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.

Companionate marriage, birth control and family planning became popular--or at least discussable. Erotica dealers were an important part of these changes in the moral climate. They got in trouble just as often for the books they issued on these subjects as for classical pornography or raunchy comics and joke books--for they responded, not only to prurient interest for a quick buck, but to various serious questions their readers needed to have answered. They were part of the eroticization of leisure time in America. This phenomena was a consequence of the general scepticism about moral codes and the erosion of sexual reticence. Sex o'clock meant a focus on understanding oneself as a sexual being. Italso meant entertainment: not only erotic books and magazines but shows, dance halls, amusement parks, burlesque, the use of sex and desire to sell products, and the growth of an iconoclastic youth culture ("flaming youth") stressing pleasure as an end in itself.

Items of trade for the erotic publisher or bookseller fell into five broad categories. The first was "gallant" works: fiction and non-fiction having erotic themes. Gallant works could be joke-books, stories by Boccaccio or other classic writers dealing with love and sex, ballads and folklore, or modern novels which did not include four-letter words or explicit descriptions of intercourse, described by the poet "Bob" Brown as "furtive tomes in tasty bindings." Here is a page from the kind of flyer that could be found in bookstores for a piece of gallantiana which sold for $15 (over $100 in today's currency):


The copy states that Bilitis and her friends on Lesbos "softened to those delicate loves . . . which have, whatever men may think, more of true passion than studied viciousness . . . . "


A second category was the "sex pulp," a new early-thirties permutation of the "true confession" magazine. The sex pulp dealt with "modern" problems such as birth control, extra-marital affairs, and divorce. These novels were developed for newsstand and lending-library readers, who included a large number of women: sales clerks, office workers and housewives. In response, the Catholic Church mounted strenuous efforts to restrict sales of this borderline erotica, now available to the young, underpaid, and impressionable at various points of sale. It acted through boycotts and pledges extracted from congregations, through affiliated organizations such as the National Organization for Decent Literature, and by liaisons with Jewish and Protestant clerics, District Attorneys, and the Society for the Suppression of Vice.

I discuss five categories of erotica: "gallantiana," sex pulps, erotology and sexology, Tijuana bibles and readers, and classical and modern "flagitious" (i.e., what we call today hard-core) porn. I also treat printing terchnology, and outlets, retail and wholesale, mostly the book stores (but there were other retail outlets: telephone contacts, and peddlers). Kind of stores included upscale, second hand, chain [department and cigar store], and the back date magazine store. Another source was the lending library, which after the Crash appeared in various kinds of outlets, especially cigar and drug stores.

Section Headings:
The Eroticization of Leisure Time
Dollar Novel to Deluxe Editions
The Scale of Lubricity: From Borderline Distasteful to Obscene and    Unlawful
Gallantiana
Sex Pulps
Erotology and Sexology
"Bibles" and "Readers"
Classical and Modern "Flagitious" Books
Printers and Bookleggers: some Special Problems
Finding the "Hot Stuff"
Upscale Bookstores
Secondhand and General Bookstores
Chain and Department Stores
Backdate Magazine Stores
Lending Libraries in Bookstores and in Other Outlets

back to home page

chapter 3