Plain Brown Wrapper: Adult Films for the Home Market, 1930-1970

Eric Schaefer, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Visual and Media Arts
Emerson College
100 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02116

*Not for citation without written permission of the author.

This is a shorter version of the paper presented at Northeast Historic Film's symposium on Home Movies and Privacy on July 25, 2001. A full version of this article will appear in: In the Absence of Films: Towards a New Historiographic Practice, Eric Smoodin and Jon Lewis, editors, Duke University Press, forthcoming. Footnotes appear at the end of the article.

A couple of years ago, a staff member where I work called me into his office and produced a box. His grandfather had recently died, and the staff member had been given the box of 8mm home movies that the old man had made. Mixed in with the home movies were some reels of commercial films -- Castle newsreel digests, sports films, Blackhawk prints of Laurel and Hardy. And then there was the coffee can. The coffee can contained several reels of Joe Bonica's Movie of the Month, with titles like "Atomic Bomb" and "Underwater Ballet," as well as a brochure for "Candid Cinema," in other words, nudie movies. The staffer was not only surprised that gramps had owned a stash of nudie movies, but that such movies had been made and distributed in the forties and fifties when his grandfather had participated in the 8mm hobby.

Much of the received wisdom about adult films today is that the video revolution brought adult films out of the VFW halls or urban grindhouses and into the living room of Mr. and Mrs. America. Certainly when we think about "adult" movies in the pre-video era, whether "adults only" exploitation films or even stag films, we're left with an image of material that was consumed in a social setting, whether in a theater or in the "private" space of a lodge or fraternity hall. In either event it was not usually in the home. But in fact the adult film was domesticated decades before home video arrived on the scene. In this paper I would like to spend some time shedding some light onto this overlooked phase of the film business.

The availability of adult films for the home market appears to have begun on a commercial level during the 1930s with the popularization of 16 and 8mm equipment. In an interview with investigators for the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, Ted Paramore, himself a producer of theatrical sexploitation films and adult home movies, indicated that in the years prior to World War II the mail order adult film business involved just a few people(1). At least some of the individuals who made adult films were attached to the mainstream film industry. For instance, Elmer Dyer, who began his career at Universal in 1915, became a freelance aerial cameraman who worked on films such as The Winged Horseman (1929) with Hoot Gibson, Wings, Hell's Angels, Night Flight (1934) and Air Force(2). In addition to his work as a cinematographer, Dyer wrote articles for Travel, International Photographer, American Cinematographer, and made films for a non-theatrical company called NuArt Productions. NuArt made and distributed 16mm films, such as Dare Devil's of the Air, a 400 foot film, "Featuring world famous aviators from many Nations in the greatest array of daring stunts ever assembled in a single picture!"(3) NuArt also produced and distributed 100 and 200-foot adult films such as September Morn, Glimpses in a Nudist Colony, and The Artist's Model, which featured nude women in various settings. For instance, the description of September Morn in a promotional flier reads:

In this secluded nook, created by the wonders of nature, our artist finds a
living "September Morn." She proves a very agreeable model and he
sketches we are able to obtain many beautiful scenes, where the wonders
of nature and the sheer beauty of this lady vie for each other for your
admiration. (4)

Others outfits apparently operated strictly in the clandestine world of adult films, including Joe Bonica, Vanity Films, William H. Door Productions, and Standard Pictures Corporation. One of the most active producers during the late 1930s was Pacific Ciné Films, operated by Robert I. Lee, in Hollywood. Around 1935 Lee bought a featurettes company called Hollywood Ciné Film Distributors for $2,500, merged it with two other small companies and changed the name to Pacific Ciné Films. Working with a regular staff four secretaries, and model and technicians hired on a per-film basis, Lee cranked out several new films every three or four months. In the late 1930s cameramen received $125 for shooting and editing scenarios that Lee developed, and models recruited from art schools and night clubs were paid around $50 each -- with most films featuring two girls. A $1,500 to $1,600 investment and 1,000 feet of exposed 35mm film usually resulted in a full series of up to fourteen movies, reduced for sale to 16 and 8mm. The series included a 400-foot featurette, several 100-foot films, and a half dozen or more 50 and 20-foot reels, ranging in price from $25.00 for the featurette to $1.00 for 20-foot quickies. (5)

Other companies issued their films serially. William Door's "World Adventures in Beauty" series each started with title art indicating an exotic locale such as "Rome," "Singapore," "Bali," and "Saigon." A few of the films actually begin with stock shots of the city or country referred to in the title, before cutting to shots of the supposed native beauty. Virtually all were shot in and around Southern California, often at the beach, with only concession to the place being in props or costume -- most often in the form of a hat or scarf. In some instances, such as "Saigon", white models were simply made up or costumed to look exotic.

Other series were given a blanket title, such as Vanity Films' "Artists Studio Models" and then given numbers. Joe Bonica produced a "Movie of the Month" series, and some films -- it's unclear whether they were produced by Bonica or not -- were issued weekly and given titles such as "February, Week 2" and "March, Week 3." It is quite possible that some films were sent out on a sort of subscription basis.

Most of these short films are remarkably simple in concept and execution, akin to moving pin-ups, and precursors to the nudie-cutie features of the early 1960s. At their most basic, the films featured several shots of static models on turntables. In other instances the model or models engaged in simple activities such as walking, sitting, climbing ladders and so on. Activities were often dictated by the location. Films shot outdoors at beaches or in parks, might find models skinny dipping, walking on the beach, or thrusting their arms and faces up to the sun. Sometimes, in an effort to show an interesting action, things get decidedly odd. Take, for instance, the short film "Old Fashioned," in which a woman outdoors in wool shirt, high heels, panties, and bra, peels off her shirt and the bra and then proceeds to pick up a hatchet and make several lame attempts to chop some wood -- the process made difficult as the attempts to maintain her balance on the heels.

Films shot indoors -- usually in photo studios, apartments, or the occasional motel room -- were more often than not, limited to lounging around or engaging in domestic activities. In some instances they engage in dances or act out simple scenarios, such as in "Christmas Eve" -- a not altogether accurately titled short. Four women wake up on Christmas morning, and cavort in a living room, opening packages a playing with the presents such as a target shooting game and so on. Others employ odd fantasy elements such as "Row Row Row" which finds a young woman in a living room pretending to get into a boat, row to an island, and the send a message in a bottle. An evidently smaller number, such as "Let's Make Mary Moan," do not have nudity but include fetish material -- in this case two women in nylons engaging in spanking and light bondage. Films that included full-frontal nudity were generally accompanied by a square-up or caveat that they were intended strictly for the use of artists and art students who could not afford to work from live figure models. The NuArt brochure for the "Screen Classics" series noted, "Many schools, colleges and private art classes are not fortunate enough to obtain, or cannot afford living models. Such institutions will immediately recognize the value of this series of motion pictures." (6)

Both NuArt, Pacific Ciné Films, and similar outfits generated direct mailing lists by placing ads in magazines such as Film Fun, High Heels, and Camera Craft, which one of the largest expenditures. According to writer Thomas Wood, in 1937 Pacific Ciné Films spent over $1000 on mailing announcements and placing ads. Lee supposedly had a list of 15,000 names. In addition to direct mail sales, which were the most profitable transactions, the companies also wholesaled films. Pacific Ciné dealt with jobbers who distributed the films to an estimated 1500 dealers -- usually camera supply stores -- across the country. In New York City the Camera Specialties Company served around 100 camera stores within the city limits with Pacific Ciné films.

At the time Elmer Dyer was working with NuArt, the company did not use jobbers, but instead had a sales manager, W.W. Bell, who with Dyer sold directly to camera stores, radio shops, optical shops, and film libraries. NuArt gave dealers one-third off the price of single orders, and fifty percent off lots of twelve. While some of these retailers sold films outright to their customers, others placed them in their libraries and then rented them to individuals, much like videos and DVDs are rented today. Depending on the locality, rentals were probably often handled under-the-counter, with loyal customers being informed about product with brochures. A December 31, 1936 letter from Church and School Film Service in Cincinnati to NuArt requested, "Will you kindly send us 1,000 of your attractive circulars on the Screen Classic Nudist material? Will be glad to pay cost of same."(8) Dyer sent an accommodating reply to the Church and School Film Service.

Evidence indicates that companies like NuArt and Pacific Ciné Films toed a careful line with regard to the law. In a letter to Alan Benjamin's Film Craft in Brooklyn, NuArt described the content of its Screen Classics series saying that "while these pictures contain nude models, the pictures have been made in such a way that they are not vulgar in the least. . . . nothing objectionable shows." But they went on to indicate, "we are of the opinion that you would not encounter any trouble in letting them be shown, naturally we cannot advise you what your local police may say, since such regulations may vary in different places."(9) While some retailers may have been concerned about the content of the films, others were clearly looking for something more daring. A letter from The Radio Shop in Hanover, Pennsylvania stated that they found the NuArt product "OK," but suggested "we would be interested in something a little bit spicier."(10) Correspondence with a general contractor in Fort Worth, Texas requested both a discount and wanted to know "if you could tell me where I may purchase something out of the ordinary -- to be used at a stag party. . . or something."(11) NuArt replied "state authorities are very strict about shipping stag films either by express or mail, and so many concerns here have met with difficulties we do not handle them," further noting "there is nothing smutty about our films and I could not say they would [be] entirely suited for a stag party."(12) It may be impossible to determine how consumers used these films, although it is probably not too cynical to suggest that most viewers were not sitting in their homes in front of the screen with a sketch pad or a canvas and paints.

Adults only films in theatrical settings had to deal with a web of state and local censors, zealous crusaders and police departments, as well as the Hays Office and representatives of the organized motion picture industry. Those who dealt in 8mm and 16mm films for the home market had one major obstacle to contend with: The Post Office. The Comstock Act prohibited "obscene books. . . obscene things (articles and gadgets), advertisements of obscenity or purported obscenity, and all information on contraception, abortion, and physical implements designed for such purposes" from the mails.(13) The list of items prohibited in the mails actually grew at the turn of the century as cheaper printing and photographic processes proliferated.

The Post Office used two methods to police the mails: First, confiscation of obscene publications in discovered in transit -- the so-called non-mailability ruling. Second, non-delivery of mail addressed to persons using the mails to sell objectionable materials -- the "unlawful order" or "mail block." Mail blocks were the sanction when inspectors un-covered the operation of commercial purveyors of noxious books or pictures. (14)

Criminal prosecution for disseminating obscene matter was in the hands of the Justice Department was fairly rare due to the time and effort involved, therefore most of the policing of the mails fell on the Post Office.(15) Stoppage "depended very much on local policing" while mail blocks usually resulted from "more deliberate investigation by the Postal Inspection Service."(16) Postal enforcement of anti-obscenity statues were handled by the Department's legal staff, which was alerted to questionable material either through a complaint, or often through an accident in which a package came open in the presence of a postal worker. "The lawyers assigned to this work would simply inspect the challenged item and make up their minds."(17) There was no obligation for adversarial hearings, much less challenges in the form of expert testimony when it came to the revocation of mailing permits. For those whose mail was confiscated or blocked the courts were an option, but courts usually deferred "to the Postal 'experts'."(18) It was only during the 1950s, some years after Congress had passed the Administrative Procedure Act, that the Post Office was forced to stop judging the cases it had both investigated and prosecuted. (19)

According to Ted Paramore, the field of adult mail order films grew tremendously following World War II. The increased procedural complexity the Post Office faced in dealing with questionable material in the 1950s can be seen as one reason for the rise. We can assume that the increase in the numbers of companies getting into the adult film mail order business was due to the increased ease of making films on 16mm and especially on 8mm. (There is no evidence to indicate that during the postwar period movies were shot on 35mm and reduced as Pacific Ciné product had been in the pre-war years.) And the growing numbers of individuals and families who got into the home movie hobby, as detailed by Patricia Zimmermann, meant that tens of thousands of 8mm projectors were in homes across the country.(20) Not only were 8mm projectors cheaper and easier to use than 16mm, the films available to show on them were cheaper to buy. The growth of men's magazines, like Playboy, Flirt, Eyeful, Beauty Parade, Laff, Titter, Chicks and Chuckles, and on, meant more opportunities to advertise.

The proliferation of 8mm adult films caught the attention of congressmen, journalists, and parents. Senator Estes Kefauver's 1955 hearings determined that "teenagers [were] the biggest market for pornographic materials" and were "widely used to 'push' dirty pictures, films, and books."(21) In a 1959 letter to the Ladies' Home Journal Harry Kursh recounted,

Recently, my wife and I were called in by upset neighbor friends for an
evening of "shocking" home movies. We left their living room stunned
and embarrassed. The movies turned out to be several small rolls of 8-mm
film containing indescribable sex filth. It had arrived via the mails, in a
plainly wrapped package addressed to one of their young sons and was
inadvertently opened by the father. Thanks to our friends' warning, my
wife and I are now guarding our mailbox like a pair of outraged hawks. (22)

Not only were the earlier "girlie" films available but, increasingly, hardcore 8mm films were circulating. The vast majority of the hardcore stag business had been the province of traveling roadshows, usually hired for $40 or $50 to provide a one or two hour program to 50 to 200 people.(23) But the transition to 8mm had killed the traveling road show and 8mm stags became available through "bars, gas stations, photography shops, delicatessens, insurance agencies, auto junkyards, industrial catering services, industrial tool rooms, barber shops" and eventually through the mail.(24) Information exposed in the Kefauver hearings about mail drops, aliases, and efforts to infect American youth hit a chord because the discourse on mail order porn was so similar to that of Communist spies and other supposedly subversive elements operating in the United States. Mr. Kursh and people like him were not only guarding their mailboxes -- ergo their families -- like hawks, they were guarding their country from corrosive influences.

Despite the diligence of law enforcement officials, postal inspectors, and hawk-eyed moms and dads, throughout the 1960s the number of companies engaging in the manufacture and distribution of 8mm films for the home market increased. A 1967 report to the California Legislature by state Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch, and his chief deputy indicated that Southern California was "a production center for 'homemade' girlie films and still photos of varying sexual content. The report indicated that "Some individuals have even set themselves up as one-man studios, handling all operations from the photography to the final procession [sic.] and printing of the films and photos. Such an operator usually branches into mail order sales." The report went on to claim that films the films' producers sold directly to book stores or other outlets tended to be stronger than those sold through the mails. (25)

But by the 1960s many of the manufacturers, while still small operations, were more than just single individuals selling dirty movies -- although there were apparently a lot of those around as well. Furthermore, they showed a considerable sophistication in their operations. Evidently there were at least a few companies operating out of New York City, and no fewer than twenty with Los Angeles as a base of operation, most of these having multiple dba's and post office boxes, mail drops, or addresses. Most of these companies dealt in photo sets and/or magazines in addition to films. Indeed, by the sixties, if not before, it was common to shoot films and photo spreads in one session in order to maximize product and profit, a technique which has continued to this day.

Just a few examples. William Pinkus did business as Kamera and Hollywood selling "The Butler" and "The Butler's Sequel" ("All players are in both films in close-up detail") for $20 for 200 ft. b&w prints and $35 for 200 ft. color prints. James L. Scott operated under the names Capri Distributors, Tab, and Dick and Chris. Kevin R. Curley used three company names including Rockwell-Snyder Corp., Libra Films, Collectors Series. John Lamb and Ronald Graham, did business as Art Films International, Inc., Special Imports, Ltd., Pacifica, etc. And Evelyn Louise Miller, aka Eve Miller, did business as Continental Specialties and Louise Miller; International Exchange sold such films as "Nudist Nightmare," "The Visitors," and "Playmates" in 1967 with form letters about nudism that included a come-on that looked like a hand-written note: "I know something about you. Therefore, this note. The enclosed letter may sound sort of 'prissy' (one must be prudent you know), but don't let it mislead you. All of us are hep to what you want (not run-of-the-mill nudies) and we won't disappoint you. Only because you're a known buyer or seeker of very special films, are you receiving this special note. You'll get what you really want in your first shipment. -- L." (26)

By the late 1960s the face of adult movies, both in the home and in the theaters was changing rapidly. Both venues saw films becoming more explicit, although most sources -- particularly those from the period -- indicate that the majority of movies made for home viewing lagged behind movies made for the theaters, especially those storefront or "pocket theater" operations that showed beaver films and, by 1969, hardcore acts.

By 1968 the U.S. Post Office Department was largely reduced to a reactionary stance, rather than a proactive position. The passage of the "Prohibition of Pandering Advertisements in the Mail" law gave the Post Office the ability to accept "prohibition orders" -- orders filled out by mail patrons who wished not to have "erotically arousing or sexually provocative" mail delivered to them or their children. In 1969 the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Stanley vs. Georgia, a case in which law enforcement officials with a warrant to seize evidence on a bookmaking prosecution found several reels of "obscene" 8mm film. Robert Eli Stanley was prosecuted and convicted of possessing obscene material. But the Supreme Court countered, ruling that "if the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch."(27) By the end of the year, the market for adult home movies had exploded, with adult book stores now selling films over the counter. Smaller companies hung on for a while, but as the 1970s progressed, most were displaced by larger, slicker operations that employed stars from the burgeoning hardcore feature arena and supplemented their films with slick, full-color magazines and fliers. Among the most successful companies of the 1970s and early '80s were Blazing Films, Lasse Braun, Collection, Color Climax, Diplomat Films, Expo Film, Limited Edition, Pretty Girls, Swedish Erotica, and The VIP Collection. Of course as home video penetrated the market the home movie fell by the wayside, a bit of erotic nostalgia, and a reminder that the "innocence" of the past was not quite as innocent as we sometimes believe it to be.


1. Ted Paramore interview, Folder: "Mail Order -- 8mm Film," Box 64, Commission on Obscenity and Pornography Records, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas.
2. "Flying Cameraman Missing in Canyon" Hollywood Citizen News, 9 June 1947, p. 1.
3. Flier, Elmer Dyer Collection, (folder 9), AMPAS.
4. "Screen Classics in Sixteen Millimeter," Flier, Elmer Dyer Collection, (folder 17), AMPAS.
5. Thomas Wood, "For Art Lovers Everywhere." The Coast, October 1938, 19.
6. "Screen Classics in Sixteen Millimeter," Flier.
7. Letter from NuArt to Church and School Films Service, April 18, 1937. Elmer Dyer Collection, (folder 75, NuArt orders), AMPAS.
8. Letter from Church and School Films Service to NuArt, December 31, 1936. Elmer Dyer Collection, (folder 75, NuArt orders), AMPAS.
9. Letter from NuArt to Alan Benjamin's Film Craft, October 20, 1936. Elmer Dyer Collection, (folder 75, NuArt orders), AMPAS.
10. Letter from E.J.J. Gombrecht, The Radio Shop, Hanover, Pennsylvania to NuArt, November 7, 1936. Elmer Dyer Collection, (folder 75, NuArt orders), AMPAS.
11. Letter from A.M. Stone, Fort Worth, Texas to NuArt, January 2, 1937. Elmer Dyer Collection, (folder 75, NuArt orders), AMPAS.
12. Letter from NuArt to A.M. Stone, Fort Worth, Texas, January 5, 1937. Elmer Dyer Collection, (folder 75, NuArt orders), AMPAS.
13. James C.N. Paul and Murray L. Schwartz, Federal Censorship: Obscenity in the Mail. 1961. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1977.
14. Ibid., 91.
15. Ibid., 91-92.
16. Ibid., 92, 93.
17. Ibid., 38.
18. Ibid., 38-39.
19. Ibid., 95, 96.
20. See Patricia R. Zimmermann, Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, 114-121.
21. "The Wages of Sin," Newsweek, 6 June 1955, n.p.
22. Harry Kursh. Letter. Ladies' Home Journal, February 1959, 4.
23. "'Under-the-Counter' or 'Hard-Core Pornography'," Technical report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography." Washington, D.C.: U.S. government Printing Office, 1970, 190.
24. Ibid., 194.
25. Thomas C. Lynch and Charles A. O'Brien, "Obscenity: The Law and the Nature of the Business" (A Report to the California Legislature), April 6, 1967, 91. Box 33, Commission on Obscenity and Pornography Records, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas.
26. Various brochures. Box 66, Commission on Obscenity and Pornography Records, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas.
27. "Home Movies, Anybody?" Newsweek, (DATE), 36.