New York City has long loomed large in the libidinal imagination of America. And it goes back much further than the dirty days when Times Square was an open-air adult emporium, as a new display on the anti-obscenity and birth control movements at the Museum of the City of New York makes clear.
“Debating Vice: The Anti-Obscenity and Birth Control Movements, 1870 to 1930” is a new addition to the museum’s broader exhibit on Activist New York. Curator Marcela Micucci explained their materials dedicated to women’s suffrage are being relocated to a show celebrating the centennial of the franchise in New York state, opening up space to tell the story of reformers who tried to suppress sexual expression and those who challenged them, from actresses to family planning advocates.
“We wanted something that would be very relevant and interesting, and I definitely think the anti-obscenity movement and the birth control movement carries a lot of contemporary relevance right now, so that was definitely a part of it,” Micucci explained. “But also New York was really central—it really served as a battleground in many ways.”
Heavily featured is Anthony Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. At the time, the city was “in many ways the epicenter not only for the entertainment industry, but also the commercial sex industry,” Micucci explained. It was also seeing a tremendous influx of immigrants that greatly concerned social reformers. “The anti-obscenity laws are really kind of a way for reformers, and especially more radical reformers like Anthony Comstock to try and control various forms of vice or immorality that they perceive to be signs of social disorder that are really taking over the city,” she said.
Comstock—perhaps the 19th century’s most ambitious and crusading prude—managed to get passed a series of laws that criminalized all manner of “obscenity,” which had such ramifications as making it basically impossible to get even information about birth control. Previously, abortion had been comparatively legal and accessible. Comstock led a clampdown on people like Madame Restell, a notorious provider of contraception and abortion services who was so successful she lived in a large mansion on Fifth Avenue.
“I think that Madame Restell’s mansion is really indicative of how many people were getting abortions and were in need of contraceptive services in this period,” said Micucci.
The exhibit goes on to tell the stories of those who pushed back against “Comstockery” in various ways. Most prominently and controversially, that included birth control and family planning advocates such as Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, and other women active in New York City over the opening decades of the twentieth century.
But, drawing on the museum’s substantial theatrical collections, the exhibit also features women like Gertrude Hoffman, who was yanked offstage at the Hammerstein Roof Garden and arrested for “violating public decency” thanks to her Salome costume, and Sybil Johnstone, who appeared in 1890 in The Clemenceau Case in a white gown that, thanks to the stage lights, made her look naked. Looking at the featured photo, it’s hard now to imagine any association with scandal—Johnstone’s rather saucy facial expression notwithstanding. But that’s thanks to decades of battles for birth control and free expression.