Prostitutes and Prostitution

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Prostitution—here defined as commercial sexual relations between male buyers and female sellers—developed slowly in the colonial era, but by the mid-eighteenth century it had become quite noticeable in colonial cities. Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston had prostitutes by the 1750s who worked out of taverns and brothels, catering primarily to sailors and other transients. All port cities had brothels near the waterfronts, and additional establishments were scattered elsewhere in the communities. New York, for instance, had near the future location of City Hall a brothel section called the Holy Ground (because of its proximity to St. Paul's Chapel). Rural prostitution no doubt existed in a limited way, especially with a barter arrangement between male and female, but records yield very little information about such activities. Homosexual prostitution, if it existed at all, is missing from historical accounts.

forms of prostitution

The presence of British soldiers in the colonies in the 1760s and 1770s increased the demand for prostitutes, as did the stationing in the cities of soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Commercial developments that led to a growing market economy in the early years of the nineteenth century and further economic stimulation by the War of 1812 brought thousands of unmarried men and women to port cities and industrializing towns and villages. Not only did greater numbers of women enter this line of work, but it became more diverse and specialized. By the 1820s in New York, for instance, hundreds of women prostituted themselves in dockside brothels in lower Manhattan. Above them in the prostitutes' own rankings were the streetwalkers who offered their favors to men along Broadway and other fashionable streets. They also frequented theaters, taverns, and similar businesses, finding customers to take to nearby assignation houses. Still higher in the prostitute's world were the young women with more education and refinement who lodged in the socalled fancy brothels, often located in respectable neighborhoods. These women catered to the city's elite, who came to the brothels not only for the women, but also to enjoy the lifestyle of rich furnishings and champagne. Boston and Philadelphia had similar prostitute communities.

Southern Americans boasted in the early nineteenth century that prostitution was not a problem in their region, mainly because the slave system gave white men all the sexual outlets that they needed. In New Orleans and Charleston, however, prostitutes not only operated in the usual manner, but slave and free quadroons (women who were at least three-quarters white with some African ancestry) created another occupational variation. Annual balls brought these women of color into contact with wealthy planters and businessmen, who then took the women as their mistresses, offering them homes, clothing, and other refinements and often sealing the bargain with signed contracts.

money as the leading motive

Whether a waterfront prostitute or an elegant mistress, these women chose their occupation primarily for the money. By the early nineteenth century, a new prudery concerning female sexuality put a greater value on chastity, which in turn led to "fallen" women being scorned by family and community and ending up as prostitutes, but the money factor outranked even this as a cause of prostitution. As late as the 1820s, women's jobs outside the home were few and usually offered very poor compensation. Seamstresses in American cities seldom earned more than a dollar per week, and factory workers rarely earned more than two dollars. Even educated women working as schoolteachers earned about a dollar per week. Prostitutes in waterfront dives, in contrast, made as much as twenty dollars per week, streetwalkers as much as fifty dollars, and those in elegant brothels as much as one hundred dollars. The lack of well-paying jobs for women of all classes would continue to add to the prostitutes' ranks for the remainder of the nineteenth century.

controlling prostitution

Unless they became public nuisances, prostitutes seldom drew the attention of colonial authorities. Boston banned brothel keeping as early as 1672, not just because of the sinful behavior of prostitutes and their customers but because they were disturbing the peace. From time to time, city governments had night watchmen and marshals close the most flagrant of prostitute resorts, and mobs from the neighborhood sometimes attacked brothels as well. By the 1800s, though, as the cities began rapid expansion and population growth, prostitution drew more opposition. In 1823 in Boston, Mayor Josiah Quincy himself led raids on the Hill, a section of the city also called Mount Whoredom. Over a hundred cases were brought to court, many involving charges of keeping a disorderly house or being a public nuisance. Occasional raids in the other cities brought arrests on similar charges.

Another approach to the problem came from the Protestant religious groups influenced by the Second Great Awakening, a sustained revival during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Attacking the sin by reforming the sinner, male and female Evangelicals supported the founding of asylums for penitent prostitutes, places where the women could be instructed in religion and trained in a respectable occupation. Based on a British institution founded in 1758, the Philadelphia asylum opened in 1800, and one in New York began operations in 1812. Although neither asylum lasted more than a few years and they redeemed no more than a few prostitutes, a major shift in dealing with prostitution was under way. Prostitutes over the next few decades would increasingly be seen not as public nuisances but as victims of poor economic conditions and male lust. Better opportunities for women seeking employment would be one goal of the men and women trying to eradicate prostitution. The other goal would be to eliminate the sexual predation of men, whether as seducers of women or as the prostitutes' customers. Also of great importance would be the growing control of the antiprostitution drive by women, who by the 1830s would see both the reclamation of prostitutes and the prevention of prostitution as reforms belonging distinctly to females.

See alsoWomen: Female Reform Societies and Reformers; Work: Women's Work .


Cohen, Patricia Cline. The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790–1920. New York: Norton, 1992.

Hobson, Barbara Meil. Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Rosen, Ruth. The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900–1918. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Whiteaker, Larry. Seduction, Prostitution, and Moral Reform in New York, 1830–1860. New York: Garland, 1997.

Larry Whiteaker