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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.