Snippets 120. Regular readers will know that I often quote from Max O’Rell, one of my favourite authors who deserved to be celebrated and remembered far more than he is. The following is from Jonathan and His Continent (1889), a book about American life and customs from his own experiences touring there.
The New England descendants of the Puritans have inherited a more than British prudery.
Charles Dickens speaks, in his American Notes, of people who covered the nakedness of their piano legs with little ornamental frills.
There still exist worthy creatures who would think it indecent to speak of such and such a star as being visible to the naked eye.
The word ‘‘leg” is improper; you must say “lower limb.” Trousers have become “lower garments.” Instead of going to bed, people “retire”; so that the bedroom becomes “ retiring-room.”
A lady having said, not long ago, in a Philadelphian drawing-room, that she felt shivers down her back, created a veritable panic among the hostess’s guests.
I read the following piece of information in a New York paper among the news from a certain New England city:
“The authorities have begun a crusade against the nude in art. One of the wealthiest gentlemen in the city will be proceeded against for keeping in his house copies of the Venus de Milo, the Venus de Medici, Canova’s Venus, Power’s Greek Slave, the Laocoon, and other works.”
During my stay in New York, I was constantly hearing of a certain Mr. Anthony Comstock, who had attained celebrity by a campaign he had undertaken against nudities. Mr. Comstock visited the museums, galleries, exhibitions, and shops, and, whenever he found a bit of human flesh portrayed in paint or marble, he went before the magistrates and had a grand field-day. I must say, for the credit of the New Yorkers, that Mr. Comstock had earned for himself a reputation as grotesque as it was noisy. To take up such a line of censorship is, it seems to me, to publish one’s own perversity ; and the individual whose mind is so ill-formed that he cannot look at an artistic counterfeit presentment of the human form divine, without thinking evil thoughts, is to be pitied, if not despised.
But I suppose there will always be quack doctors with the cant of virtue on their lips, and vile and filthy imaginations in their hearts.
Be that as it may, the nude in art has been having a hard time of it lately.
Meanwhile, the Americans newspaper seemed to look upon Mr. Comstock as a legitimate target for their jokes and satire.
The impressively moustachioed Anthony Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873, and succeeded in influencing Congress sufficiently to pass a law making illegal the postal delivery of obscene materials. However, as indicated in the quote above, his definition of obscenity was a very wide one, and also included anatomy textbooks used by students.
If you enjoyed this “snippet” please consider sharing on Facebook or Twitter, to help other people find and enjoy Windows into History. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.