Sex on Sunday: Historians study prostitutes in 19th-century Victoria, New Orleans and New York

History professor wins national award for article on sex trade workers, Victoria Island University

His most surprising discovery was to find so many brothels in Victoria in the census years 1891 and 1901. “Previously, I had thought that the provincial capital was a rather prudish and ‘Victorian’ kind of place, but in fact it was the sexual emporium of the Pacific Northwest. I was also surprised to find the longevity of some of the brothels, which operated continuously in the same location for two decades or more.” . . . “Of course, not every dressmaker was a sex trade worker,” he added. “ For example, the 1891 census might identify a middle-aged widow who lived alone with her children in a respectable part of Victoria as a ‘dressmaker’. That woman likely made a living with needle and thread. “But the census also revealed groups of young women living together in less-respectable parts of the city who identified themselves as dressmakers. I suspected, correctly, that these census households were brothels.”

19th-century New Orleans brothels revisited, at Missourian

. . . a parade that took place in 1897, when city leaders passed a law creating the Storyville district. “Apparently, when prostitutes got word they had won, they got horse and carriages and wore these outlandish costumes. Some of them were nude, some wore tight sailor pants. Some wore Egyptian costumes, and one of them had bare legs and was waving a foot at people in the street from the carriage. Some were grabbing male bystanders and improvising sexual displays. . . . They went down Canal Street and turned into the Quarter. There were hundreds of prostitutes in the parade, and dozens of carriages. And they were all laughing and probably drinking and very bawdy. But of course, it was the landlords who won.”

Crime on the Lower East Side, from the Tenement Museum

Prostitution was a pervasive part of immigrant life on the Lower East Side. Located one-block west of Orchard Street, Allen Street stood as the neighborhood’s most notorious thoroughfare of commercial sex. There, most prostitution took place in tenements. During the 1890s, for example, one observer remarked that in “broad day light you can see them [prostitutes] at their windows and calling to passers by at night. They are so vulgar in front of their houses that any respectable person cannot pass without being insulted by them.” Another resident lamented that neighborhood women could not walk the street after dark “without becoming a victim to them because of the paramours who hang around corners awaiting the proceeds of their concubines.” For most, there was little recourse. “It is useless to appeal to the police,” decried another resident, “as the very men who are sent out in citizen clothes stand and talk with them and go in saloons and drink with them.”

— Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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