September Morn: The History of a Controversy

September Morn in Chicago

The earliest controversy over September Morn seems to come from Chicago. A story in the March 5, 1913, Chicago Daily Tribune describes Detective Fred Hirsch, an officer of Chicago's "censor bureau," walking past the window of Jackson & Semmelmeyer's photographic store. "By thunder, you're a peach," Detective Hirsch mutters, according to the newspaper account.

After consulting "his book of police regulations" (which Det. Hirsch apparently kept in his pocket, to judge from the newspaper story), Hirsch regretfully orders the picture be removed from the window. When Mrs. Florence Semmelmeyer protests that it is a reproduction of "a famous painting by Paul Chabas," Hirsch admits that Chabas has "an eye for beauty," but that the picture must not be displayed publicly in the shop window. He assures Mrs. Semmelmeyer, "take it from me, lady, there's pictures as bad as that in Chicago saloons, but they're in the back rooms. None in the windows."

This scene provides an archetype that would be reproduced in the subsequent controversy. An individual, walking along a city-street, is shocked by the appearance in a store window of Chabas's painting. This same general narrative would recur with Anthony Comstock in New York City, and is even represented in postcard parodies. Equally important in this early account is the distinction Hirsch makes between what it available "in the back rooms" of saloons, and what is available in public view. These spatial distinctions served in part to segregated gendered spaces--the saloon was a uniformly male space with different standards than the public window, which was visible to women and children.

The reprodution seems to have been restored to the window of Jackson & Semmelmeyer's window sometime thereafter, prompting further investigation, and ultimately a trial in a Chicago court.

On March 21, 1913, a Chicago jury exonerated the painting of any charge of obscenity. The New York Times carried a short notice in the March 22 edition declaring, "Art Triumphs in Chicago." It was next to New York that the painting headed, and to its infamous rendezvous with Anthony Comstock.