While processing the files devoted to Time Inc. as part of my job as an Assistant Archivist at the New-York Historical Society, I came across a mysterious object buried among the papers. Sitting in an envelope next to the other papers in a file was a quarter. The envelope said that Mr. Roy Larsen, the editor of Life, had received the quarter on April 11, 1938 from a detective in the Bronx City Courthouse and that the object was somehow related to a story that Life had run called “The Birth of a Baby.” It seemed odd that the editor of a magazine would be selling a copy of a magazine to a police detective. There had to be a bigger story behind the object I had found. So I went looking.
The quarter’s story begins in March 1938 when Larsen began to plan the April 11th issue of Life. He was hoping to break the taboo around discussing the topic of birth just like the March of Time movies and Time had done with the topics of cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. To help enlighten people about the process of birth, the magazine would run a story highlighting an upcoming movie called Birth of a Baby which was created by the American Committee on Maternal Welfare. The committee was made up of twenty of the nation’s leading medical and child welfare organizations and aimed to reduce the nation’s maternal mortality rate by teaching the public about motherhood and childbirth. At the time, 12,000 women per year were dying in childbirth and the committee hoped to lower this number by at least seventy-five percent. The story would include a narrative about the film, drawings of a child in utero, stills from the film, and a summary of other national health campaigns that had been previously launched.
But because the story and images were so explicit, it was a big risk for Life and those working at the magazine knew that they needed to be careful about how they presented it to the public, particularly in light of decency laws in place at the time. To help prepare Life’s readers for the story, letters of advance notice were sent out to Episcopalian and Presbyterian clergymen, healthcare professionals, Life salesmen, magazine subscribers, and motion picture trade publications. The letters outlined why they were sending the letter, who created the film, what the purpose of the film was, precedence for the article, and the audiences the article was appropriate for. To further prepare themselves for any possible controversy, Life sought out and received approval from the Post Office to mail copies of the magazine and advised the American News Corporations to let Life know if any police action was taken against dealers selling copies of the magazine. Life and its publishers wanted it to be clear that they had taken the appropriate steps to ensure that the article was appropriate to be sent to the public and that they would step in to take responsibility for any actions taken against magazine dealers.
Almost as soon as copies of the magazine hit newsstands, controversy struck and the magazine began to be seized across the country. Before anything could be settled, at least 45 cities and three counties began working to hinder the sales of the issue. Among those who reacted negatively to the article was Samuel J. Foley, the Bronx District Attorney. Foley ordered that copies of the magazine be seized since they were “a flagrant offence against good taste” and directed police officers to arrest any dealers found selling copies of the magazine. In response, Time Inc. quickly moved to assist those who had been arrested and sent their own lawyers to arrange for the release of the dealers.
While Time Inc.’s lawyers were able to secure the release of the sellers, the individual cases did not correct the overall issue at hand. The only way that Larsen and the company’s legal team could think to bring the issue to a head and create a resolution was if someone from Life were arrested. Specifically Larsen, since he was charge of the editorial side of Life and had spearheaded the project. He could not only defend the sale of the magazine, but the magazine’s content as well.
The day after the release of the magazine dealers, on April 11, Larsen went to Foley’s office and proceeded to sell a copy of that issue of Life to a plainclothes police officer who was at Foley’s office. (The exact circumstances of how the transaction occurred are not quite clear.) While copies of Life only cost a dime, the officer only had a quarter in his pocket and Larsen had to make change with his own money. The quarter that Larsen was given is the same as the one that ended up in the Time Inc. Subject Files. While we’re not sure how it ended up in its final resting place, we now have a story to go with it.
Beyond the quarter, the story ends with Larsen being arrested and being given a summons to court. When the case was brought before three justices in the Bronx Court of Special Sessions, a unanimous decision was made that the disputed issue of Life was not indecent and Larsen was acquitted. After the case was settled, one of the justices who had heard the case, Nathan D. Perlman, wrote an opinion. In the opinion, Justice Perlman admitted that essentially the prosecution was right in their assertions that the article could be seen as indecent in certain lights but that ideas of decency were dynamic and changed with popular attitudes. Additionally, the pictures in the story were presented in such a way that they did not fall within the category of indecency for that time and that the subject was delicately handled.
As for the educational value of the story, the Time Inc. archives contain at least one piece of evidence that “Birth of a Baby” served its intended purpose. In 1957, the United Press reported that Robert C. Thomas managed to pull off the emergency delivery of his second child when wife Dixie Lou went into labor at 5 a.m., too fast to get to the doctor. His mother had given them an old copy of the article when she found out they were expecting.
Samantha Brown is the Time Inc. Assistant Archivist at the New-York Historical Society. A version of this post originally appeared on the New-York Historical Society’s blog From the Stacks; it has been reprinted with permission.