This post was written by Samantha Brown, Time Inc. Assistant Archivist.
While processing the Time Inc. Subject Files, I came across a mysterious object buried among the papers. Sitting in an envelope next to the other papers in a file was a quarter. The envelope said that Mr. Roy Larsen, the editor of LIFE, had received the quarter on April 11, 1938 from a detective in the Bronx City Courthouse and that the object was somehow related to a story that LIFE had run called “The Birth of a Baby.” It seemed odd that the editor of a magazine would be selling a copy of a magazine to a police detective. There had to be a bigger story behind the object I had found.
The quarter’s story begins in March 1938 when Larsen began to plan the April 11th issue of LIFE. He was hoping to break the taboo around discussing the topic of birth just like the March of Time movies and Time had done with the topics of cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. To help enlighten people about the process of birth, the magazine would run a story highlighting an upcoming movie called Birth of a Baby which was created by the American Committee on Maternal Welfare. The committee was made up of twenty of the nation’s leading medical and child welfare organizations and aimed to reduce the nation’s maternal mortality rate by teaching the public about motherhood and childbirth. At the time, 12,000 women per year were dying in childbirth and the committee hoped to lower this number by at least seventy-five percent. The story would include a narrative about the film, drawings of a child in utero, stills from the film, and a summary of other national health campaigns that had been previously launched.
The story was a big risk for LIFE and those working at the magazine knew that they needed to be careful about how they presented the story to the public. To help prepare LIFE’s readers for the story, letters of advance notice were sent out to Episcopalian and Presbyterian clergymen, healthcare professionals, LIFE salesmen, magazine subscribers, and motion picture trade publications. The letters outlined why they were sending the letter, who created the film, what the purpose of the film was, precedence for the article, and the audiences the article was appropriate for. To further prepare themselves for any possible controversy, LIFE sought out and received approval from the Post Office to mail copies of the magazine and advised the American News Corporations to let LIFE know if any police action was taken against dealers selling copies of the magazine. LIFE and its publishers wanted it to be clear that they had taken the appropriate steps to ensure that the article was appropriate to be sent to the public and that they would step in to take responsibility for any actions taken against magazine dealers.
Almost as soon as copies of the magazine hit newsstands, controversy struck and the magazine began to be seized across the country. Before the controversy could be settled, at least 45 cities and three counties were working to hinder the sales of the April 11th issue of LIFE. Among those who reacted negatively to the article was Samuel J. Foley, the Bronx District Attorney. Foley ordered that copies of the magazine be seized since they were “a flagrant offence against good taste” and directed police officers to arrest any dealers found selling copies of the magazine. Time Inc. quickly moved to assists those who had been arrested and sent their own lawyers to arrange for the release of the dealers.
The day after the release of the magazine dealers, on April 11th, Larsen went to Foley’s office and proceeded to sell a copy of the April 11th issue of LIFE to a plainclothes police officer who was at Foley’s office. While copies of LIFE only cost a dime, the officer only had a quarter in his pocket and Larsen had to make change with his own money. The quarter that Larsen was given is the same as the one that ended up in the Time Inc. Subject Files. While we’re not sure how it ended up in its final resting place, we now have a story to go with it.
Beyond the quarter, the story ends with Larsen being arrested and being given a summons to court. When the case was brought before three justices in the Bronx Court of Special Sessions, a unanimous decision was made that the disputed issue of Life was not indecent and Larsen was acquitted. After the case was settled, one of the justices who had heard the case, Nathan D. Perlman, wrote an opinion. In the opinion, Justice Perlman admitted that essentially the prosecution was right in their assertions that the article could be seen as indecent in certain lights but that ideas of decency were dynamic and changed with popular attitudes. Additionally, the pictures in the story were presented in such a way that they did not fall within the category of indecency for that time and that the subject was delicately handled.