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The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York

The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York

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Published by UChicagoPress
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.
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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Publish date: Sep 15, 2008
Added to Scribd: Nov 14, 2009
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reservedISBN:9780226112350
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carlie_3 reviewed this
Thinking I would get from this book an interesting snapshot of a time and place in history through New York newspapers, I was pleased to discover I received that and much more. The flash press, a 150 year old style of newspaper that exhibited salaciousness, gossip, political undertones, backstabbing, and sexuality, was almost forgotten by history. It was not until 1985 that the papers became known to antiquarians when the American Antiquarian Society convinced George B. Underwood’s son to sell his collection to them. Likely this collection was passed through a chain of sports reporters throughout history to land in Underwood’s possession.While reading about the licentious content of the papers is fascinating, the real story is much deeper and richer. The editors of the flash press were some of the first in the country to be tried for obscenity and the forerunners of using the First Amendment to defend themselves and their writing. Indeed, their cases helped shape obscenity laws and trials though this fact was almost forgotten. Thirty years before the groundbreaking Comstock laws, the flash press was censored using English common law, causing a big fuss and a short-lived style of newspaper.Replete with images from the papers and articles reprinted in their entirety, the reader gets a true sense of the social scene of the times. Although the papers of focus in the book were produced in New York City, many more were created in other big cities in the country. What struck me while reading about the content of the papers was how similar we still are to our ancestors when it comes to titillating entertainment. We may have changed formats and codified editorial responsibilities, but we continue to toe the line of acceptable behavior. The difference between the flash press and today’s tabloids is slight. Furthermore, we have not ceased to be tantalized by celebrity or their behaviors, be they good or bad. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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