In 19th century New York City, sex was for sale and it wasn’t hard to find it. Commodified sex was everywhere and available for any price. The years between roughly 1850 to about 1910 were the years that commercialized sex and vice in New York City were the most visible, the most prolific, and the most wild. Join us for a journey into the brothels and dance halls of early New York City.
We invite you to listen to our podcast, read the transcript below or watch the YouTube video at the bottom of this post.
Other Episodes of Interest:
- Marie Stopes: Married Sexual Pleasure, Birth Control and Eugenics
- Marquis de Sade: Sex and Violence in the French Revolution
- Puritan Sex: The Surprising Sexual Practice of American Puritan New Englanders
Transcript of 19th Century New York City Prostitution:
Selling Sex: 19th Century New York City Brothels and Prostitution
Written and researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate
Produced and Recorded by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Elizabeth: In 19th century New York City, sex was for sale and it wasn’t hard to find it. Commodified sex was everywhere and available for any price. Stick around as we talk about prostitution, brothels, and the madams who ran them in this week’s episode.
I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik
Sarah: And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins.
And we’re YOUR historians for this episode of DIG
Sarah: We want to start off by talking about nomenclature here. We are going to use the terms prostitute and prostitution as opposed to the more modern term of sex worker. This is a choice on our part because we want to use the terms that were used and understood at the time that we are speaking about. Also, a note on the use of the label “prostitute.” Women who even acted a certain way could be a prostitute. If they were loud, drunken, vagrant. If they were “treated,” ie traded dates and sex for dinners, lodging, and entertainment, they were labeled a prostitute too.
Elizabeth: Also important to point out that the legal definition of prostitution was not set in stone. The illegality of the physical act of trading sex for money was not codified into a universal law and many states did not pass laws banning the physical act of prostitution until the 1920s. Many prostitutes instead ran into trouble with laws that prohibited public drunkenness, lewdness, vagrancy, cursing or swearing, indecent exposure, or disturbing the peace. Might not be illegal or even defined by the law, instead a woman could be hauled into court for vagrancy or drunkenness- and be labeled a prostitute.
It was a form of social control over the actions of women, whether they exchanged sex for cash or not.
Also, we are going to be describing a few sexual acts and other things that some may not find appropriate. So please listen with discretion.
Sarah: During the 18th century prostitution in New York City was mainly concentrated in the southern-most tip of Manhattan Island. Close to the docks and wharves primarily concentrated on certain streets. One Frenchmen, in 1794, noted…
“Whole sections of streets are given over to the streetwalkers for the plying of their profession.” Women “of EVERY color can be found in the streets, particularly after ten o’clock at night, soliciting men…and proudly flaunting their licentiousness in the most SHAMELESS manner.”
By the 1820s, prostitution… AND the proliferation of brothels…had moved further North, up main thoroughfares like Broadway, Church street, the Bowery and into neighborhoods like Five Points.
Elizabeth: Five Points was considered by many WELL-TO-DO 19th century commentators as one of the most MISERABLE slums in the Western Hemisphere. It became known as an area of public drunkenness, prostitution, crime and gambling. Interestingly, it was also the most INTERRACIAL neighborhood in ALL of New York City before the crackdown of stricter racial segregation that began in the 1830s and increased throughout the century all over the country. But in the EARLY 19th century, blacks and whites FREQUENTLY mingled in living quarters, saloons, brothels, and other public areas in Five Points. One MORALIZING contemporary noted that Five Points was “the spot where black and white promiscuously mingle, and nightly celebrate disgusting orgies.”
Prostitution in Five Points was often cited for its very public nature. A former brewery turned boardinghouse next to the INFAMOUS Murderers Row alleyway rented rooms to prostitutes while the ground floor and basement were filled with saloons. One account wrote,
“women, bare-headed, bare-armed, and BARE-BOSOMED, stand in the doorway or on the sidewalk, inviting passers-by, indiscriminately, to enter, or exchanging oaths and obscenities with the inmates of the next house, similarly employed.”
One reason sex was of such a public nature in the Five Points was because people lived in extremely close quarters. Many apartments housed numerous family members and borders. Privacy was just not something that many people living in Five Points could enjoy.
Sarah: Another area that became home to numerous brothels, saloons, and streetwalkers was the neighborhood known as the Bowery. The Bowery itself was a large boulevard that cut through the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Early in the 19th century it was home to a working-class culture of native-born whites, and Irish and German immigrants that lived, worked, and played there. Later in the century they were replaced by Italians, Jews and other new immigrant groups who carried on, as well as created new forms of commercialized “vice” in the area.
Elizabeth: The years between roughly 1850 to about 1910 were the years that commercialized sex and vice in New York City were the most visible, the most prolific, and the most wild. In 1857 Walt Whitman wrote that “any man passing along Broadway, between Houston and Fulton streets, finds the western sidewalk full of prostitutes, jaunting up and down there, by ones, twos, or threes- on the look-out for customers.”
At that time, Broadway was the CENTER of city life. By day, the streets bustled with shoppers going to shops and dry goods stores. At night, theaters, shows, and every kind of amusement were on hand. The increased visibility of sex in the city was part of the a larger commodification of leisure activities in the 19th century. Concert saloons, gambling establishments, and brothels all operated as places where more than one “vice” could be acquired.
Sarah: All of this “vice” activity emerged with the rise of a phenomenon called the “sporting” culture. The “sporting men” or the rise of “sporting” culture began during the antebellum period and lasted into the Gilded Age. It was organized around numerous forms of gaming like horse racing, pugilism (boxing), rat baiting, cockfighting, and gambling. Blood sports pretty much. This subculture also promoted male aggressiveness, and sexual promiscuity.
Elizabeth: Hmmm, wonder why?
Sarah: Monogamous heterosexual intercourse was associated with femininity and the domestic sphere whereas PROSTITUTION and erotic entertainment coupled with blood sports and communal drinking were associated with male youth culture. From the 1830s and continuing throughout the 19th century, males, both married and unmarried, increasingly engaged with commodified sex outside of marriage. Many people, well men, argued that brothels and prostitution was actually a GOOD in society because it allowed men to use up their sexual energy with willing women. OTHERWISE, they argued, rape would be rampant. (gross) One “sporting” newspaper wrote, the “cause of morality is not served by the suppression of open brothels; they are as essential to the well-being of society as churches.” Walt Whitman commented, “the custom is to go among prostitutes as an ordinary thing. Nothing is thought of it- or rather the wonder is, how there be any ‘fun’ without it.”
Elizabeth: There were social stratifications among sporting men. The “Bowery B’hoy” was a younger, working class youth who played in the area of The Bowery and prized male brawn and comradery above all else. Alternatively, “fancy men” like the “Broadway dandy” reveled mostly in leisure and sexual pleasures as opposed to blood sport. Regardless, many sporting men invariably traveled in and out of different class and social spaces and interacted with one another in various ways. Sporting culture allowed young middle-class men working as clerks and accountants to rub elbows with working-class men from the Bowery. A male-centered egalitarianism bridged the gap between the “Bowery B’hoy” and the “upper-tendom b’hoys” and dandies. (An upper-tendom boy being from the Tenderloin district, a little more upscale and monied.) One late-19th century reformer wrote about the fashionable leisure culture that encompassed “sporting” men by saying,
“… dressed in the height of fashion. See them walk into the gilded saloons, their little canes under their arms, with skin-tight gloves, taking off one glove, saying with the air of a prince, “What will you have, boys?”
There’s also a cool rundown of some of these fellas in the movie “Gangs of New York” when Leonardo Dicaprio’s character is being shown around Five Points.
Sarah: New York theaters acted as an INVALUABLE link between prostitution and “sporting” culture. The dark, semi secluded, third tier balconies, dubbed the “guilty third tier,” were reserved for prostitutes and their clients. Even “respectable” theaters like the Park Theater, sponsored by John Jacob Astor and Job Beekman (two well-to-do fellas) was known for prostitution in its third tier. Then there were the “sub-theaters” which did not restrict prostitution or public sexuality to the third tier and was “little better than a brothel turned inside out,” wrote one commentator in 1849. The streets that surrounded theaters always housed plenty of brothels and bawdy houses.
Elizabeth: Brothels were the pinnacle of sex for sale in 19th-century New York City. A brothel could range from a simple boarding house to lush parlor houses with the LATEST interior fashions and designs. One of the most NOTORIOUS madams in New York City was a woman named Kate Woods. She ran a number of brothels throughout the city for over half a century and was a celebrity in her own right. In the 1870s Wood operated the Hotel de Wood. According to a guidebook designed to lead gentlemen through New York’s sexual underground – “A Vest Pocket Guide to Brothels in 19th-Century New York for Gentlemen on the Go,” – the Hotel de Wood was located at 105 West 25th Street where other upscale brothels operated.
I think the name, Hotel de Wood is a double entendre for Kate Woods name and, uh, you know, “WOOD.”
The Hotel de Wood is described as a three-story brown home, or brownstone, furnished throughout with the most COSTLY and newest DECOR and amenities. The guidebook states that “her gallery of oil paintings ALONE cost $10,000. The brothel had “Rosewood furniture, immense mirrors, Parisian figures…” The guidebook went on to say that, “She [Kate Woods] keeps THREE young ladies of RARE personal attractions” and that the house was the best overall on 25th Street. It even mentioned that the Hotel de Wood catered to many foreign gentlemen and dignitaries, which I’m assuming made it a classier joint in the eyes of many? For whatever reason, Kate Woods closed the Hotel de Wood. But she immediately opened the House of All Nations in the 1880s. This brothel was located in the FASHIONABLE Tenderloin district and is described as being JUST as opulent as the Hotel de Wood. The House of all Nations was RENOWNED for having famous prostitutes from all over the world. They were often referred to as stars. For a pretty penny, one could be entertained by women from Ireland, France, Germany, England, Asia, Africa or South America. Each room was decorated with furnishings from whatever country the woman who lived in it was from. After visiting some young men bragged that they may not have traveled much but they managed to see a lot of the world in one night. Ba-da-ching. Groan.
Sarah: Many women who worked at the House of All Nations specialized in the “French” style, which consisted of “unnatural acts” – the code word for oral sex. Reformers often blamed Paris for these “unnatural acts,” prompting one social reformer to complain that women working in “French” houses “stoop to practices that the ordinary American girl could not be induced to do.” It is interesting to note however that a study in 1908 found that of 2,000 surveyed prostitutes, almost three-quarters were American-born. So, uh, American women were just as kinky as Parisian women?
Elizabeth: New York city provided men with just about any kink or pleasure one could think of. With such a WIDE variety of public brothels and parlor houses, some houses catered to INDIVIDUAL clientele and tastes. For example, Clara Gordon’s brothel on Mercer street only catered to “southern gentlemen” Sarah Sweet’s Church Street house offered only “creole” women to interested men. Over on Mott Street one could find “ropes and braces” at Rebecca Weyman’s place while Louisa Kanth’s house catered exclusively to German merchants. “French love” was available at Miss French’s on West 27th and we already know what that meant.
Sarah: As the nineteenth century wore on, sexual intercourse became one of many ways sex became commodified. Numerous sexual activities were available for a mass audience and included pornography, model “artist” striptease shows, masked balls where prostitutes freely rubbed elbows with the elite of society, the concert saloon, private “drinking rooms” and “supper rooms” in otherwise respectable restaurants which catered to prostitutes and their patrons, and shows within brothels and parlor houses. This sexual entertainment coexisted along streets filled with theaters, the new large department stores, fancy restaurants, and numerous saloons. No longer was sex and prostitution only associated with poverty or working-class culture like found in neighborhoods like New York’s Five Points earlier in the century. This new sexual culture served an increasingly important leisure economy to the late 19th century metropolitan city.
Elizabeth: Some dance halls and brothels staged live sex shows for their patrons. For five dollars a patron could enter a popular brothel on Greene Street, sit down at a small table and watch as three women performed a striptease to the music of the house’s piano player. The striptease would eventually turn into an orgy where the women would perform, or pretend to perform, oral sex upon one another. This was a popular type of show, called “The Busy Fleas Dance.” Another brothel had a similar “fleas” dance, although a much more RAUNCHY show, where women would put their heads
“between the legs of one another and their mouths upon the sexual organs or vagina, drinking beer poured upon the vagina of one girl by the other, placing a cigar in the rectum of one of the girls who [had] thrown her limbs and feet above her head…Others feigned intercourse with each other and sucked each others breasts.”
Sarah: A Club on Bleecker Street offered a variety show that showcased the “Jarbean Fairie,” which was a gay effeminate man, a woman “sodomite for hire” that would have anal sex with a man on stage, and a hermaphrodite that would exhibit their genitalia as part of the live show. Model artist shows became popular around mid-century. These were also called “living statues” or “living female paintings.” A female performer would freeze in a pose, usually scantily clad or wearing nothing at all, as if in a painting. These shows often mimicked classical paintings like “Venus Rising from the Sea” or “the Greek Slave.” The performer would change positions periodically or some venues even had revolving stages so that audiences could view all areas of her body.
Elizabeth: Entertainment venues called concert saloons grew in popularity starting in the 1870s. These joined live entertainment like boxing or variety shows with drinking and women. Female and male performers and waitresses OFTEN doubled as prostitutes and solicited customers as they worked the crowd. Some concert saloons had darkened balconies and private rooms for private shows and ultimately sex. Harry Hill’s was one of the most popular and well-known concert saloons in 19th century New York. Hill’s attracted all walks of life, from working-class Bowery Boys to congressmen and judges. Hill’s was one of the first public establishments with electric lighting and his landlord was actually P. T. Barnum. – you know, the circus guy? Hill’s was different from many concert saloons because he demanded an air of respectability, demanding that patrons avoid bad behavior and poor dress and that prostitutes and women of “doubtful character” refrain from boisterous behavior. Sporting men were expected to treat the women as “ladies,” even if they were prostitutes. Another popular concert saloon in the Tenderloin was called The Haymarket. It was known as the Moulin Rouge of New York and shone at night “with the brilliancy of a Broadway theater.”
Sarah: Armory Hall concert saloon was located near the tenements and cheaper saloons of the Lower East side of the Bowery and was well-known for allowing and encouraging homosexual activity among its patrons. The Hall was dimly lit with a balcony on both sides petitioned into compartments available for prostitutes and “waiter girls” to take their clients. Also, many younger gay males worked Armory Hall and were “painted,” or powdered and rouged and sometimes wearing women’s clothing- they wandered through the crowd and sang and danced and solicited customers. According to historian George Chauncy, this was a time where heterosexuality and homosexuality were not as rigidly defined as in the 20th century. In fact, the term “homosexual” did not even enter English usage until the 1880s. There are numerous example of male prostitutes working alongside women in New York City brothels and concert saloons. Most critiques of such activity did not focus on the homosexual act per se, but on the effeminate behavior of certain males. Critics argued those men were upending the gender order, not by their sexual acts necessarily, but by their effeminate demeanor. By accepting homosexual advances, those men were displaying actions of weakness or passivity, both prescribed gender roles for women. Chauncy noted, “gay male society was a highly visible part of the urban sexual underworld and was much more fully and publicly integrated into working-class than middle-class culture.” The Bowery functioned as the center of the working-class entertainment district and had the highest concentration of male prostitutes during this period. However, it is important to point out that many middle-class men and women visited the Bowery entertainment district as well.
Elizabeth: Both young women and young men participated in the city’s nightlife. Here’s a description from a middle-class reformer. It’s a bit condescending but still gives us a good idea of what the Bowery looked like in 1896:
“It is a center for saloons of every order, from gin-palaces to bucket-shops; theatres, concert-halls, ‘free-and-easys,’ and dime museums abound, all of them profusely ornamented with every device of colored light…In and out of these resorts pours a constant crowd. Shouts of laughter come from within, mingled with the sound of orchestra or the jingle of cheap pianos. The German music-halls have respectable audiences. The rest are filled with young men and boys, and girls barely out of their teens. The shooting galleries are no less crowded, brilliantly lighted, and often open to the sidewalk, gaudily painted figures serving as targets, and every inducement being offered the passer-by to try his skill.”
Sarah: Here’s a description of Bleeker Street from the late 1880s:
“ Both sides were filled with dance halls, saloons and sporting houses. You could meet from fifty to one hundred girls any night going the few short blocks from Broadway to the Bowery and many more men. Butt Allen’s famous dance and concert hall, with gambling den attached, was there. Harry Hill’s noted dive was one block below on Houston Street. In Mulberry Street, a short distance away, were the sub-cellar dives, two stories below ground under the control of Italians, where for a few cents degraded men and women could go in out of the cold and remain over night, sleeping on the damp, dirty floors, or else sitting in the broken, rickety chairs.”
Elizabeth:Men were not the only sex breaking free of tradition. Working class women were also taking advantage of the growing entertainment culture and many saw no reason why they shouldn’t take part in the growing commodification of sex if it meant having more freedom of movement and more money in their pocket. Especially when one considers the harsh working conditions that faced working-class women doing “respectable” work. The largest industry open to women in the late 19th century was the sewing industry. Employment could be found in factories all the way down to the sweating system. Women engaging in prostitution could earn MUCH more money, and more quickly, than working in the sewing industry or as a domestic servant, with much more freedom of movement. Girls believed to be virgins could earn up to $50 per sexual encounter. Weekly incomes for the average woman engaging in prostitution could range between twenty and thirty dollars in the city. Compared to the twelve to fifteen a woman could earn working in a good factory job, there was really no comparison. In addition to the potential monetary benefits, working as a prostitute could be fun. Women who liked to dance, to drink, to be loud, and rowdy certainly found the atmosphere at a brothel or concert saloon much more enjoyable than a dingy factory setting.
Sarah: It is also important to note that many women did not only work as prostitutes. Plenty of women worked other jobs such as laundresses and domestic servants and only engaged in prostitution when the need arose or an opportunity presented itself. This shows the fluidity of how commodified sex could be used for working-class women as means of income and diversion. Also a phenomenon called treating began to become popular with many young women during the late 19th and early 20th century. Essentially, young women and girls offered sex in exchange for presents from men, like food, drinks, entertainment, rent or clothing. They didn’t view this as prostitution, but simply as a way to have fun and get the things they wanted or needed in return.
Elizabeth: However we shouldn’t overplay the “choice” that a lot of women had when working as prostitutes. Women’s wages were drastically lower than men’s wages, so if a woman found herself without a support system, particularly if she had children, prostitution might be one of the only options open to her. Working in “the trade,” which is what many prostitution called their line of work, could be a never-ending cycle. Many prostitutes who found themselves in jail for prostitution found no other options but to return to the street or brothel when released. Social purity reformers referred to prostitution as a “slave cycle” that the courts and police were privy to. The police arrested a woman, the court charged her a fine, her madam or pimp came and paid the fine, and then the woman went back out on the street to make the money to repay them.
Sarah: One former prostitute and brothel owner highlighted the hypocrisy of the social purity crusade as it pertained to curbing prostitution. She wrote, “The Christian world believes that it is easy for a woman to reform, that if she has the desire to do so nothing more is necessary…all we have got to do is…take good employment at good pay, or marry a rich man.” She went on to say that it was from economic want and the social stigma associated with female sexuality that kept women engaged with prostitution, not the lack of desire to reform.
Elizabeth: The sexual excesses of the mid-nineteenth century met a more robust resistance from social purity reformers in the 1870s. Numerous social purity organizations began organizing against prostitution and visibility of commercialized sex. Anthony Comstock who most of us know as the name behind the Comstock laws that prevented persons from sending anything “lewd” through the mail –Including birth control-created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice on 1873. This was a group dedicated to stopping “vice” in New York City. However, by no means did it eliminate prostitution in the city. In fact, Comstock himself arrested three women in 1878 for performing a “Busy Fleas” dance in a NYC brothel
Sarah: The social purity crusade also got a boost when William Stead, an English journalist, published in 1885 a series in the Pall Mall Gazette entitled, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” This was a scathing expose of vice and the London underworld where Stead himself purchased a thirteen-year-old girl from her mother, supposedly for “immoral purposes,” to prove to his readers that London was “the greatest market in human flesh in the whole world.” Stead’s stunt actually landed him in jail for three months but the expose also ignited public interest in prostitution in both England and the United States.
Elizabeth: Some laws that were intended to curb prostitution actually made it expand. In 1896 the New York Raines Law passed, which attempted to keep working-class saloons closed on Sundays, only allowed hotels with ten or more beds to serve alcohol on Sunday. Therefore, instead of shutting down sales of alcohol in saloons, the saloons simply converted their back rooms and upper floors into small bedrooms. Overwhelmingly, saloons became “hotels” and took out hotel licenses. These Raines Law hotels turned high profits. Some operated as hotels, some as rooms for rent by the hour and others more like brothels were prostitutes lived inside the hotel rooms. Also succeeded in making the brothel obsolete and less in the control of women. On the Raines Law, Emma Goldman said it “relieved the keeper of responsibility towards the inmates and increased their revenue from prostitution.”
Sarah: Such visible prostitution came to an end by the 1920s for a variety of reasons. A crackdown on venereal disease during WWI, prohibition and the increased policing of working-class and entertainment districts, the telephone which allowed women to be “call girls” and no longer forced them to work on the street or in a brothel, and the changing norms of sexual encounters between middle-class men and women. In no way did commodified sex disappear, it just became less visible to the uninitiated public.
George Chauncy. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Basic Books, 1995.
Timothy Gilfoyle. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.
Josie Washburn and Sharon E. Wood. The Underworld Sewer: A Prostitute Reflects on Life in the Trade, 1871-1909. Bison Books, 1997.
Sharon E. Wood. The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City. The University of North Carolina Press, 2005.