Tracts conceived by crusaders seeking to eradicate the foreskin were published by pornographers seeking to avoid censors.
For several years now, I have been collecting a strange series of books put out by two mostly forgotten publishers, Panurge Press and Falstaff Press. Both operated in the first half of the 20th century, flourishing in the late 1920s and 1930s, and both focused on so-called “gentleman’s” titles: unexpurgated literature, curiosa, and pornography. More than bizarre curios, they’ve drawn me in because of the way they illuminate a strange moment in the history of American censorship that had vast consequences for almost all the dicks in America. The presses themselves emerged from a quirk of American obscenity laws, which left a strange lacuna that allowed them to operate.
One of the books, published anonymously in 1931, tells the story of surgeon who treated a man with “a very long but thin and narrow prepuce that had always been an annoyance to him.” The man, after witnessing the benefits of circumcision for his two children, “arranged to do it all by himself, and give the family and the surgeon a sample of his courage and a simultaneous surprise party.” The surgeon recounts what he saw:
When I at length arrived at the scene of carnage, I was directed to the wood-shed, on the outskirts of which hovered the family, frantic with fear and apprehension; within, in the darkest corner, with wildly dilated eyes, and performing a fantastic pas seul, was a man with a huge pair of scissors dangling between his legs, warning all persons as they valued his life not to approach or lay a hand on him. He had shut the scissors down so that it clinched the thin prepuce, and there his courage and determination had forsaken him. He lost his presence of mind, and was not even able to remove the scissors. He had simply given one wild, blood-curdling yell—like the last winding notes from Roland’s horn at Roncevalles—that had brought his family to the wood-shed door, and they had sent for me.
Though violent, this passage doesn’t depart too far from the hallmarks of the genre. Asking why a book like this would be distributed with pornography, even as a disguise, points the inquirer to the governing irony of gentlemen’s titles: The restrictions on publishing sexual material often activated the erotic content of otherwise innocuous or boner-killing stories. Their fate becomes even more juicy when the role of this censor-evading smut in promoting circumcision as an anti-masturbation cure comes to light.