Chapter 5: "Your Casanova Is Unmailable": Mail Order Erotica and Postal Service Guardians of Public Morals

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.

As the administrative arm of moral entrepreneurs such as Sumner, Catholic clergy, and New Deal postmasters, the Post Office determined what was "unmailable" through unilateral decision of its own team of Inspectors and Counsels; full legal adjudication was simply unavailable. Postal authorities, therefore, meshed with other components of the social order to make up a set of layers or "nests" of authority which unyieldingly fused sexual explicitness with guilt and shame and humbled publishers and distributors of erotica. Naturally, therefore, mail order dealers used a prurient sell in their advertisements. This is a full-page spread for books of The Falstaff Press, appearing in the magazine Film Fun in 1934:

What it suggests about Falstaff Press' books is "gross, open, palpable," to use Shakeseare's own language about Sir John Falstaff. In other words, it "panders" to prurience. This was the charge the postal authorities used to close down many mail order dealers, the most significance of which were Falstaff and the Panurge Press. Both houses published genuinely important sexology and anthropology, but the Post Office convicted them, on the basis of their advertising, of that species of fraud called "pandering." That is, for commercial purposes, they aroused hidden curiosities about sex.

The publisher's only redress was to turn to the First-Amendment lawyer for advice on what might or might not pass the postal censor. Honorable and liberal-minded professionals--people of the stature of Morris Ernst, hero of the Ulysses decision and one of the period's leading free-speech advocates-- advised publishers how to avoid what might strike the guardians of the nation's mail as indecent or obscene. Ironically, liberal lawyers therefore cooperated with the postal authorities in determining the kinds and style of sexually-oriented writing to which Americans could safely be allowed access. Such books and pamphlets did not include information regarding birth control--except that concerned with the rhythm method. The Catholic Church did seem to have an influence on postal policy; several postmaster generals were Catholic, before and during the Roosevelt presidency.

Section Headings:
The Unfortunate Case of Marin Sugar
The Legal Basis for the Post Office's "Unmailable" Power
The Post Office as Enforcer of the Moral Consensus
The Scope of Mail-Order Erotica "Promotions"
From "Tillie and Mac" to Paris Flagellantia
Sexology: "Societies," "Libraries," and "Presses"
Attracting Customers: Circulars, Title Pages, Bindings, and Magazine    Spreads
The Role of the Catholic Church in Post Office Obscenity Prosecutions
The Role of Liberal Reform in Postal Policy
How Obscenity and Fraud Linked Up: The Unfortunate Cases of    Esar Levine and Ben Rebhuhn
Postal Censors, Liberal Lawyers, and Publishers' Self-Censorship

back to home page

chapter 6