Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Banned in Boston
"Banned in Boston" was a phrase used in the late 19th century and early and mid-20th century to describe a literary work, motion picture, play, or other work prohibited from distribution or exhibition in Boston, Massachusetts. During this period, the city, like other municipalities, had much wider authority to ban works with "objectionable" content, especially with regard to sexual references and foul language.
Boston was founded by Puritans, who left controversy and suppression England in the early 17th century. Their (highly negative) views on any public exhibition with any sexual content whatsoever were well known. The next major wave of immigration to Boston, in the mid-19th century, was largely one of Irish Roman Catholics, another group well known for a stern, repressive moralism, particularly with regard to sexual matters.
Given this backdrop, when late 19th century American moral crusader Anthony Comstock began his campaign to suppress "vice", he found much support in Boston, particularly among the socially prominent and influential. (He was also known as the proponent of the Comstock Law preventing "obscene" materials from being distributed through the U.S. mail; some noted that by his definiton, the King James Version of the Bible was unmailable.) Soon, Boston city officials took it upon themselves to "ban" anything that they found to be salacious or offensive; theatrical shows were run out of town, books confiscated, and motion pictures (only beginning to be exhibited at about the time that the moral crusade got under way in earnest) were prevented from being shown, sometimes stopped in mid-showing if an official had "seen enough".
This movement had several effects. One was that Boston, which had been one of the cultural centers of the United States since its founding, now came across as less sophisticated than many lesser cities without such stringent censorship practices. Another is that the phrase "banned in Boston" began to be associated in the popular mind with something sexy and lurid; many distributors of such works were happy when they were banned in Boston, as that made them have more appeal elsewhere; some were even purported as having been banned there when in fact they were not in order to increase their appeal.
The Supreme Court decisions in the era of the "Warren Court" of the 1950s and 1960s began to limit, and eventually all but stop, the ability of municipalites and even states and the federal government, to regulate content of literature, plays, and movies, on First Amendment grounds. Rather than merely showing that something had sexual content and was hence "offensive", a work had to be shown to be without any "redeeming social value", a very high standard designed to give the vast majority of works the "benefit of the doubt", at least. The ability of Boston, or any other municipality, to limit or prevent sexual themes or content, was at an end; by the early 1970s Boston had a full-fledged "adult entertainment" district often referred to as the "Combat Zone", featuring many things which could have resulted in fines and imprisonment only a quarter of a century earlier. The phrase now lives primarily as a reminder of a bygone era.
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