay A. Gertzman.
Fair Use provisions acknowledged. An effort
has been made to locate copyright owners.
Please inform me of any corrections or additions.


AAA Matilda