Sunday, March 15, 2015

Prostitution in Victorian America

Prostitution was illegal under the vagrancy laws, but the laws were not well-enforced. Brothels flourished.  By 1890 there were an estimated 65,000 prostitutes working in America’s cities out of a total population of sixty two million (as a percentage of population, this would equate to some 300,000 persons so engaged today).  Parlor house brothels catered to upper class clientele, while so called bawdy houses catered to the lower classes. 

From books such as The Gentleman’s Directory, published in New York City, readers learned that “an hour cannot be spent more pleasantly” than at Harry Hill’s place on 25 East Houston Street. And they learned that Ada Blashfield of 55 West Houston Street had “8 to 10 boarders both blondes and brunettes,” playing host to “some of our first citizens.” Since prostitution was illegal, the The Gentleman’s Directory was ostensibly to tell men where not to go.  The book listed some one hundred and fifty bordellos (out of the five hundred such establishments in New York City) out of civic duty, “We point out the location of these places in order that the reader may know how to avoid them,” the book insisted, “and that he may not select one of them for his boarding house when he comes to the city.”

A Storyville Prostitute

Brothels and gaming houses became so prevalent in New Orleans during the late nineteenth century that they threatened to invade every part of the city.  In an effort to contain vice in the city, Alderman Sidney Story drafted legislation in 1897 designating sixteen square blocks just off the French Quarter as a legal district for prostitution. Once the law was passed, hundreds of prostitutes celebrated by staging a parade down Canal Street, marching or riding naked or dressed in elaborate costumes.  The New Orleans vice district soon became known as “Storyville” and housed some two hundred brothels and fifteen hundred prostitutes.

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