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The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York (Historical Studies of Urban America) [Paperback]

Patricia Cline Cohen , Timothy J Gilfoyle , Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz


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Book Description

25 April 2008 Historical Studies of Urban America
Obscene, libidinous, loathsome, lascivious. Those were just some of the ways critics described the nineteenth-century weeklies that covered and publicized New York City's extensive sexual underworld. Publications like the "Flash" and the "Whip" - distinguished by a captivating brew of lowbrow humor and titillating gossip about prostitutes, theater denizens, and sporting events - were not the sort generally bound in leather for future reference, and despite their popularity with an enthusiastic readership, they quickly receded into almost complete obscurity. Recently, though, two sizable collections of these papers have resurfaced, and in "The Flash Press" three renowned scholars provide a landmark study of their significance, as well as a wide selection of their ribald articles and illustrations.Including short tales of urban life, editorials on prostitution, and moralizing rants against homosexuality, these selections epitomize a distinct form of urban journalism. Here, in addition to providing a thorough overview of this colorful reportage, its editors, and its audience, the authors examine nineteenth-century ideas of sexuality and freedom that mixed Tom Paine's republicanism with elements of the Marquis de Sade's sexual ideology. They also trace the evolution of censorship and obscenity law, showing how a string of legal battles ultimately led to the demise of the flash papers: editors were hauled into court, sentenced to jail for criminal obscenity and libel, and eventually pushed out of business - but not before they forever changed the debate over public sexuality and freedom of expression in America's most important city.

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Review

"A fascinating survey of the long-forgotten 'flash' newspapers of the 1840s and of the raucous urban sexual cultures, explosive sexual scandals, and heated debates over sexual liberty and morality those newspapers chronicled, provoked, and lampooned." - George Chauncey, author of Gay New York "The Flash Press is a virtuoso production on many levels, combining first-rate introductory essays, major archival discoveries, and meticulous care in selecting and organizing the primary documents. More than any collection I know, The Flash Press opens up entirely new vantage points on the nineteenth-century metropolis." - James W. Cook, author of The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum"

About the Author

Patricia Cline Cohen is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of The Murder of Helen Jewett. Timothy J. Gilfoyle is professor of history at Loyola University Chicago and the author of City of Eros. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz is professor of American studies and history at Smith College and the author of Rereading Sex.

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "We are charged with misleading the minds of the youth. The fault is not with us; it is in the nature of man himself." * 31 May 2008
By Kerry Walters - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Every once in awhile, when I was a kid back in the late 50s and early 60s, I'd run across a "men's magazine" carelessly left lying around the house by my dad. Compared to what's offered by today's sex industry, the stuff was pretty tame: stories of conquest that were no more heated than a typical true romance novel, ribald jokes and cartoons, the occasional flash of a breast or an unshod, nyloned foot.

What I didn't know until I read The Flash Press is that dad's men's magazines were tame by standards a century earlier, too. As chronicled by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy Gilfoyle, and Helen Horowitz, the two decades preceding the Civil War gave rise to a lively men's magazine market in New York City that offered bawdy tales, suggestive drawings, a celebration of libertinism, libelous gossip, and actual addresses of fallen ladies who (as the articles slyly intimated) had no recourse left them but to turn their misfortune into a source of income, and who would naturally welcome gentlemen callers. Oh my.

Predictably, there was a market for this sort of thing. (I can imagine respectable 1840s New York men surreptitiously buying and reading the papers, just like respectable men of my father's generation did.) There was such a demand, in fact, that eventually there were four of these rags to choose from. Each was printed on poor quality paper with smudgy printing and sold for under 10 cents an issue. But the production quality wasn't really what buyers were interested in. What they were after was the hot contents of came to be known as the "flash press."

The trendsetter was "The Flash," founded in 1841 by a ne'er-do-well named William Snelling, a West Point dropout, dipsomaniac, and failed poet who would later relocate to Boston and become the editor of the very respectable "Boston Herald." Soon several competitors were on the market--"The Whip," "The Rake," and "The Libertine"--and despite occasional lawsuits and legal hassles, they egged one another on in achieving new heights of raceyness. Everything went okay for a couple of years. But then New York district attorney James Whiting decided to pull the plug on the flash press, and that early chapter in the history of men's magazines came to an end.

Reading the selections from these papers excerpted in The Flash Press can be a surreal experience. The language is in the stilted style of the early 19th century--sometimes, as a matter of fact, the strange combination of overdone punctuation, stiff rhetoric, and risque subject matter reminds one of the earlier Fannie Hill. Cohen, Gilfoye, and Horowitz's analysis of the material--its social and cultural context, broader questions about erotica in general, and the history of the sometimes humorous in-fighting between the various editors of the flash press publications--makes this an entertaining and fascinating read.
Highly recommended.
________
* "The Rake," 3 September 1842
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Underbelly of the 1840s Urban Experience: The "Flash" Press 27 Jun 2009
By Florantha - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
[cue the voice from "The Shadow"] "Who knows what lurks in dusty archives? Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz know!" [evil laugh]

This is a highly useful book which is academic but not dry. It can be read by social historians, literary history people, and Boston or New York local history buffs with good benefit, but the general reader will get a great glimpse of a little-documented piece of Americana. I read it because I am trying to trace the elusive William Joseph Snelling, one of the biggies in the flash press whom the authors document with wonderful bird-dog sleuthing. Snelling would have been proud.

The authors have worked with a set of previously undocumented "gentlemen's sporting press" newspapers from the 1840s. Copies of them have miraculously survived in collections but have not been really studied before these authors met and collaborated. Some of the extant originals came from evidence files from the police! Here is America's underbelly, including some amazing images that document antebellum sleaze. Reminds me of the early days of _Playboy Magazine_ when undergrads quoted the Playboy Advisor as a way to score some status with the opposite sex and with other undergrads in late night bull sessions. When you read, try to pretend that you don't live in a world of sex everywhere--imagine how exciting it would be to come across a publication that told you about whorehouses, local police and local madames, nasty diseases, and more.

My compliments to the authors!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Titillation of the Times 22 July 2008
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In the 1840s, New Yorkers didn't have _Hustler_ or _Screw_ magazine, but they didn't go without their titillation in print. They could get to the newsstand and buy _The Flash_, _The Rake_, _The Whip_, or _The Libertine_, and get a dash of bold, provocative, and spicy prose, with saucy pictures. The papers are long gone, and would have been forgotten ephemera had not a treasure trove of them shown up twenty years ago. Three professors of history, Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, have examined the lot and, with admirable academic objectivity and distance, have described the papers and given context for them in _The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York_ (University of Chicago Press). That doesn't keep the book from being fun, for all it's footnotes and references. Not only do the authors give a history of the papers, a summary of their contents, a description of the sexual politics of the time, and a report of the trials to which their editors, writers, and publishers were put, but also almost half of the book's text is reprints in full of stories from the press. The flash press must have been shocking entertainment in its time, and _The Flash Press_ proves to be entertaining history in our own.

The papers may have made a great noise in their short time of existence (1841 - 1843) but they were then forgotten a cache of them was found. Newsboys would hawk the papers for perhaps six cents apiece, and readers could pay twenty-five cents to insert gossip. The papers also printed threats of revealing who owned brothels or other embarrassing material, making money by blackmail. The flash press was often literally pornography, if you remember that etymologically "pornography" means "harlot writing". Much of the print in the flash press had to do with brothels, reporting upon particular houses or the charms of certain ladies, or on celebrations and balls held by the prostitutes. Some of the income of the press came from brothel-keepers who paid bribes to have their businesses puffed. But the remarks on "the sinful trade of prostitution" are in keeping with what the authors say is the great paradox of the flash press: "it indulged in verbal pornographic image-making while simultaneously employing the language and rhetoric of moral reformers." By taking a literal stance against prostitution, the papers were then able to describe its manifestations in detail, including addresses of houses to which readers could go if they wished to be outraged in person.

The papers were a financial success, but their success made them a visible target for libel suits from those who were treated badly in their pages or from law enforcement's efforts to improve the citizens' morals. The owners of _The Flash_ were indicted for publishing an obscene paper in 1842, and other suits against the papers charged that they inspired lust and intended "to debauch, injure, debase, and corrupt" the youth of the city. It was possibly the first time the courts were used as censors of sexual matter. The authors show that like most states, New York had no anti-obscenity law at the time; this would not happen until the federal Comstock Law of 1873, which banned circulation of printed matter containing such obscenities as information about contraception. The English common law tradition, imported to the U.S., served as a basis for the prosecutions, which were generally successful and shut the papers down after their short but lucrative runs. The First Amendment was held more as a protection for states against the federal government, not for citizens against governmental intrusion, and was not a factor in obscenity proceedings until the tradition of dissent that emerged after the Civil War. During the twentieth century, obscenity decisions would overturn many of the common law assumptions that had ended the flash press, which was succeeded by milder "police gazettes" that had similar themes. The flash press thus is important both for having played a substantial role in the history of government prosecution of naughtiness and for giving a picture of the sporting, manly urban life of the mid-nineteenth century. Both roles are well documented in this appealing volume of historical commentary and excerpts and engravings from the papers themselves.
3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Heavy going 13 Jun 2008
By Ann M. Altman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I ordered this book after reading an interesting review in the Sunday New York Times. I found it heavy going and gradually became bored. The authors don't have the necessary narrative spark to bring what should be a fascinating topic alive and there is a surfeit of tedious and repetitive information that seems to take the reader round in circles.
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