Al Goldstein, publisher of "Screw" magazine, during an interview in this Oct. 28, 2003 file photo in New York. Photograph by Mary Altaffer/AP Photo
Al Goldstein, publisher of "Screw" magazine, during an interview in this Oct. 28, 2003 file photo in New York. Photograph by Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

Al Goldstein, the potty-mouthed pornographer who published Screw magazine and other publications detailing the nuts and bolts of sex, has died. In predictable fashion, obituaries have hailed him, if grudgingly, for breaking new, tasteless ground. He was a “publisher who took the romance out of sex,” declared the New York Times today. In this formulation, he was a pioneer of perversion, going where no man -- or publisher -- had gone before.

Please. Goldstein didn’t break new ground. Screw, which Goldstein once described as a “Consumer Reports of sex,” complete with reviews of “massage parlors” and pornographic films, echoed a genre pioneered a century and a half earlier. As for the pictures he published, Goldstein was just the latest in a long line of pornographers who have fed New York's seemingly insatiable sexual appetite. Much of the material these earlier pornographers produced was explicit -- “hard-core,” in today’s parlance -- and decidedly not romantic. And much of it, too, was shot through with the kind of satirical edge that supposedly defined Screw.

Big cities are rather hospitable to sexual freedom. And by the 1830s and 1840s, New York was big, rather seamy, poorly policed, and chock full of young, single men and women. Prostitution flourished, aided and abetted by guidebooks. The first for New York, published in the 1830s by an author cheekily identified as “A Butt Ender,” described itself as a “moral reform directory.” But in publishing the names, addresses, rates and services of prostitutes, it was more of a precursor to Goldstein’s consumer report.

Guides to prostitution could also be found in a series of contemporaneous newspapers that historians such as Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy Gilfoyle and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz have dubbed the “flash press.” These papers had titles like the Whip, the Libertine and the Rake, and they served up a stew of sexually suggestive engravings, news of sports and popular entertainment, gossip, and satirical sendups of moral reformers and busybodies who wished to put an end to the twin evils of prostitution and pornography.

These papers also published critical assessments of local houses of prostitution and the women who worked there. In addition, they directed readers to lithographers and printing houses that sold sexually explicit material. One publication spoke knowingly of “those exciters of impure impassions -- those horrible evidences of the prurient state of French Society -- richly colored and beautifully engraved prints, representing the connection of the sexes in all varieties, may be found in nearly every small book and print shop of New York. One on Nassau street, we speak of in particular.”

After the Civil War, a host of pornographers turned sexually explicit material into a big business. The indisputable king was William Haines, an Irish immigrant described by reformer Anthony Comstock as a “foul-minded and licentious man” whose business empire, run in concert with his wife, produced 320 volumes of pornography and marketed countless others. Then there was George Akarman, whom Gilfoyle recently described as “the Al Goldstein … of nineteenth-century Gotham.” Rather than try to sell directly to customers, which was risky, Akarman pioneered the use of the mail to deliver pornography. This soon became the preferred method for distributing porn.

By the 1870s, Haines, Akarman and other publishers, many based in New York City, supplied an estimated 4,000 dealers in pornography throughout the country. This was a big business, and it ultimately attracted the ire of Comstock, a postal inspector who helped found the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. His efforts to document the pornography trade in New York ultimately led to the passage of the namesake Comstock Act of 1873, which made it a federal crime to send “obscene” materials through the mail.

Pornographers had a hard time of it in the wake of the law, though pornography hardly disappeared or became any less explicit. In fact, prosecutors often targeted novelists and birth-control advocates, while pornographers, long experienced at evading the law, continued to operate with impunity. But the mail was no longer a safe channel for distributing naughty material, until the 20th century, when publishers such as Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and yes, Al Goldstein, pushed the boundaries of what could be published, never mind sent through the mail.

But was Goldstein a “porn pioneer,” as so many obituaries have dutifully reported? Nope. Not even close.

(Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)