Civil War Saw Porn Boom, Shaping American Morality, New Book Says

The United States Civil War is remembered for it battlefield heroism, for the cause of ending slavery and keeping the Union from falling apart less than 100 years after the founding of the country, or for the trauma of friends and even brothers fighting on opposite sides. But according to a recent book, the Civil War was memorable for another significant but lesser-discussed development: the sudden popularity of porn.

At the same time, the popularity of erotic books and pictures among the troops fighting the Civil War also led to a backlash against “obscenity” led by postal inspector and former Union soldier Anthony Comstock that kicked off decades of American suppression not only of “obscene” material, but of medical information on birth control and abortion as well, according to Judith Giesberg, author of Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality.

How did the porn boom happen during the Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865? According to Giesberg, in an interview with HistoryNet earlier this year, what was then modern technology fueled mass production of porn.

“With railroads and mail service, it was cheaper and cheaper to produce and distribute erotica. Plus there was the advent of photography and the ability to mass produce cartes de visite, and erotica dealers eagerly adopted photographic technology,” Giesberg said. “When the war hits, they’ve got pornographic material all bound up in mailbags—and large concentrations of men ready to receive it.”

But the soldiers’ commanding officers were remarkably tolerant of their troops’ taste for erotic material. Accounts from the time, describe a lack of any caution when it came to concealing their erotic entertainment material, with copies of the then-scandalous erotic novel Fanny Hill spotted in the hands of officers, or lying open on desks and in soldiers’ tents.

“When problems with pornography appear in regimental books or court-martials, they occur when men had too much time on their hands between active campaigns,” she said. “It really only shows up when there are other problems in camp. A soldier would not get in trouble with a commanding officer for reading a bawdy book or cards that were erotic unless there were other problems as well.”

But there was soon a powerful backlash against the spread of “obscenity,” which Giesberg traces to Comstock’s brief stint in the Union Army, at a time when the soldiers saw very little fighting. As a result, they idled away the hours with their porn collections.

“His only army experience comes when his regiment has a lot of down time. There is a lack of discipline, and while he’s not the only one shocked by the behavior around him, he is convinced that he is,” Giesberg said.

After leaving the army, Comstock joined f****s with Christian “reformers” including the New York YMCA. By 1873, their collaborative efforts led to passage of the Comstock Act, legislation prohibiting production and distribution of “obscene literature and articles of immoral use,” a law that remained on the books until 1965—and in watered-down versions into the 1990s.

Book jacket via North Carolina University Press; photo of Union soldiers by A. J. Russell (public domain in U.S.)

Written by: Michael French

Originally published on: https://avn.com/business/articles/video/civil-war-saw-porn-boom-shaping-american-morality-new-book-says-787395.html

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