views updated


The vast majority of erotica that circulated in the United States between 1750 and 1830 was of European provenance. According to the scholar Peter Wagner, a large number of erotic books, including classics by Ovid and Boccaccio, English erotic poetry and fiction, and French libertine novels, could be found in the libraries of many eighteenth-century American gentlemen. During the French Revolution, readers in the new Republic became especially interested in the memoirs and other licentious writing of the French philosophes.

Certainly one of the most popular works of erotica in America during this period was John Cleland's fictional classic, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill. First published in two volumes in London between 1748 and 1749, Cleland's work consisted of two long letters recounting the life of a country girl forced by the death of her parents to move to the city and become a prostitute. Fanny's epistolary confessions described a wide range of sexual activities in explicit detail, including lesbianism, cross-dressing, flagellation, orgies, and public sex.

American printers showed an early interest in the Memoirs. In 1786 Worcester printer Isaiah Thomas Sr. wrote to an English bookseller seeking to buy a copy, probably with the intention of publishing his own edition. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, substantial numbers of the book were sold in rural bookstores and by itinerant peddlers in New England. In 1817 the final inventory of New Hampshire bookseller Anson Whipple, an affiliate of the Thomas firm, revealed 293 copies of the book in stock. Evidence from prosecution records in 1824 establishes that the Memoirs were also sold in New York City, though in an expensive imported edition accessible only to the wealthy.

Other genres of European writing, including antimasturbation literature, sex manuals, and transcripts of adultery trials relating the sexual scandals of the aristocracy, probably provided erotic content for American readers. The quasi-pornographic antimasturbation tract, Onania, or, The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and All Its Frightful Consequences in Both Sexes, Considered, first published in England in 1708, was frequently reprinted in the colonies. Imported copies of Aristotle's Master-Piece, a collection of folklore about sex that first appeared in English in 1684 and contained extensive descriptions of female anatomy and reproduction, also circulated widely. As early as 1744, Northampton minister Jonathan Edwards initiated a church inquiry into the "lascivious expressions" of certain young men who had read the Master-Piece and had taunted local women with their newly acquired "unclean" knowledge. Between 1766 and 1831, American printers also published thirty-two native editions of the Master-Piece.

American authorship of erotica was evidently scarce before the mid-nineteenth century, when a domestic pornography industry began to emerge. Before then, fans of bawdy literature like William Byrd II and Benjamin Franklin wrote occasional ribaldry, such as Franklin's "Letter of Advice to a Young Man on Choosing a Mistress" (1745). Quasi-medical works on sexual subjects may also have served as a form of homegrown erotica, such as a book published anonymously in Virginia in 1787, A Treatise on Gonorrhoea. By a Surgeon of Norfolk, Virginia.

In the early Republic the sale of erotic works only infrequently triggered criminal charges. The doctrinal basis for such prosecutions was the English common law of obscene libel, which the King's Bench adopted in 1727. In the first published American obscenity case, Commonwealth v. Sharpless (1815), Pennsylvania authorities indicted six men for charging a fee to see a lewd painting "representing a man in an obscene, impudent, and indecent posture with a woman." In upholding their convictions on appeal, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania embraced the reception of English common-law prohibitions against obscene speech. In Commonwealth v. Holmes (1821), the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts set a further precedent in support of sexual censorship by upholding the conviction of printer Peter Holmes for selling an illustrated copy of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. The same year, Vermont enacted the first state statute banning the publication or sale of "obscene" pictures and books.

See alsoSexuality .


De Grazia, Edward. Censorship Landmarks. New York: Bowker, 1969.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Wagner, Peter. Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America. London: Secker and Warburg, 1988.

Donna I. Dennis