Old World traditions are unimaginable now in a hyper-connected world. Folklore and mythology struggle to flourish as the value of the spoken word is diminished by the limiting factors of the internet. Back in Prohibition America, these kinds of tales flourished and few as much as the cheap poorly made and sexually explicit Tijuana Bibles.
Bordering California in the lower South-West of the United States is Tijuana, of Mexico's Baja California in the country's North-West. The dusty roads that lined its streets at the turn of the 20th century were a cultural no-mans-land, still barren and stocked with outlaw characters and misfits. If the Old West was about to die, it lived on here for a little bit longer.
These books, pulp fiction printed on poor quality paper with crude and lewd content, illustrations of sexualised movie-stars or dirty jokes that had done the rounds, were produced illegally by (usually) unknown writers and artists, recognisable only by their pseudonyms and styles. The name - Tijuana Bibles - can be traced back to Southern California in the 1940s, but little else is actually known about these mysterious little magazines.
Tijuana carried with it an air of intrigue for Americans whose only real knowledge of the place was whispered by the mouths of a bootlegger or soldier's friend. Although it was within driving range, the bordertown couldn't have been further away from the perception of a developed and civilised America. Incidentally, it was this image that was cultivated to sell the books. There's very little to prove they were actually made there, rather that producers used the name as a form of guerrilla advertising, making the prints seem even more exotic than the reality.
© Phyll Smith / Ellen Wright / University of Wroclaw Press - from the collections of the Authors
Exoticism was their purpose. First making their way into the States during the Depression era, the naughty pages were momentary escapism from the drudgery of life, where a country was failing to live up to its promise of freedom and prosperity. In an era remembered for smuggling, most people's lives were lived at a safe distance from the rampant criminality. However, these books were a gateway drug into illicit dealings that gave your average American cheap thrills when they were hardest to come by.
Bearing names like Tabasco Publishing Co., La France Publishing or London Press, the imprints were seen to come from all over the world, although this too is little substantiated. In all likeliness, the books had never lived beyond the confines of safe American life, not that it actually mattered. They weren't just selling simplistic pornography, but the idea of reaching freedom through experiencing the world. This is what kept bringing customers back.
Buying one was a hush-hush ordeal, where whispered requests would lead to a nudge and a wink in bowling alleys, bars, garages, tobacco shops and barbers. They cost around 25 cents, a fair price for the underground operation. Rather than it being a large-scale business, although they always sold well, it's thought to have been the work of a small group of producers with their own printing press. Besides the magazines, they made other smutty products like pornographic playing cards and film reels.
Unbeknownst at the time, these entrepreneurs were pioneers, establishing trading routes throughout the country, creating channels of distribution and more importantly, at least in an artistic sense, becoming innovators of underground comics, a form of politicised and confrontational art that was a crucial part in many of America's most prominent subcultures and social movements. Seeing the power they had, and the ability to infiltrate everyday homes, other radical thinkers soon tapped into this trade.
Their scarcity is exactly what made them as influential as they became. How they were produced and distributed fed heavily into the DIY aesthetic and culture of punk music that gained popularity in 60s and 70s US. The anonymity of the artists proved that an idea and style could sell, not just a name - a revolutionary thought at a time when designer goods were being marketed at a previously unforeseen magnitude throughout American life.
Beyond punk and 'zine culture, the bibles heavily influenced Playboy magazine, comic artist Alan Moore and provided a means to make ends meet for thousands of stockists and sellers during one of America's most trying times. Some of the art was poor, but some had true satirical and artistic merit, giving newspapers a run for their money and, no doubt, pushing legitimate political cartoonists to up their game.
Although they went out of fashion as quickly as they came in, numerous generations of re-prints diminished much of the original unit's quality to a blur. Still, the spirit lived on beyond the artefacts themselves. People will always seek a thrill and something with edge and excitement, especially when their normal lives offer up none - an idea that has taken on increasingly sinister connotations over subsequent years. Yet, it is our nature.
More than an indictment of the criminalised aspects of their production and distribution, the popularity and legacy of Tijuana Bibles cast a judging blow to the idea of modern life - that a cheap little comic book was the ultimate means of escaping the gilded American Dream and that something with no advertising at all was able to outsell some of the best funded and well-backed American products of the day.
More like this:
Please, check your email.