The overwhelming success of Anthony Comstock was, in large part, due to the dramatic transformation of the United States during the nineteenth century, an era later labeled the “Victorian Age” after England’s conservative Queen Victoria. The transformation was partly economic. While a primarily agricultural nation at the start of the century, the U.S. completely restructured its economy to where it ranked first in the world industrial output by its end. This created a class of wealthy industrial monopolists so that by the time Comstock arrived in New York City in the 1860s, the majority of the City’s wealth belonged to fewer than ten percent of the population.
The economic transformation was also accompanied by many significant social and cultural changes. Industrial leaders and the upper middle class, called the bourgeoisie, shared a similar social and cultural outlook. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the old mercantile aristocracy while retaining the values of philanthropy and elitism which placed them far apart from the working class.
At this same time, the United States witnessed a major increase in immigration primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. Most immigrants settled in Northeastern cities such as New York City, Boston and Philadelphia whose populations rapidly expanded as a result. By the end of the 1890s, 20 million men, women and children had immigrated to the United States, the majority of which formed the backbone of the American industrial working class.
In their new country, immigrants clung to old-world traditions and leisure patterns, many of which involved dancing late into the night and imbibing alcoholic spirits. These unusual traditions troubled those in the middle class, but most disturbing was the emergence of a subculture among young men that sometimes involved fighting, the aggressive pursuit of sexual relations with women, and drinking in excess. While this subculture began among the European working class, young, well-dressed “confidence men” of the middle-class increasingly participated.1 Even children shared in these activities much to the horror of the bourgeoisie.
Beggars, prostitutes and child hucksters roamed the streets of New York, threatening the traditions and social order of the middle-class. In reaction they created social reform movements and societies to protect the social norm. The temperance movement arose as did anti-prostitution organizations and anti-vice societies. Christian goodwill united the reformers who believed it was their mission to save the working class and their children from purveyors of vice. But as working class culture prevailed, leaders of preventative societies insisted that current law enforcement methods were inadequate to properly combat public obscenity.
1) Anna Louise Bates, Weeder in the Garden of the Lord: Anthony Comstock's Life and Career (New York: University Press of America, 1995), 5.