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.
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.
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