prostitution in early america -- 1/28/19

Today's selection -- from City of Eros by Timothy J. Gilfoyle. In America's early decades, prostitution was legal or effectively legal, including in the largest cities and the most visible locations:

"By the mid-nineteenth century, a wide variety of commercial sexual activity existed in the largest American cities. In addition to prostitu­tion, abortion, masked balls, stripteasing 'model artist' shows, and por­nography were easily available. Urban sexuality was increasingly expressed and restructured to appeal to a male consumer world of entertainment, goods, newspapers, and advertisements. Prostitution, in particular, became a public activity, conducted in the open and visible to unengaged neighbors and observers. Brothels flourished in all parts of the city. Streetwalkers claimed the most celebrated avenues as their personal turf. Courtesans worked in the foremost theaters, concert halls, and hotels. And many others advertised in guidebooks, in newspapers, and with personal cards. This blatant commercialization transformed activities and behavior with little material 'value' into objects with exchange value. For the first time in American life, with the opportunity to resort to prostitutes on a massive scale, sex became an objective consumer com­modity....

"Purity reform was not born full grown in postbellum New York. In seventeenth-century Boston, Cotton Mather founded the first known antivice organization in North America, the Society for the Suppression of Disorder. Its goal of shutting down Boston's brothels, however, proved unattainable. The first similar organization in New York, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, appeared in the early nineteenth century. Concerned not only with prostitution but also with Sunday drinking, saloons, and gambling, this short-lived organization conceded that to 'attempt to extirpate at once all the vices which they desire to suppress would be to undertake an Herculean task and would excite an opposition formidable both in numbers and activity.' Human institutions, laws, and punishments did little to renew the heart. 'All that can be done,' the report continued, 'is to hinder the formation of vicious habits and to prevent those who are already corrupt from cor­rupting others.'

"Most early New York efforts to combat social ills took this lesson to heart, circumscribing their ambitions and their reach. After 1815, the Lying-In Hospital admitted only 'honest women,' while the Asylum for Lying-In Women accepted only those with marriage certificates. Only 'repenting victims of seduction' were received by the Magdalen Society, and 'syphilitic men' were unwelcome at New York Hospital. Individual reformers echoed these limited goals. In 1827, a former resident physi­cian of New York Hospital and a Magdalen Society founder considered reclamation efforts foolhardy and a 'direct encouragement to prostitu­tion.' Such women were irretrievable. 'Little was to be gained,' he concluded, 'where the moral sense was so totally depraved as in most of such cases -- returning like the dog to his vomit.'

A drawing titled "The Genius of Advertising" from an 1880 issue of the
National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of
some of the attractions awaiting them inside.

"In 1831, a new moral reform period began, sparked by the evangelical fires of the Second Great Awakening. With the financial support of Arthur and Lewis Tappan, A. G. Phelps, and William Colgate, the Reverend John R. McDowall founded the New York Magdalen Society and opened a 'house of refuge' as a stopping place for penitent prosti­tutes. An evangelical Presbyterian, McDowall wanted to eliminate, not just control, prostitution. By 1835, a variety of antiprostitution organi­zations had appeared in New York, including the American Society for Promoting Observance of the Seventh Commandment, the New York Female Benevolent Society, the New-York Society of Public Morals, and the New-York Female Moral Reform Society (NYFMRS). Radically interpreting the cult of domestic womanhood, these reform bodies were angered by prostitution and seduction outside of wedlock. The female­ led NYFMRS, in particular, blamed lustful men for the social subordi­nation and sexual victimization of young women. ...

"During the first half of the nineteenth century, most efforts to con­trol or eliminate prostitution originated in private moral reform organi­zations. In the 1850s, however, the state intervened for the first time on a significant scale. In September and October of 1850, with the sup­port of two police court justices, the district attorney, and the future head of the Five Points Mission, police raided Five Points. During a five-week period, Captain John J. McManus brought indictments against over forty brothels and their proprietors. The massive sweeps provided an environment conducive to evangelical reform and were partly respon­sible for the establishment of the Five Points House of Industry in 1854. Within two years, the Reverend Louis Pease embarked upon similar efforts to eradicate what he considered to be the sexual jaundice in the nation's foremost slum.

"During his initial term as mayor, from 1855 to 1858, Fernando Wood became New York's first chief executive to seek elimination of gambling and prostitution from certain parts of the metropolis. 'Chief among the civic notabilia is the Mayor's foray or razzia among the unhappy fallen women who perambulate Broadway,' recounted George Templeton Strong, who questioned the legality, if not the motives, of Wood's actions. 'What the Mayor seeks to abolish or abate is not the terrible evil of prostitution, but simply the scandal and offence of the peripatetic whorearchy.' In other words, the mayor moved only against poor street­walkers, not the chic brothels of Leonard, Church, and Mercer streets. Wood was 'popular for his courage in taking the responsibility of action unsupported by precedent and statute,' continued Strong. ' So rise dictators in degenerate commonwealths.' "



Timothy J. Gilfoyle


City of Eros


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 1992 by Timothy J. Gilfoyle


18-19, 182-184
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