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This Day in Labor History: October 10, 1917

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On October 10, 1917, the red light district of New Orleans, known as Storyville, closed due to the efforts of reformers seeking to eliminate vice from the city. During the Progressive Era, this was happening all over the country. The net effect was not to end sex work, but rather to change the working conditions of sex workers, making their lives and work much more dangerous and deadly.

Prostitution was a common, open, and public part of American urban life since at least the American Revolution. The 19th century city was full of houses of prostitution. Sometimes they were tolerated, sometimes they were not. Sometimes, such as happened in Providence in the 1840s, they became sites of anti-Irish violence since the Irish often became prostitutes.



1787 woodcut of prostitutes

The meaning of prostitution was also different than today. Sex work could take any number of forms. Some women were full-time prostitutes. Other were so-called “charity girls,” who would trade sex (in some form or another) for a good time out. Others sold their bodies once a month in order to make ends meet when their regular jobs (which were often seasonal and inconsistent anyway) could not. But it’s important to understand that prostitution was a sensible economic proposition for the 19th century working class woman. With few appealing options, low pay, and dangerous working conditions in so-called legitimate work, prostitution might not seem so bad.

The red light districts really took off in the 1880s and 1890s. This was the period of sexual double standard, when chaste Victorian women were supposed to disdain sex (including in marriage for the most part) while men had animal lusts that had to be satisfied. If that wasn’t going to happen even within marriage, it had to happen somewhere. And that’s where legalized (or quasi-legal) prostitution came into play. The districts published pamphlets advertising the different services brothels provided. They often operated in questionable legal circumstances, so it was a world of bribes, corruption, and toleration.



Interior of the Everleigh Club, Chicago’s most exclusive brothel, circa 1900.

Who became prostitutes? Mostly it’s who you would expect. Immigrants. Working-class whites. Women who were raped as young girls. Women whose families had abandoned them in childhood. Orphans. Single mothers with young children. African-Americans. What the red light districts did was not only to concentrate this work in particular urban zones, but also to provide a measure of safety. A woman selling sex in true privacy is a woman in tremendous danger. Brothels provided real safety. This is hardly to say that all brothels provided good working conditions. Quite the opposite. Some brothels specialized in sex that wasn’t necessarily safe. Others had madams that treated workers poorly, beat the women, etc. Drug abuse was common and the job put great toil on bodies. On the other hand, you were far less likely to be murdered or brutalized by a client in a red light district brothel, simply because there were other people around, including your friends and coworkers.

However bad conditions in some brothels were, it’s also important to remember how bad working conditions were in general. People died on the job all the time. Capitalists had no particular interest in keeping workers alive and certainly wouldn’t invest in doing so. Unions fighting for better lives for workers were routinely crushed. The poor died of tuberculosis, among many other diseases, in huge numbers. So as bad as these brothels might sound, once we take our moral repulsion for sex work out of the equation, it really isn’t any worse than any other Gilded Age work for women. In fact, it could be quite a bit better–for a few there was a real chance to make big money, even if for obvious reasons it wasn’t going to last forever.

And yet some brothels actually did provide relatively good and safe working conditions. Many brothels were owned by women, one of the only economic opportunities for female ownership in the Gilded Age. The women formed a community of sorts that included mutual support, strict rules for clients, visits from doctors, bouncers if the men got too rough, and police protection if it was necessary. This meant women worked in conditions as clean and safe as possible.

The red-light districts came under attack during the Progressive Era. An increasingly politicized and mobilized group of middle-class women, with some important support from men, attacked the sexual double standard. But this wasn’t how we oh so liberated people might want it attacked today. No, it was to apply chastity to men. This made sense though in one very important way–men consorting with prostitutes literally implanted venereal disease in the bodies of their wives. In a Victorian society where one could not talk about such things, you had women dying of advanced syphilis and gonorrhea. This finally led to great outrage and organized attempts to shut down the red light districts, including public protests and shaming police and politicians who supported it. They forced the police to organize vice squads and pass ordinances ending the houses of prostitution.

That outrage combined with the fear of white slavery. Were some women working in the sex trade against their will? Yes, certainly. Were there scary Chinese or Italian men drugging our innocent white women heading off the farms and into the cities and forcing them into hellish lives? Meh; it’s really hard to know. What we do know is that the middle-class flipped out over the idea during the 1900s and 1910s. This led not only to the Mann Act, most famously used against the boxer Jack Johnson for daring to marry a white woman and not care what anyone thought, but to a whole cultural enterprise dedicated to it. This includes the famous 1913 film Traffic in Souls. Despite what this clip claims, I think it actually is a scene from that film (although it’s been several years so I’m not sure). In any case, it gives you a good idea of the mania surrounding this.

Yet these Progressives hadn’t really thought through what they were advocating. They hadn’t at all considered where the women would go once the brothels closed. A few people saw the contradictions clearly. When a group of women went to the mayor of Toledo and urged him to close down the city’s red light district, he made them an offer. If each one of the women took one prostitute into their employ, he would personally employ two. The women thought he was crazy. They just assumed if you got rid of prostitution it would disappear. They left the meeting thinking him an incorrigible enemy of their cause.

When Washington closed its red light district in 1914, a group of prostitutes wrote an open letter. They asked:

Knowing that public opinion is against us, and that the passing of the Kenyon “Red Light” Bill is certain, we, the inmates of the underworld, want to know how the public expects to provide for us in the future?

We do not want “homes.” All we ask is that positions be provided for us. The majority will accept them. We must live somehow. We are human. With all the resorts in nearly all the large cities closed, it is useless for us to leave Washington.

How many citizens will give employment to women in our class? Very few would be so liberal minded. They would consider us a detriment to their business. If we must reform, you who recommend these reforms, help us to lead a better life.

In years past, it has been tried and as soon as previous reputations were discovered, our positions were made unbearable. Then, through necessity we had to return to the old life.

Progressives had no answer for these questions.

Storyville itself isn’t particularly more significant than other red light districts with one big exception. I used it because I could find a solid date for its closure. I could have picked Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, or whatever. What was interesting about Storyville though was the special place it held in the American mind. The U.S. has always had a particular city dedicated in the national imagination to exotic sex. Until 1917, that was New Orleans because of its unique (for the U.S.) racial mixing. When Storyville closed, that site moved to Havana, where it remained until 1959. With Castro and Las Vegas rising at the same time, it moved to Nevada after the Cuban Revolution, where it more or less remains today. As New Orleans was more commited to sex tourism than much of the U.S., it took the Wilson Administration, very concerned about the moral purity of the military shipping to Europe, to force its closing. Storyville today is basically the Iberville Housing Project.

Storyville

The real effect of eliminating the red light district was not for prostitution to disappear. This seems self-evident, but as we have seen, was very much not obvious for Progressives, who often had a really naive view of human behavior generally. It was to put women on the street. Where they are beaten and raped and killed.

This isn’t necessarily a call for a return to the red light district. But it is an example of how criminalizing work because of our moral compunction does not eliminate the work. It simply moves it underground, where working conditions get worse and these workers die.

I strongly recommend Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918 if you are interested in this topic.

This is the 78th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Ronan

    “This isn’t necessarily a call for a return to the red light district.”

    If not a return to the red light district then what alternatie instead? Out and out criminalisation is surely the worst of all worlds
    Doesnt the US have legalised sex work in some states today? Or am I missing some nuance

    • It’s not necessarily not a call to return to the red light districts either.

    • rea

      Only a few counties in Nevada (not Las Vegas or Reno) have legalized sex work.

    • LeeEsq

      Is it? From what I remember reading countries that have legalized prostitution still have a very big black market for the preferences that no state could willingly allow in a legalized market. Even for ordinary sex, there is still a black market in prostituion in legalized countries because illegal prostitutes are generally younger than older ones. Commerical sex is always going to be one of those businesses where the line between legitimate business practice and criminal activity is going to lean towards the blurry.

      The best way to deal with the the problems of commerical sex is to make it generally irrelevant through the appropriate sexual mores and welfare state and economic policies that would decrease the need for women and to a lesser extent men to enter into the commerical sex industry. A guaranteed minimal income would be a great step in this regard. It won’t completley get rid of commercial sex, nothing will, but we can reduce it.

      • DrDick

        On the other hand, under legalization prostitutes no longer have to worry about arrest, harassment, and extortion by police, as well as abuse by clients and employers. They also have more legal protections from that abuse and are more likely to avail themselves of it. Legalization will not cure all the problems, but I think it would be a net gain for the women (and men) engaged in this line of work.

        • Origami Isopod

          Agreed. I think Lee is correct in that changes in mores and economic policy will overall reduce the demand, but in the meantime sex workers urgently need the benefits of harm reduction.

          • LeeEsq

            I’m generally for legalized prostitution, it won’t make things worse at least, but I’m somewhat dubious about the up-side of legalizing it. The entire commercial sex industry is always going to contain a strong criminal element for various reasons.

            • Lee Rudolph

              The entire commercial sex industry is always going to contain a strong criminal element for various reasons.

              I don’t know that. (What are your “various reasons”?) Whenever I’ve worked in Geneva (off and on since 1982, for varying lengths of time), I’ve always followed the local newspapers closely, and I’ve read plenty of crime news there. Sex work (in particular, prostitution) is legal in Switzerland (and advertised in the “petits annonces” sections of the papers, at least in Geneva), but I can’t remember seeing any coverage of a “strong criminal element” connected to it. That proves nothing, but I’m still eager to hear your reasoning.

              • Karen

                Well , there are perverts who want to have sex with kids, and there are men who get off to harming their partners, and there are men who refuse to wear condoms — see Elliot Spitzer — and so the basic safety regs would prevent these markets from being served. I worry that a legal sex market would impede the ability to prosecute these other things that should never be legal.

                • LeftWingFox

                  I worry that a legal sex market would impede the ability to prosecute these other things that should never be legal.

                  I’m not sure if I agree with that. On the one hand, may legitimate industries skirt the law with a sense of “everyone does it”, and I don’t see a legal prostitution industry being nay different in that regard.

                  On the other hand, I can see two big objections. The first is that this reads a little like the classic slippery slope argument used against homosexuality. Legalization of gay marriage has not made Jerry Sandusky any less of a monster in the eyes of the law or the public. Nor has the repeal of prohibition necessarily stopped the prosecution of moonshiners.

                  The other is the freedom of those involved in the industry to report without being prosecuted. Disgruntled employees/customers reporting abuses and legal brothels busting the illicit competition are both possible when fear of prosecution is removed.

          • Karen

            OI nailed it. The kind of normal dude who went to a bawdy house in 1880 can now have unapologetic sexual with his wife or girlfriend today, so the market for sex work is rather more, um, diverse, than earlier times. As kink — by this I mean very specific behaviors that are not ordinary but also not criminal, like BDSM or role playing – becomes more organized and accepted, that part of the sex market will dry up. Until all consenting adult stuff is normalized, we still need to protect the workers from disease and violence and provide an easy exit for those who want out.

            • DrDick

              Much of that normalization of sex has already occurred. There are still large numbers of “socially awkward”, but reasonably normal men, as well as men who want sex without attachments, who frequent prostitutes and whose numbers are unlikely to diminish significantly. I do not think prostitution will ever go away, though it may decline a lot.

      • Ronan

        Better, though not perfect
        I agree there will always be women working outside of any legalised, regulated system, and that they will also generally be women most at risk of violence (heavily addicted to drink/drugs etc, having diseases which prevent them from working legitimatly in the industry)
        But I dont believe there’s any perfect resolution, so no way of making prostitution irrelevant, (I also dont have any moral objection to selling sex) so it seems (from my limited knowledge of the area) that the best resolution is decriminalisation at the very least (preferrably legalisation) carefully regulated with specific government funded opportunities for women in the industry (further education allowances, job retrainiing etc – ie its a job which people can move out of and into another area with no stigma attached, where women can work in the system so they have opportunities when they leave it (if they choose/if they lose their job etc) )
        For those working outside the system I guess you have to continue as now, perhaps criminalising those who buy sex in those contexts, offering whatever support is needed (accomodation, welfare, drugs/drink counselling etc – ie the same programs you would run for anyone living on the streets, or addicted to drugs)

        • Ronan

          which is to add two caveats (1) I dont think theres anything ‘romantic’ or easy etc about prostitution but (2) I think its underplayed how much agency a lot of sex workers have.
          So I dont think it should be approached as ‘saving’ sex workers (except when youre dealing with people suffering from serious addiction, but thats a different matter in a lot of ways) I think it should be approached as a serious job that functions like any other job

  • BigHank53

    Don’t think the stigmatization has stopped, either. This very week I read a story about an ex-porn actress who’s gone back to x-rated movies. While training to be a phlebotomist, none of her supervisors would sign off on her training hours once they learned about her past career. No training hours, no certificate, no job. Could she have won a court case? Probably. But if you think any health care organization is going to hire a candidate with a demonstrated record of litigation, you’re smoking crack.

    Gosh, I sure am glad the self-appointed moral gatekeepers managed to keep a woman who used to make naughty movies from sticking a needle in my arm.

    • witless chum

      Ugh, people are gross and I hate them. Why, why, why? Why? And also, why? It’s so petty and stupid. Obviously, there are greater injustices in the world, but this one irks me especially because it’s just so petty.

    • LeeEsq

      This seem typical. Society in general wants it both ways. We want to offer women a way out of the commerical sex industry but at the same time we want to punish them for their “transgressions” for being part of the industry in the first place. We can’t have it both ways people.* If we want people in general and women in particular not to work in the commercial sex industry, we are going to have to not punish them for past work in said industry.

      *I’m going thoroughly convinced that a lot of human problems come from our tendency to want to have our cake and eat it to.

    • Origami Isopod

      Even worse is the extremely cavalier attitude toward violence against sex workers.

      • Karen

        Oh, yes. I have heard cops refer to murders of prostitutes as “no humans involved.” He was engaging on some very dark humor, and commenting on the fact that even if he found the perp, the loser wouldn’t do very much time, and that the department didn’t exactly throw cash at those cases until there were enough bodies piled up to get on “60 Minutes,” but it was a disturbing moment nevertheless.

  • LeeEsq

    Since many of the middle-class women fighting against the Red Light Distrct came from the same group that fought for Prohibition, it was kind of inevitable that they would do so by banning the red light district and seeking to impose chasity on men. Especially, since the science of contraceptive was still in its early phases. A more modern approach would require much more effective and available forms of birth control probably.

    Although I have an Indian-Singaporean acquitance through the Internet that argues that Sexual Revolution is inevitable once teenagers were allowed to date, which was about this time, effective contraceptives or no, because freedom to date signals a lack of social expectations to be chaste.

    • Karen

      As the original post noted, the women fighting the red light districts and the saloons had a legitimate complaint, specifically that hubby often brought home horrible and untreatable diseases from slaking his lust at a whorehouse. Even if the wife didn’t get sick, she had live with the fact that hubby was taking the family income and spending it in a way that did not benefit the family at all, and on fact reduced her standard of living to the benefit of the prostitutes. (In most cases that was a tiny benefit, but hubby had promised when he married to take care of her and their children and to “foresake all others,” so the wife had an argument that the prostitute was actually stealing from the wife.)

      I want to thank Mr. Loomis for noting that the middle class wives had a genuine grievance and refraining from they typical leftist scolding for being hypocritical prudes who hated sex.

      • Origami Isopod

        I want to thank Mr. Loomis for noting that the middle class wives had a genuine grievance and refraining from they typical leftist scolding for being hypocritical prudes who hated sex.

        Agreed.

      • witless chum

        As did the women who agitated for prohibition because they were tired of seeing women beaten up by drunk husbands, or seeing alcoholic men spend all the family’s income on booze. With the benefit of hindsight, they were fighting a symptom of the disease of patriarchy and using a cure that didn’t really work while causing horrible side effects, but they had some pretty good reasons that spurred them to action.

        • witless chum

          Forgot to add, my grandma was in the WCTU and was an above-average leftyperson from a sort of church lady perspective.

          • Karen

            So was mine.

        • Tristan

          Since we’re going off on a tangent about it, I think it’s also worth making the distinction between the prohibition movement, which sought a legislative ban, and the earlier temperance movement, which encouraged (admittedly the ‘encouragement’ often took the form of intense social pressure/public condemnation) people to voluntarily abstain. IIRC, the latter was much more of a grassroots movement with women as the prominent figures, while the former (of necessity to an extent, given the social and political reality of the period) handed a lot of its public leadership positions to grandstanding male politicians.

          I think both the booze issue and the prostitute one serve as good examples of early women’s movements not just missing the forest for the trees (which it should be said is much easier to note in hindsight), but putting undo faith in legalistic solutions to social problems (something I think modern women’s movements/feminism continues too often to do).

      • LeeEsq

        I concur on the STD claim, on the monetary claim I’m not so sure. The Prohibitionists liked to argue that married men wasted a lot of money at saloons and as a result their wives and kids suffered but I haven’t seen any reliable evidence to support this beyond Prohibitionist propaganda. Men liked to spend time at saloons but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence to support the argument that this had drastic economic effects of their wives and children.

        • I suspect that actually, drinking is a much, much bigger drain on marital finances than paying for sex. (I suspect gambling is number 2. Abuse of illegal drugs is fairly high on the list. Prostitution is farther down.)

          Drinking not only costs money on its own, but often induces all sorts of other stupid, costly behavior.

          Having said that, Prohibition didn’t work, people want to do it, etc. But people should have no illusions that it is actually a good thing that such a large percentage of the public drinks too much.

          • Tristan

            Of course, the fiscal impact of drinking on a couple or family is going to be proportionate to the financial resources they have to begin with. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a timeline of the Gilded Age to the Depression lines up fairly well with a timeline of the Great Binge to prohibition. Well off people who could easily afford to be functional alcoholics had numerous ways of getting around prohibition even as people who could lose a month’s rent in one ill-considered binge were held up as proof that alcoholism caused poverty, and thus as living examples of the necessity for prohibition.

            This is why I’m opposed to any sort of vice tax, whether it’s nicotine, alcohol, gambling, or junk food: I am a filthy addict whatever impact they might have on aggregate usage (I’m personally not inclined to think it’s much), they inevitably exacerbate the negative toll the sin takes on those already least able to cope with it. Not to mention that given current prevailing attitudes toward taxation, they tend to make government a stakeholder in the continued excesses such taxes are supposedly meant to curtail.

            (the length, vehemence, and sentence structure of this digression may or may not have been partly the product of a brain currently cutting back on nicotine intake partly for financial reasons)

  • DrDick

    A wonderful and thoughtful addition to your series, which raises important issues and questions, seldom addressed, concerning sex work. I would add that social/moral conservatives are seldom very good at thinking things through.

    • I think very few people have distinguished themselves on this topic. The typical response of many feminists– “let’s ban the purchase but not the sale!”– is not much more well thought out than closing down the red light districts was.

      The right sort of public policy on this issue (which is probably some form of legalization but with fairly intensive regulation of both working conditions and sites, combined with strict enforcement to ensure that people work within the system) requires that one look past some huge cognitive and cultural biases, and it requires that the government get deeply involved in the entire business of selling sex. It’s very hard for people to accept either of these things.

      • Intensive regulation doesn’t seem to work very well in practice. Nevada has far more illegal prostitutes than legal ones, in part because they won’t legalise having an escort visit your hotel room, which is the main demand there.

        Not passing a load of specialised laws has worked much better in New Zealand than having legalised red-light districts in Germany and the Netherlands.

        The other problem is illegal immigrants working as prostitutes; that’s harder to fix because it needs a fix to immigration, which is a much bigger challenge.

  • JL

    These days, some of the most vulnerable (and criminalized) sex workers are trans* women, especially women of color.

    Did the NY Senate and Cuomo ever address the bill to ban the use of condoms as evidence of selling sex?

  • But it’s important to understand that prostitution was a sensible economic proposition for the 19th century working class woman. With few appealing options, low pay, and dangerous working conditions in so-called legitimate work, prostitution might not seem so bad.

    That’s the funniest thing you’ve ever written.

    • Why?

    • Anonymous

      It’s quite true – most of the occupations available to unskilled workers in cities in those days ran the gamut from the ghastly to the downright deadly.

      Life was literally short and brutish for the working class in those days and prostitution was one of the few ways to guarantee a steady income in a time almost utterly devoid of social safety nets. Very low barriers to entry and a reasonable rate of return, and less physical danger than your average factory/workshop jobs. After all, this was also before the First World War started the process of opening up a slew of new career options for women (that mostly disappeared again in the interwar years, but anyway).

  • AstroBio

    This mayor of Toledo sounds like a stand up guy. So if you have no date for that anecdote, perhaps a name?

    • Hogan

      Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones.

      The story is told here; in this version, it’s a group of clergymen, not women (which makes the “will you employ them” riposte make more sense).

    • I took the story from Rosen’s book.

  • Origami Isopod

    This post needs to be linked far and wide on any number of radical feminist blogs. And not a few “liberal” ones as well.

    • Karen

      Exactly.

  • Thlayli

    My understanding was Storyville was ordered shut down by the federal government, because soldiers were passing through New Orleans on the way to Europe and the brass didn’t want them to have VD when they were killed in combat.

    • Hogan

      That and some of the recruits were getting killed on their visits to Storyville.

    • T in Texas

      Specifically, the Army. According to Wiki, Storyville and Fort Worth’s “Hell’s Half-Acre” were both shut down in 1917 by the Army and for the same reasons (venereal diseases, concepts of exporting moral purity to Europe, and some soldiers being beat up, robbed or killed), as was San Antonio’s district in 1941. I’m guessing the Army wanted to solve its problem and wasn’t concerned with the larger social implications or solutions.

    • Yes. However, it’s impossible to separate the war effort from Progressivism. World War I was Progressives’ opportunity to expand their local operations to the nation. If New Orleans wasn’t going to shut down its red light district, then the reformers would use the federal government to do it for them.

  • Karen

    Wasn’t Louis Armstrong born and raised in Storyville?

    • Nope. He was born in Algiers Point, across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, and spent part of his youth Uptown in what they call “Back of Town”. As a young man, he worked in and around Storyville, and played there some in his early days.

      Some of Storyville is in the Quarter, and all of it looks like a parking garage these days.

  • Tom Stickler

    Perhaps the way it should be done, and was done until December 1969, was the way Sunset Lodge in Georgetown, South Carolina was established and run.

    Google “Ghosts of Georgetown” + “Sunset Lodge” to read a bit.

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