About the Exhibit

In honor of Banned Books Week, this online exhibit from the William L. Clements Library presents twenty titles from the collection that have been the subject of controversy at different moments in history.

These books span over four centuries, from the Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493 to Elinor Glyn's Three Weeks in 1907. They provide examples of actual or attempted censorship by governments, social organizations, and private citizens. The topics of controversy, from witchcraft to abolitionism to adultery, show how societies' values have changed over time as subjects that are taboo in one generation become commonplace in the next.

According to Anne Haight, author of Banned Books: 387 B.C. to 1978 A.D., books have been banned for three principal reasons: sedition, heresy, and obscenity. These concepts have been redefined in every age and place, although the impulse towards censorship seems universal.

A Brief History of Book Censorship

Frauds exposed

Frauds Exposed, published by Anthony Comstock in 1880. In the upper right corner of the cover illustration, a man throws books onto a bonfire.

The introduction of the printing press in Europe in the 15th century made it increasingly easy for books to be written, copied, and widely disseminated. The struggle between censorship and freedom of the press has continued ever since. Books have been expurgated, suppressed, and even burned in efforts by political, religious, and social authorities to control the spread of information.

Religious authorities have often banned books that contradict official views. In 1559, the Catholic Church began issuing the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of books banned for heresy. Various governments have also banned publications for political reasons, including the United States, beginning with the infamous Sedition Act of 1789 and continuing into the 20th century with the McCarthy era.

Before the American Civil War, the topic of slavery was a volatile one. Four of the books in this exhibit were banned in parts of the South for their views on the abolition of slavery.

In the United States, the vice-society movement emerged in the 1870s to combat the spread of obscene literature. Anthony Comstock, a central figure in this movement, founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and was responsible for the federal obscenity statute known as the Comstock Act, which banned obscene, lewd, or indecent material from being sent through the U.S. mail. Comstock was the inspiration for the term "comstockery," coined by George Bernard Shaw to describe "excessive opposition to, or censorship of, supposed immorality in art or literature."

In Boston, Massachusetts, the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice was so strict in censoring literature and art that the phrase "Banned in Boston" became associated in the popular mind with any risqué work, and people began falsely claiming that their works were banned in Boston to promote them.