By Dale D. Dalenberg, MD

May 12, 2013

Earlier this year we wrote about new research into Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, basically the urtext of the anti-comic book crusade of the 1950s. You can read the original post here, but as a refresher, Dr. Wertham basically made everything up.

Less well-known is one of its predecessors, Anthony Comstock’s Traps for the Young (Funk and Wagnalls, 1883), which also holds a special place in the history of literary censorship. We acquired a copy for the library because it relates so strongly to our dime novel and comic book collections.

Traps for the Young is a repetitive, rambling homily against just about any sort of entertainment that can corrupt young people. Our interest in this book comes in Chapter III, in which Comstock rails against “Half-Dime Novels and Story Papers”. He also casts a rather wide net against anything else that can expose young people to the vices of the world, from regular newspapers to gambling dens. The book is fuelled by an arch-conservative, fundamentalist religious zeal. Comstock has a clear disdain for any thought process that could remotely be called “liberal”. For Comstock, “liberal” is the same thing as “libertine” — both dirty words in his dictionary.

Comstock (1844-1915) was a self-appointed morals crusader who rose to a point of considerable influence and leadership. He spearheaded the so-called Comstock Laws in New York and federal jurisdiction that forbade the mailing of obscene materials (the definition of which was extremely broad when enacted in 1873). This inspired a spate of various states enacting their own “little Comstock” laws. As post office inspector, he confiscated reams of allegedly obscene material (most of which would probably be considered tame by today’s standards). He is probably best remembered today for having (later in his life) been the major foe of Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) in her campaign to distribute contraceptives and literature for women about effective contraception.

Our copy of Traps for the Young is an 1883 first edition, cloth-bound in red with an attractive embossed cover in black and gold. The spine is a bit rubbed, and there is general wear throughout. It is ex libris from a couple different libraries, including a divinity school. The front hinge is broken, as the binding at page 96-97. Still, it is an attractive, unusual volume that nicely complements the dime novel collection.