At this time of year, my email inbox is full of “last chance for Christmas delivery” sales pitches, and so I’ve been thinking about what interests potential buyers in a product. And having that in the back of my mind when turning to this blog took me straight to one of my favorite entries in Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions: “Comstockery.” The term–which signifies prudish, self-righteous censorship based on a desire for sexual purity–is named for nineteenth-century crusader Anthony Comstock, who successfully lobbied for enactment of the anti-obscenity law commonly known as the Comstock Act in 1873, got himself appointed two days later as a special postal agent to enforce the law, and by 1874 was already responsible for the seizure of 194,000 pictures and photographs; 14,200 stereopticon plates; 134,000 pounds of books; 60,300 “rubber articles” (condoms); and 5,500 sets of playing cards. Two years before his death in 1915, he boasted that he had convicted thousands of people and driven fifteen to suicide.
Comstock is nevertheless a paradigmatic example of the marketing value of efforts at suppressing anything remotely sexual. At least twice in his career his efforts at censorship famously promoted sales. First up: George Bernard Shaw. After some of Shaw’s plays, including Man and Superman, were removed from the open shelves and put on a “restricted list” at New York’s public library, Shaw responded eagerly to a request for comment from a correspondent for the New York Times. He concluded: “I can promise the Comstockers that, startling as ‘Man and Superman’ may appear to them, it is the merest Sunday school tract compared with my later play . . . with which they will presently be confronted.”
Comstock rose to the bait and had the next Shaw play that was produced […]