Vice Resorts: Parlor Houses

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Vice Resorts: Parlor Houses

Book excerpt

By: George J. Kneeland

Date: 1913

Source: Kneeland, George J. "Vice Resorts: Parlor Houses." Commercialized Prostitution in New York City. New York: Century, 1913.

About the Author: George Kneeland worked for the Bureau of Social Hygiene, whose aim was to study the social evil of prostitution, as it was called in New York City. Kneeland headed an investigation commission beginning in 1912, following his experience directing the Chicago Vice Commission in Chicago.


During the eighteenth century, the United States experienced an increase in the number of prostitutes operating in port cities such as Boston and New York. The growth was attributed to the large number of immigrants settling in these communities, the significant presence of soldiers, and the many poor unmarried women who turned to prostitution to make money. The market for prostitutes expanded even further in the 1800s, along with the Industrial Revolution. Men were moving into cities to work in factories and live in boarding houses, releasing them from traditional family responsibilities. Male leisure time took on a new form of masculinity, as boxing matches, heavy drinking of alcohol, and promiscuous sexual behavior became the norm. This helped prostitution thrive.

Gender discrimination made it difficult for women to find well-paying jobs as easily as men in the 1800s, turning many women to prostitution as a means of survival. It was thought that five to ten percent of young women in New York City engaged in some type of prostitution, earning more than they would in a factory or other service-oriented job. Many landlords preferred to rent out their properties to prostitutes, as these women had stable sources of income, and could be charged more than other working-class tenants.

New York City had over five hundred brothels by the time of the Civil War, which routinely advertised their services in newspapers and guidebooks. Theatres, concert halls, saloons, cigar stores, restaurants, and cabarets normally supported prostitution to attract more business. By the 1850s, New York's red-light districts, which included Five Points and the Tenderloin, were well known for the prostitution they promoted. Throughout the U.S., the prostitution industry generated millions of dollars by the late 1800s, aided by an organized network of madams (who ran the brothels), municipal officials, doctors, and landlords.

Prostitution became an important social and political issue in the U.S. around 1810. However, it was not until the late 1800s and early 1900s that communities began to adopt laws concerning prostitution. As early as 1882, New York passed ordinances regulating prostitutes, saying they could be reprimanded if they disturbed the peace in any public area. Because of weak enforcement in urban areas, however, prostitution was rarely interrupted.


The actual business of prostitution in New York City is conducted in buildings which are designated in this report as vice resorts. These resorts are of several kinds. Most prominent are the so-called parlor house or brothel, the tenement house apartment, the furnished room house, the disorderly hotel, and the massage parlor. The present chapter deals only with the first named.

A parlor house or brothel is a building used exclusively for the business of prostitution. It derives its name from the fact that its inmates gather in the parlor to receive guests. There is, however, an exception to the definition, inasmuch as some parlor houses in New York City are situated on the upper floors of buildings, the ground floors of which are used for legitimate business enterprises.

During the period of this investigation, extending from January 24, 1912 to November 15, 1912, 142 parlor houses were visited in Manhattan. Though this number does not include all the places of this character in Manhattan, it may be said to approximate the total. It is improbable that many were overlooked. Every one of the establishments investigated was visited two or more times on different dates by different individuals who have made affidavits as to their findings; and the findings of different investigators working in ignorance of one another have been carefully compared. The date and hour of the observation are given in connection with each report.

Of the 142 parlor houses thus investigated, 20 are known to the trade as fifty-cent houses; 80 as one-dollar houses; 6 as two-dollar houses; and 34 as five- and ten-dollar houses. The prices charged in the remaining two houses are unknown.

The majority of these houses are situated in the business section of Manhattan, namely, on Sixth and Seventh Avenues from West 23rd to West 42nd Streets, and in residential sections on side streets from West 15th to West 54th Streets between Fifth and Eighth Avenues. A few of them are located on the East Side on residential streets east of Third Avenue, and on Second Avenue. A still smaller number were discovered on the extreme East Side near the river and below East 14th Street. Not a few of these houses are found in the vicinity of public schools, churches, and hotels; others occupy the upper floors over lunch rooms, jewelry shops, clothing stores, fur shops, and other business enterprises.

Private houses used exclusively for prostitution are usually three or four stories high; those of the cheaper type are in a dilapidated and unsanitary condition. For instance, the fifty-cent houses on the lower East Side are described as being practically unfit for human habitation. The rooms are dirty, the loose and creaking floors are covered with matting which is gradually rotting away, the ceilings are low, the windows small, the air heavy and filled with foul odors. The sanitary conditions in the majority of the one-dollar houses on the West Side streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues are hardly less objectionable. No attempt is made to keep the houses clean. The floors are rotten and filthy; they sag as one walks across them. The small bedrooms are damp and unventilated; the atmosphere is heavy with odors of tobacco and perfumes, mingled with the fumes of medicine and cheap disinfectants.

Every step in the process of arranging for and conducting an establishment of this character is taken in the most businesslike fashion. Every detail is arranged in a cold, calculating spirit. It is first necessary to secure the consent of the owner or agent to use the property for the desired purpose. Negotiations may be conducted by the prospective keeper himself or through a go-between who is paid a bonus for securing a suitable building. In the majority of cases regular leases are drawn up and signed for stated periods. Usually two or more individuals enter into a regular partnership agreement to conduct parlor houses. In the course of this investigation interesting data were obtained respecting the purchase, sale, and value of these shares, which constantly fluctuate in value. Important factors in determining their value at a particular time are public opinion and the attitude of the city authorities toward vice. If the law is rigidly enforced and frequent arrests are made, the shares depreciate and there is a scramble among the partners to dispose of their holdings. If the business is fairly undisturbed, the shares increase in value and can hardly be purchased.

The house once secured and the owners being ready to begin business, a madame or housekeeper is hired by the month or on a percentage basis to take personal charge of the enterprise. She is usually a former prostitute who has outlived her usefulness in that capacity. To her the owners look for results. Every day she reports to them when they call to "make up" the books after business is over—generally during the early morning hours.

Servants are employed to aid the madame: one or more cooks, according to the number of inmates boarding in the house; and maids, usually colored girls, who look after the rooms, tend the door, and aid in the sale of liquor to the customers during business hours. A porter is employed to care for the house and run errands, a "lighthouse," to stand on the street for the purpose of procuring "trade" and to give warning.

The prosperity of the business depends in the main upon the quality of the inmates. If they are young and attractive, and, as one madame was heard to say in another city, "especially womanly," success is assured. Thus the value of the manager depends in the first place on her ability to secure and hold the "right sort" of inmate. The girls must be contented; they must be stimulated to please; quarrels must be avoided, jealousies nipped in the bud. In the art of management, the madame must exercise all her ingenuity. If a girl is a good "money maker" the madame attaches her to herself in every possible way. Some of these unfortunate inmates become "house girls," remaining year after year, the unsuspecting victims of the madame's blandishments and exploitation.

Certain of the women are well known as "stars." Their reputation follows them wherever they go and madams vie with each other in securing them for their particular houses, in much the same way as a business firm is constantly looking for clever salesmen who have a reputation and a record for increasing business. The author has in mind a particular woman whose customers follow here wherever she goes. There are in this business many such "stars" or "big money makers," looked upon with envy by their less attractive and less prominent rivals. The secret of their popularity lies frequently in the perverse practices to which they resort.


During the 1800s, anti-vice movements arose, usually led by reformers, church leaders, and women's groups. These movements attempted to shut down brothels and assist prostitutes, but their early efforts were largely ineffective. However, by 1890, anti-vice movements grew more popular, with church leaders regularly voicing concern over the tolerance of prostitution in cities and towns. Progressive government officials began to follow suit, calling prostitution a social evil, and proposing measures to reduce its prevalence. The movement to end prostitution in urban areas throughout the U.S. gained steam in the first two decades of the 1900s, as it was recommended that sex districts be eliminated. Congress passed legislation in 1903 and 1907 that made it illegal to import new prostitutes, and illegal to deport immigrant prostitutes. The Mann Act of 1910 made it illegal to transport women across state lines for purposes of prostitution. Within the first six years of its existence, the Mann Act led to 1,537 convictions. The Commission on Training Camp Activities during World War I closed the sex districts in many of the nation's port cities, including New York, and vice police squads pressured many establishments to cease operations.

Significant changes to prostitution occurred over several decades starting in 1920. Brothels, parlor houses, and open prostitution were no longer tolerated. Prostitution became less conspicuous, with business conducted in hotels and low-profile massage parlors. Prostitution became associated with the alcohol trade and organized crime during the Prohibition period of the 1920s, with some prostitution businesses being protected by gangsters. By 1950, many prostitutes were forced to work alone, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the congressional Kefauver committee cracked down on prostitution and other forms of organized crime.

The market for prostitution did not go away with further policing. A study in 1968 discovered there had been 95,550 arrests for prostitution around the United States, and that 286,650 men visited prostitutes every day. In the latter part of the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, there have been unsuccessful efforts to legalize prostitution throughout the United States, with groups saying it is legitimate work. However, feminists and other groups argue that prostitution exploits women and should remain illegal. There are estimates that between 10,000 and 50,000 women and girls are brought into the United States each year, many of whom are forced to work as prostitutes. Prostitution remains legal in certain districts of Nevada and Rhode Island, as well as in many other countries.



Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790–1920. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991.

Hill, Marilynn Wood. Their Sisters' Keepers: Prostitution in New York City, 1830–1870. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1993.

Hobson, Barbara Meil. Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

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


"The Business of Vice." The New York Times (October 24, 1909): 12.

Landesman, Peter. "The Girls Next Door." The New York Times (January 25, 2004): 30.

Web sites

BBC News. "US Prostitution Traffic Revealed." (April 2, 2000). 〈〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).

Women's International Center. "Women's History in America Presented By Women's International Center." 〈〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).