Before Playboy, there was Flossie

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

A full-length cabinet photo of Miss Flossy Lee, Record Group 118 Records of the US Marshall
A full-length cabinet photo of Miss Flossy Lee, Record Group 118 Records of U.S. Attorneys, National Archives at Boston

Sixteen-year-old boys loved her. Parents of 16-year-old boys did not.

Yes, long before Hugh Hefner donned his trademark smoking jacket, before Larry Flynt shocked a nation with Hustler, there was Miss Flossie Lee. In the 1890s, the Augusta, Maine, entrepreneur ran Art Photo Co., a corporation that promised to send photos of “the best female models” for a buck. Purportedly, the photos of scantily clad women were intended for “art studies, and as models for the student in figure work, or the young artist who finds the living model a too expensive luxury. . .”  But what they really were was porn.

Judging from the documents at the National Archives at Boston, Miss Flossie Lee was the victim of her own success. She operated without any evident complaint in Maine, then she decided to go for the big time. “I am the acknowledged belle of my own city, and have beaux by the score,” she writes in an ad, “but wish to extend my acquaintance over the whole country.” The trouble was that shipping obscene material across state lines was a Federal offense.

Congressmen complained. The Assistant Attorney General was peppered with letters from the Post Office inquiring what sort of action could be taken against Miss Lee and her “forbidden circulations.” One man wrote the Secret Service Department in the U.S. Post Office asking if something could not be done to “break up such a bold-faced damnable firm as ‘Miss Flossy Lee.'”

Miss Lee had fans in 16-year-olds, however. Jerome B. Gray caught his son with a few of the circulars and promptly sent them, along with an angry letter, to his congressman.

Who was Miss Flossie Lee? Archivist Joan Gearin has the answer. “He’s some guy in Maine with a PO Box,” she explained over the phone. Flossie Lee was like so many purported models on the Internet and 1-900 numbers hocking their wares: she was made up.”

The real Miss Flossie may actually be a man named George Dunton, who pleaded guilty to the charge that he did “knowingly cause to be deposited for mailing in the mail of the said United States . . . certain obscene, lewd, and lascivious pictures.” He was jailed for four months in Portland, Maine. Flossie Lee was no more.

The related correspondence and photos are now part of the National Archives in Record Groups 118 and 21 , thanks to citizens in 1890 who were worried about the corruptibility of the mail system and the actions of the morally questionable Flossie Lee.

For more related (work-appropriate) photos, check out the National Archives at Boston Facebook page.

An advertisement for pictures of Flossie's "charming young lady friends." This ad appeared in the National Police Gazette. Record Group 118, Records of the US Marshal
An advertisement for pictures of Flossie’s “charming young lady friends.” This ad appeared in the National Police Gazette. Record Group 118, Records of U.S. Attorneys, National Archives at Boston.

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