Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Broader Battle of the WCTU

Diana by Augustus
Saint-Gaudens. Thirteen
feet of smut!
If the Women’s Christian Temperance Union got everything they wanted, the United States would be a different place today.[1] A much more repressive place. We have the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to thank for Prohibition (thanks a lot, ladies), but it looks like we got off easy. An article in the September 30, 1894, New York Sun makes it clear that their ambitions went far beyond just alcohol. There doesn’t seem to be anything that they wouldn’t complain about.

It’s a long article, but in the end, I decided to include the whole thing, mainly to get the smug statements of Mrs. Martin. Mrs. Martin seems (by her own statements, at least) to have been quite involved in the late nineteenth century reform movements. The WTCU was active in the suffrage moment, and found that the United States Brewers Association was funding the anti-suffrage side.[0] [0]: As noted in the Wikipedia article on the WCTU.

As the article shows, politics (even the politics of temperance) can make strange bedfellows, particularly when there’s mission creep involved.


The W. T. C. U. Women Tackle Byrnes After Schieren — Would Suppress the Living Pictures and Indecorous Posters.
The National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is determined, if hard work will accomplish it, to do away with the the indecent shows called living pictures that are running riot in certain classes of music halls and theaters. Just why the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union should have undertaken this work, may excite curiosity among those who do not know what a wide circuit the organization covers. It was seen early in its history that the work of discouraging intemperance must be supplemented by work in many other directions. If the old drinkers could not be reformed, the youth could be surrounded with influences which perhaps would save them from the temptation to become intemperate. To-day the society has forty-three national branches. Each of these has its national superintendent, its State superintendents, and its corps of county and other district agents. One of these national departments is that of the promotion of purity in literature and art. This is the department which has begun the fight against living pictures in this city and in Brooklyn,[2] and incidentally against a certain class of show posters.

Mrs. Emilie D. Martin of 73 Halsey street, Brooklyn, is the national Superintendent of this branch of the W. C. T. U. work, and Mr.s H. S. Pritchard, also of Brooklyn, is the Secretary. On Friday these two women, armed with copies of the law against obscene productions of all kinds, visited Mayor Schieren of Brooklyn, as was described in The Sun of yesterday.

Yesterday Mrs. Martin and Mrs. Pritchard came to this city.[3] They first visited the District Attorney’s office, but not finding Col. Fellows they went to Police Headquarters and saw Superintendent Byrnes. They told him that they had called to interest him in the enforcement of the seizure law, which forbids the giving or exhibiting of indent or immoral exhibitions of pictures and images. They talked long and they talked forcibly. They told him how much badness there was in the city. The social evil, they said, was stimulated by the exhibition of living pictures and indecent lithographs. They said they were in no way connected with Dr. Parkhurst,[4] but that any assistance he might tender would not be rejected.

Each of the visitors took from her satchel at the same time an elastic-bound paper, which proved to be a copy of the seizure law, and called attention to several sections.

The Superintendent asked a few questions as to what causes for complaint now existed, and to what extent the ladies would like to have their crusade carried.

The visitors told him that on Sept. 6 Mayor Hopkins of Chicago had the police of that city go around with dark lanterns[5] late at night and tear down all obscene lithographs on the bill boards in railroad stations and on the street. The Superintendent assured the ladies of his readiness and willingness to aid them in their reform. The ladies are to call upon him again at 11 o’clock on Monday morning.

Mrs. Martin said the courts must decide as to what was permissible in the way of shows and pictures. She was seen at her home last night. “I have not seen these living pictures,” she said. “I am a member of the Executive Committee of the Home Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church, and that would prevent me from attending any theatre, but I am not acting on this matter without having a full knowledge of what these exhibitions are. Many of those who are near and dear to me do not feel bound, as I do, and have attended these shows. They have described these living pictures to me in detail, and, besides this, many young men and young women have come to me and asked my advice as to whether these things were fit for them to see.”

The door bell rang just at this time and two pretty young women were ushered in. Mrs. Martin sent them to her own sitting room up stairs.

“There are two young ladies now,” she said, “who have come to consult me about a book which is being widely read among their companions. They want me to tell them my opinion of it and whether I shall advise them to discourage its reading among their friends.[6] That is happening all the time. It was in that way that I had my attention called to the indecent posters which are in the Brooklyn streets. While I was away for the summer a lot of boys and girls came to me at my hotel and spoke of them. A fourteen-year-old boy was their spokesman. He wanted to whether, even if the boys and girls would help, these could not be kept off the streets. It was he who suggested that I see Mayor Schieren about it, and I came home determined to see the Mayor at once.[7] As to the living pictures, I have ad appeals from women all over the country to stop the exhibitions. The last one came from the women of Texas.

“‘What can be done in relation to these living pictures?’ they wrote. ‘Can you not stop them in New York at the fountain head, before they inundate the whole country, just as you did the dance du ventre[8] when it went to New York, and make them so disreputable that no one will dare to show them abroad?’ I went to see these dances in the Midway Plaisance, and made a protest against them. I succeeded, too, in getting curtains drawn before some of the pictures in the art gallery at the Exposition.”[9] Mrs. Martin says that it was through her work that the Admiral Cigarette Company’s original advertisement, which contained the picture of a semi-nude woman,[10] was changed, and that 18,000 copies of the book called “The Trail of the Serpent”[11] were seized. A young Connecticut girl called her attention to the book.[12]

“There are 23,00o women in this State alone,” she said, “who are workers in the cause. I have a great stack of mail every day about such matters. This all goes at first to Anthony Comstock’s[13] office, and only what I need to give personal attention to is forwarded to me. These women and the young people are constantly calling my attention to things which they think are not right. I was walking with a lad in Fourth avenue one day, near Madison Square Garden. ‘Why did they choose Diana for the figure on the top of that tower?’ he asked. ‘Was there no good woman in New York whose figure could have been taken to put above that building?’”[14]

Mrs. Martin and Mrs. Pritchard are to attend the National Convention of the W.C.T.U., to be held at Jamestown on Oct. 2.
The WCTU started as a temperance organization and that continued to be their core mission. However, they became proponents of women’s suffrage, on the idea that women would be more likely to support moral reform legislation (that is, pure women would seek to circumscribe the behavior of impure men). But in their quest to stamp of vice, we have Emilie Martin allied with Anthony Comstock. While Comstock was against immoral plays and publications, he was also opposed to women’s suffrage.

And then we have her name. The Massachusetts women who were opposed to suffrage, if married, used their husbands’ names (hence “Mrs. James M. Codman,” instead of “Henrietta Codman”). But although Mrs. Martin’s name implies a Mr. Martin, Emilie is a woman’s name. Oh my! She may be a total bluenose about books and plays, but she is using her personal name! How very modern! (I was not able to determine with certainty which of the two Emilie Martins of New York was the person in the article.)

Then there’s the “living pictures.” The New York Times recently did an article on the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. What the article didn’t mention is that it seems some considered them indecent. We’re talking about people costumed and painted to look like figures from art. Shocking! But it didn’t stop there.

Sale of a Slave, by Gustavo
Simoni. Did Mrs. Martin
make them drape this?
Then there was the belly dancing at the World’s Fair. Mrs. Martin actually went to see that. This was one of the shockers of the era, the undulating figures of women. While an extensive catalog of the artworks exhibited at the fair exists, it’s not clear to my eyes what incensed Mrs. Martin. Most of the pictures are terribly non-smutty. Actually, all of the pictures. I skimmed things without finding anything avant guard for the day.

Finally, Mrs. Martin would have been relieved to know that there is no statue on the current Madison Square Garden building. (For that matter, no Saint-Gaudens statues at the World’s Fair either). Wikipedia notes that the statue of Diana (oh my, a pagan goddess!) was originally 18 feet tall, and this version was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair (for Mrs. Martin’s shocked viewing), after it was replaced by a 13-foot-tall version (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Things the WCTU was opposed to: theater, art, books. I’m gonna need a drink. Oh, wait. That too.

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  1. First draft: “If they were still around,” but Wikipedia notes that they still are. They even have a website!  ↩
  2. Brooklyn was still politically separate from Manhattan and the other boroughs.  ↩
  3. New York City.  ↩
  4. Charles Henry Parkhurst, American clergyman and social reformer.  ↩
  5. A lantern with a sliding shutter to temporarily eclipse the light. No idea why they needed these. Were they trying to sneak up on the posters?  ↩
  6. Simple. If it’s not the Bible or a religious text, it’s vile trash that will only damage young minds.  ↩
  7. I suspect that Mrs. Martin has no problem with stretching the truth to further her moral cause. This story is not credible, unless fourteen-year-old boys were made of purer stuff in 1894.  ↩
  8. Belly dancing.  ↩
  9. The Midway Plaisance was part of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. I am certain that Mrs. Potter Palmer would not take kindly to Mrs. Martin’s characterization of the Midway and the Exposition.  ↩
  10. “Semi-nude,” as in, not actually nude.  ↩
  11. Probably in reference to the first novel by Mary Elizabth Braddon, The Trail of the Serpent (1860). It’s available in Google Books and on the Internet Archive.

    Check out how racy the opening words are:
    I don’t suppose it rained harder in the good town of Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy than it rained anywhere else. But it did rain. There was scarcely an umbrella in Slopperton that could hold its own against the rain that came pouring down that November afternoon, between the hours of four and five.
    This smut is in a book (i.e. portion of the novel) titled “A Respectable Young Man,” and opens the first chapter, “The Good Schoolmaster.” Undoubtably racy stuff. My heart is palpitating.  ↩
  12. Undoubtably after she finished it.  ↩
  13. Postal inspector. Founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  ↩
  14. Perhaps Saint-Gaudens should have sculpted Mrs. Martin reading from the Bible while enjoying a moral beverage. Admittedly, many of Saint-Gaudens’s sculptures drew controversy in their time. This is yet another wholly incredible story from Mrs. Martin.  ↩
[The statue of Diana is © the Philadelphia Museum of Art.]

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