There were a lot of things the society didn’t approve of.
Matters of censorship have long been a part of public debate. People from differing cultures, religions, and education levels may be offended by very different things. This is why in many cases it can be difficult to make one law that removes or even defines media that is profane. In the old days anything that was even bordering on the scandalous could get books banned or even cause people to lose their jobs or housing. But, despite some great offense taken at certain topics, there was a growing market for media that was legally above board, but which was “banned in Boston”.
The phrase originated after the New England Watch and Ward Society clamped down on anything that was deemed immoral in the slightest. Between 1878 and 1930s the society made their presence well known in Boston, where even the so-called “educational” currency printed by the US Treasury was considered by some to be obscene due to the outlines of feminine forms depicted on the 1896 $5 bill.
According to their 1914-1915 annual report the aim of the society was stated in part as: “…to remove temptations to vice and crime- to stop up sources of corruption. Its work is not remedial but preventative- it must make its appeal through the head to the heart…to reform the criminal and to provide for the wretched.”
The logo featured elaborate neo-Gothic type encircling the image of hand strangling a snake- a rather sinister image in itself. Their motto was “manu forti” which means “strong hands”.
Such standards drew criticism and mockery from some, especially publishers who viewed the strict guidelines as unreasonable. In the early 20th century the term “banned in Boston” became code for books and plays that were juicy, maybe a bit raunchy, but totally legal. These books and other works, however, would likely not make it past the New England Watch and Ward Society.
In 1882 the society had the district attorney in Boston write to Walt Whitman’s publisher asking for some poems from Whitmans’ book, Leaves of Grass, to be deleted and others to be heavily edited, including poems such as “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric”. The publisher instated the changes, which Whitman never approved, leading Whitman to find another publisher who would print the poems as they were intended.
Though the poems are still highly regarded today, the physical pleasures described in the book were considered the very definition of smut during at the time. Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after his boss read the offending poems, so the society was not alone in the view that the book was too provocative. However it should be noted that the legal proceedings were undertaken 27 years after the book was first published and only 10 years before Whitman himself passed away.
The society was considered a who’s who of the Boston Brahmins, the nickname for traditional upperclass members of society. These individuals alone had great power, but together were a force to be reckoned with and booksellers and libraries came to fear the society. Without legislature many works that were deemed salacious were quietly restricted.
Even into the 1930s and 1940s the society exercised influence and banned books, despite waning power and court rulings that showed that private citizens could not take censorship into their own hands. The book, All Quiet on the Western Front, was released in the US in 1929 to great acclaim and was one of their later literary targets. Despite a good reception in the States, it was seen as an anti-war, pacifist book and was later banned by the Nazi party as well.
By the late 1940s the New England Watch and Ward Society took to focusing on gambling as the movies had forever changed what people were exposed to. The Hays Code largely contained the morality of motion pictures, making the society a group of decreasing importance.