The Flash Press

Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York

by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, American Antiquarian Society

Series: Historical Studies of Urban America

Subject categories
  • 0226112357
  • 9780226112336
  • 9780226112350
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.
  • University of Chicago Press; September 2008
  • ISBN: 9780226112350
  • Read online, or download in secure PDF format
  • Title: The Flash Press
  • Series: Historical Studies of Urban America
  • Author: Patricia Cline Cohen; Timothy J. Gilfoyle; Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz; American Antiquarian Society
  • Imprint: University of Chicago Press
Subject categories
  • 0226112357
  • 9780226112336
  • 9780226112350

In The Press

“A fascinating survey of the long-forgotten ‘flash’ newspapers of the 1840s and of the raucous urban sexual cultures, explosive sexual scandals, and heated debates over sexual liberty and morality those newspapers chronicled, provoked, and lampooned.”
— George Chauncey, author of Gay New York

"Cohen, Gilfoyle and Horowitz, history professors and chroniclers of 19th-century American sexuality, offer an engaging scholarly examination of the little-known weekly newspapers that reported on the sexual underworld of 1840s New York. . . . A thorough account of this quirky, salacious moment in journalism, readers familiar with New York will find a city both foreign and familiar, and a sense that the local weekly used to be a lot more fun."
— Publishers Weekly

"The 'flash' papers of 1840s New York knew their readership, and their readership knew what it wanted: sporting news, theater gossip, humor, and not a little pornography. . . . The Flash Press traces the papers' brief but turbulent run through the litigation and public outcry that eventually shut them down. . . . Although the sporting weeklies were short-lived, First-Amendment victories for today's risqué periodicals suggest that the earlier papers were ahead of their time. As the authors of The Flash Press note, 'Seen from the perspective of the early 21st century, the editors of the flash press certainly have the last laugh.'"
— Chronicle Review

"Everyone interested in knowing what New York City was like before the Civil War . . . will want to have a peek. The authors have managed to unearth and collate a remarkable amount of enriching detail about a curiously fleshy moment in the history of New York publishing. . . . Thanks to the . . . meticulous research of these three scholars, we once again have a way of looking through a tiny, smudged window into New York's long-past illicit life."
— Nicholson Baker, New York Times Book Review

"[The book] contains copious excerpts from the flash press, in which an overlooked world of fops, nymphs and bawds is dragted kicking and screaming back to life."
— George Pendle, Financial Times

"This is a scholarly book on a racy topic, and it is a surprise to find the lively, accessible, copiously illustrated narrative of its first part accompanied by more than 40 pages of equally interesting endnotes. It may be read happily by general readers and specialists."
— Laurel Brake, Times Higher Education

"Not only do the authors give a history of the papers, a summary of their contents, a description of the sexual politics of the time . . . but also almost half of the book's text is reprints in full of stories from the press. The flash press must have been shocking entertainment in its time, and The Flash Press proves to be entertaining history in our own."
— Rob Hardy, Commercial Dispatch

"The book represents a significant contribution to the field of cultural history. [It] opens a significant new window on antebellum urban culture.
— Amanda Frisken, American Historical Review

"A tour de force of archival recovery, deft contextualization, and scrupulous editing that is certain to have an immediate and lasting impact on our understanding of New York City's print culture, sexual underworlds, and much else besides. . . . The Flash Press is as pleasing to look at as it is provocative to read. The work of three historians at the top of their game, it will doubtless encourage many others to explore the flash genre, while remaining for the forseeable future the definitive study."
— Leon Jackson, New York History

"Scholars will be thrilled by the wealth of resources here. The combination of these primary sources and the authors' compelling reinterpretation of antebellum New York culture make the book an economical and pedagogically valuable option for classes in cultural, urban, media, or legal history. They also make The Flash Press a thought-provoking and entertaining read for both a scholarly and a general audience."
— Paul Ringel, H-Net Review

"A book that I believe should be on the shelf of every antebellum sociocultural historian. . . . This book represents an important intervention in some recent scholarhsip that has too readily accepted the shibboleth of Victorian sexual repression. . . . It also sets new interpretative directions for print culture specialists."
— Ronald J. Zboray, Journal of American History

"An important contribution to studies in legal history, print culture, and the history of sexuality."
— Wendy A. Woloson, Journal of the Early Republic

About The Author

Patricia Cline Cohen is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of The Murder of Helen Jewett. Timothy J. Gilfoyle is professor of history at Loyola University Chicago and the author of City of Eros. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz is professor of American studies and history at Smith College and the author of Rereading Sex.

Subject categories
  • 0226112357
  • 9780226112336
  • 9780226112350