Working Women and Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century New York

CHRISTINE STANSELL

As urban reformers and writers told it, no tale of working-class life was more chill­ing in its revelations of vice than the prostitute's. From the 1830s on, prostitutes flit­ted wraithlike across the pages of urban social commentary, a class of women ren­dered human only by the occasional penitent in their ranks. Prostitutes had long been familiar to New Yorkers, but between 1830 and 1860 women "on the town" became the subject of a sustained social commentary. By the 1850s, urban prostitu­tion was troubling enough to lead city fathers to lend the services of their police force in aiding William Sanger in conducting a massive investigation. Dr. Sanger's report, the compendious History of Prostitution, represents the coming of age of prostitution as a social "problem" in America, and its integration into the new dis­course of secular urban reform.

The very fact that reformers ... were thinking about prostitution had to do with tensions over gender relations and female sexuality.... The alarm over prostitution was one response to the growing social and sexual distance that working-class women - especially working-class daughters - were traveling from patriarchal regulation....

In 1818, when the city watch published its latest statistics on crime, the authori­ties took a complacent view of prostitution. Although the numbers of known prosti­tutes and bawdy houses in the city had doubled in a dozen years, they reported, the women and their patrons had never been more quiet and law-abiding. In subsequent years, an offensive against urban vice put an end to such laissez-faire attitudes. After 1831, when the evangelical women of New York's Magdalene Society first took up the battle to banish prostitution from the city, denunciations of what was purported to be an urgent problem became common currency among moral reform­ers and public authorities.... By 1855, public concern was sufficiently strong to move the aldermen to commission William Sanger to conduct a statistical investiga­tion in New York of the kind Parent-Duchatelet had published for Paris in 1836. Sanger's researches confirmed to him and to his public (as such researches often do) that the city was indeed prey to an "enormous vice." It was, he gravely concluded, "a fact beyond question that this vice is attaining a position and extent in this community which cannot be viewed without alarm." . . .

What disturbed observers was not just the number of women who bargained with men for sex, but the identity of those women. For if the numbers of known professional prostitutes were not growing disproportionally, those of casual prosti­tutes-- girls or women who turned to prostitution temporarily or episodically to supplement other kinds of livelihoods -- probably were. Moreover, the entire con­text of the transaction was changing, as prostitution moved out of the bawdy houses of the poor into cosmopolitan public spaces like Broadway. "It no longer confines itself to secrecy and darkness," lamented Sanger, "but boldly strikes through our most thronged and elegant thoroughfares."

... Since prostitution was not a statutory offense, there was no legal pressure to conceal it. By 1857 William Sanger could catalogue a wide range of establishments catering to prostitution. "Parlor houses," clustered near the elegant hotels on Broad­way, were the most respectable, frequented by gentlemen; the second-class brothels served clerks and "the higher class of mechanics." In some theaters, prostitutes so­licited and consorted with patrons in the notorious third tier, reserved for their use. ... Except for the parlor and bawdy houses, however, the trade was informal rather than organized; that is, a woman could easily ply it on her own outside a brothel. Prostitution was still a street trade of independent workers; pimps were a phenome­non of the early twentieth century, a consequence of the onset of serious police harassment....

There were specialized services as well. In the 1840s, a nascent commercial sex trade began to offer variegated sexual experiences beyond the prostitute's bed, mostly to gentlemen. The sex trade was centered in the area between City Hall Park, the commercial heart of the city, and the Five Points. There, crime and amusement rubbed elbows, laboring people mixed with gentlemen and the quick scam flour­ished. Visitors and men about town could, within an easy walk from most places of business, gain entrance to dance halls featuring naked performers, brothels with child prostitutes, eating places decorated with pornographic paintings, pornographic edifying tableaux from literature and art (Susannah and the Elders, far example) - as well as a variety of facilities for having sex. The network of sexual experiences for sale  was certainly troubling evidence of the centrality of sex to metropolitan life; indeed its presence in the most cosmopolitan areas of the city was one indication of just how closely a particular kind of sex  (bourgeois men with working-class women) was linked to an evolving mode of sophisticated urbanity....

For laboring people as well as bourgeois moralists, prostitution was linked to "ruin," a state of affairs to be avoided at all costs. But while bourgeois men and women viewed ruin as the consequence of prostitution, working-class peo­ple reversed the terms. It was ruin, occasioned by a familial or economic calamity (for women the two were synonymous), that precipitated the "fall" into prostitution. The disasters that afflicted women's lives - male desertion, widowhood, single motherhood - propelled adult women into prostitution as a comparatively easy way to earn a living. The prospect of prostitution was, like the possibility of these other misfortunes, a part of everyday life: a contingency remote to the blessed, the strong and the fortunate, right around the corner for the weak and the unlucky. Pros­titution was neither a tragic fate, as moralists viewed it (and continue to view it), nor an act of defiance, but a way of getting by, of making the best of bad luck.

Prostitution was indeed, as reformers liked to point out, tied to the female labor market. Women on their own earned such low wages that in order to survive, they often supplemented waged employment with casual prostitution. There is a good deal of information on this practice in the 1850s because William Sanger asked it. "A large number of females," he observed, "earn so small wages that a of their business, or being a short time out of a situation, is sufficient ­to reduce them to absolute distress." . . .

Many of the women with whom Sanger and his police interviewers talked had as the closest employment at hand after suddenly losing male "My husband deserted me and four children. I had no means to live." with another woman. I support the child." "I came to this city, from Illinois, with my husband. When we got here he deserted me. I have two children dependent on me." These were the painful female actualities from which culture would fashion its own morality tales of sexual victimization and depravity…

Yet ultimately Sanger's survey yields a very different picture than his own pre­ferred one of the victim of circumstance, the distressed needle-woman and the de­serted wife at starvation's door.... When Sanger asked his subjects their reasons tip prostitution, over a quarter - a number almost equal to those who cited  "destitution”--gave "inclination" as their answer. "Inclination," whatever its moral connotations, still indicated some element of choice within the context of  other alternatives. “C.M.” while virtuous, this girl had visited dance-houses, where acquainted with prostitutes, who persuaded her that they led an easy, merry life.  "S. C.” this girl's inclination arose from a love of liquor." "E. C. left her became a prostitute willingly, in order to obtain intoxicating liquors which had been refused her at home."

The historical issues are complicated. One can imagine a sullen woman trapped was the Blackwell' s Island venereal disease hospital, flinging cynical answers -- "drink," "amusement" -- to the good doctor's questions as to appeal to the preconceptions she sensed in him. But although this may have been true in some encounters, the dynamic between the doctor and his subject is an unlikely explanation of why so many women rejected a paradigm of victimization (which, if anything, Sanger himself promoted) for an­swers that stressed their own agency in entering prostitution....

Of course, we cannot separate such answers from the economic difficulties laboring women faced. But structural factors alone cannot clarify why some women took up prostitution and others in similar straits did not. Nor can they illuminate the histories of women who entered prostitution from comparatively secure economic positions.... It is possible to see from Sanger's statistics that while a substantial pro­portion of prostitutes came from the ranks of unskilled immigrants, as one might ex­pect, a large number did not. Even more significantly, a sizable group of women (73) had fathers in the elite artisanal trades - ship carpentry, butchering, silversmithing - and a scattering (49) claimed to be daughters of professional men - physicians, lawyers and clergymen. Still others came from small property-owning families in the city and country, the daughters of shopkeepers, millers and blacksmiths.

Sanger threw up his hands over an array of data that defied his preconceptions.

... But the range of family circumstances is confounding only if one assumes that indigence was the major cause of prostitution. In fact, a variety of factors led women into the trade. The daughter of a prosperous ship carpenter could end up on the streets because she was orphaned and left to support herself; she could also use prostitution as a way to escape a harsh father's rule. A country girl, abandoned by a suitor, might go on the town because she knew no other way to earn her bread; or because she was determined to stay in the city rather than return to the farm. A mar­ried woman might even hazard the prospects of a hand-to-mouth independence, supported in part by prostitution, rather than submit to a drunken and abusive spouse....

For working-class women, the pressures of daily life took the form both of need and desire: the need for subsistence, the desire for change. Either could be ur­gent enough to push a girl or woman into that shady zone not too many steps re moved from the daily routines in which she was raised. The resemblance of prosti­tution to other ways of dealing with men suggests why, for many poor women, selling themselves was not a radical departure into alien territory.

It was in large part the involvement of young girls in prostitution - or more important, the relationship to the family that juvenile prostitution signified - that brought prostitution to public attention in the 1850s.... Adolescents and young women found casual prostitution inviting as metropolitan life made it an increas­ingly viable choice for working girls. Casual prostitution bordered on working-class youth culture: both provided some tenuous autonomy from family life....

Prostitution was by no means a happy choice, but it did have advantages that could override those of other, more respectable employments. The advantages were in part monetary, since prostitution paid quite well. The gains could amount to a week or even a month's earnings for a learner, a servant or a street seller; for girls helping their mothers keep house or working in some kind of semi-indentured learning arrangement, money from men might be the only available source of cash. ... The serving girl Harriet Newbury, a country girl from Pennsylvania, came into a windfall of luck in 1828 when a navy captain gave her ten dollars each time they had intercourse. These were gentlemen's prices. Prostitution with workingmen yielded smaller gains, "trifling things" - a few shillings, a meal or admission to the theater. But even to sell oneself for a shilling was to earn in an hour what a seam­stress earned in a day in the 1830s.

. . . Who were the men who created the demand for young girls' sexual ser­vices? ... Certainly gentlemen had money for such pleasures, and Victorian men could use sex with prostitutes to satisfy longings they could not express to their sup­posedly asexual wives.... However, the erotic sensibilities of workingmen were also involved. Juvenile prostitution stemmed not just from class encounters but from the everyday relations of men and girls in working-class neighborhoods. Rape trials, one source of information about illicit sexuality, show that sex with girl chil­dren was woven into the fabric of life in the tenements and the streets: out-of-the­ ordinary, but not extraordinary....

The men who made sexual advances to girls were not interlopers lurking at the edges of ordinary life, but those familiar from daily routines: lodgers, grocers (who encountered girls when they came into their stores on errands) and occasionally fa-thers. Sometimes the objects of their attentions could be very young. For the men, taboos against sexual involvement with children seem to have been weak; in court, they often alluded to their actions as a legitimate and benign, if slightly illicit, kind of play.... Roughhousing, teasing, fondling and horseplay were the same tokens of affection that men gave to children in the normal course of things. Similarly, the fa­vors men offered in exchange for sexual compliance - pennies and candy - were what they dispensed in daily life to gamer children's affection. Men's erotic atten­tion to girls, then, was not a discrete and pathological phenomenon but a practice that existed on the fringes of "normal" male sexuality.

Child molestation could blur into juvenile prostitution. The pennies a man of­fered to a girl to keep quiet about his furtive fumblings were not dissimilar to the prostitute's price. Adult prostitutes were also highly visible throughout the city, and their presence taught girls something about sexual exchange.... For the great ma­jority of girls, however, it was not the example of adult prostitutes that led them into "ruin" but the immediate incentive of contact with interested men. Laboring girls ran across male invitations in the course of their daily rounds - street selling, scav­enging, running errands for mothers or mistresses, in walking home from work, in their workplaces and neighborhoods and on the sophisticated reaches of Broadway. Opportunities proliferated as New York's expanding industry and commerce pro­vided a range of customers extending well beyond the traditional clientele of wealthy rakes and sailors. Country storekeepers in town on business, gentlemen travelers, lonely clerks and workingmen were among those who propositioned girls on the street.

Men made the offers, but girls also sought them out. "Walking out" in groups, hanging about comers, flirting with passersby, and generally being "impudent & saucy to men" (as parents committing a girl to the House of Refuge described it) could lead to prostitution. The vigilant John McDowall at watch on fashionable Broadway observed "females of thirteen and fourteen walking the streets without a protector, until some pretended gentleman gives them a nod, and takes their arm, and escorts them to houses of assignation."...

City life allowed such girls to find a wide range of customers and to travel far enough to thwart their mothers' vigilance. Early experiences with men, which girls may have shared round with their peers, perhaps bequeathed a bit of knowledge and shrewdness; perhaps the streets taught them how to turn sexual vulnerability to their own uses. To be sure, there were no reliable means of artificial contraception; only later, with the vulcanization of rubber, did condoms become part of the prostitute's equipment. Any sexually active girl would have risked an illegitimate pregnancy, attended by moral and financial burdens that could bring her to the edge of “ruin.”  Nonetheless, there were ways to practice birth control. Most likely, a girl engaging in sexual barter stopped short of sexual intercourse, allowing the man instead to ejaculate between her legs, the client's customary privilege in the nineteenth cen­tury. Recipes for abortifacients and suppositories . . . probably circulated among young women. If other measures failed, abortions, provided by midwives and "ir­regular" physicians (as those outside the medical establishment were called), were widely available in American cities. Indeed, ferreting out abortions - both med­ically induced and self-induced - was a major task of the city coroner. In 1849, the chief official of public health in the city reported that stillbirths were increasing at an alarming rate, and he concluded darkly that the role of "crime and recklessness" - that is, abortion - in this phenomenon "dare not be expressed"

To us now, and to commentators then, selling one's body for a shilling might seem an act imbued with hopelessness and pathos. Such an understanding, however, neglects the fact that this was a society in which many men still saw coerced sex as

their prerogative. In this context, the prostitute's price was not a surrender to male sexual exploitation but a way of turning a unilateral relationship into a reciprocal one. If this education in self-reliance was grim, the lessons in the consequences of heterosexual dependency were often no less so.

Prostitution offered more than money to girls. Its liaisons were one important way they could escape from or evade their families. For young girls, the milieu of casual prostitution, of walking out, could provide a halfway station to the urban

youth culture to which they aspired. For older girls, casual prostitution could fi­nance the fancy clothes and high times that were the entree to that culture. For all ages, support from lovers and clients could be critical in structuring a life apart from the family.

Prostitution and casual sex provided the resources for girls to live on their own in boardinghouses or houses of assignation - a privilege that most workingwomen would not win until after the First World War. Before factory work began to offer a more respectable alternative, sex was one of the only ways to finance such an arrangement. The working-class room of one's own offered a girl escape from a fa­ther's drunken abuse or a mother's nagging, the privilege of seeing "as much com­pany as she wished" and the ability to keep her earnings for herself. Sanger touched on this aspect when he identified "ill treatment" in the family as one of the primary reasons girls went into prostitution. The testimony he collected bears witness to the relationship between youthful prostitution and the relations of the household: "My parents wanted me to marry an old man, and I refused. I had a very unhappy home afterward." "My step-mother ill-used me." "My mother ill-treated me ." "My father accused me of being a prostitute when I was innocent. He would give me no clothes to wear." "I had no work, and went home. My father was a drunkard, and ill-treated me and the rest of the family." Sexuality offered a way out....

A girl's ability to engage quietly in casual prostitution or sexual bartering de­pended largely on whether she used streetwalking openly to defy her obligations to her family. She might earn a little money now and then from casual liaisons; as long as she hid the luxuries she gained thereby and continued to earn her keep at home, she might evade suspicion. But part of the allure of prostitution was precisely the chance it offered to break free of work and authority. The "ruin" working people feared for their girls was not sexual activity alone, but sex coupled with irresponsibility; the defiance of the claims of the family went hand in hand with working­class conceptions of immorality. Parents became alarmed and angered, for example, when their girls moved about from one servant's position to another without con­sulting them. They saw such independent ways as a prelude to trouble. Sometimes the girl had changed to a place in a "bad house," a dance hall or house of assigna­tion where the temptation to dabble in prostitution would have been nearly irre­sistible. Sometimes, however, the girl provoked her parents' wrath simply by shift­ing from one place to another....

Fancy dress also played into prostitution. As in the cases of domestic servants and factory girls, fancy dress signified a rejection of proper feminine behavior and duties. For the girls who donned fine clothes, dress was an emblem of an estimable erotic maturity, a way to carry about the full identity of the adult, and a sign of ad­mission into heterosexual courting. Virtuous girls, who gave over their wages to their families, had no money to spare for such frivolities; from a responsible per­spective fancy dress was a token of selfish gratification at the expense of family needs...

Country girls from New England and upstate New York were also open to the inducements of prostitution in the city. Refugees from the monotony and discipline of rural life, they were drawn by the initial excitement of the life, its sociability and novel comforts. Rachel Near, for instance, came from Poughkeepsie to New York in 1835 to learn the trade of tailoressing from her sister. About three months after she arrived she ran into another Poughkeepsie girl on the street whom a man was supporting in a house of assignation. "She persuaded her to go into her House, which was neatly furnished by her ill gotten gain, and asked her to come and live with her, and persuaded her until she consented to do so." There Rachel met a Dr. Johnson, visiting the city from Albany, who supported her in style for six weeks, and she supplemented her earnings from him with visits to a bawdy house "where she used to get from 5 to 7 $ pr night, some weeks she used to make 40 & 45$." . . .

Rural courtships often played a part in urban prostitution.... Courtship was a gamble; elopement, the possibility of rape and male mobility made it all the more treacherous. Country girls were especially vulnerable to the process whereby desertion led to prostitution. Sanger found that 440 of his subjects were farmers' daugh­ters. Left alone in the city, often without friends to help them, country girls some­times had no choice but to turn to the streets for their bread. The sanctions of rural communities gave some protection to young women, but once they isolated them­selves from neighbors, family and other women, they could find themselves caught in an escalating series of circumstances in which intercourse, voluntary or involun­tary, led to prostitution.... However, we should avoid interpreting prostitution as a desperate measure. It could also be an act of shrewdness, prompted by a woman's comprehension of the power relations in which she found herself.... But it would also be wrong to cast prostitution as a deliberate bid for control; mostly, farm girls - like their urban peers -just wanted to live on their own....

The money and perquisites from casual prostitution opened up a world beyond the pinched life of the tenements, the metropolitan milieu of fashion and comfort. Every day girls viewed this world from the streets, as if in the audience of a theater: the elaborate bonnets in shop windows, the silk dresses in the Broadway prome­nade, the rich food behind the windows of glittering eating places. Bonnets, fancy aprons, silk handkerchiefs, pastries were poor girls' treasures, coveted emblems of felicity and style. There were serious drawbacks to prostitution: venereal disease, physical abuse, the pain of early intercourse and the ever-present prospect of preg­nancy. While the road back to respectable marriage was not irrevocably closed, it must have been rocky, the reproaches and contempt of kin and neighbors a burden to bear. Still, casual prostitution offered many their best chance for some kind of au­tonomy - even for that most rare acquisition for a poor girl, a room of her own....

The urgency that discussions of prostitution took on in the 1850s indicates just how disturbing youthful female independence could be in a society structured culturally on women's dependence on the household. In the public spaces of New York, as well as in domestic service and on the Bowery, the evidence of girls' cir­cumvention of family discipline was deeply troubling, especially (but not exclu­sively) to people who saw the family as woman's only proper place and asexuality as a cardinal tenet of femininity. The stress on the female reprobate's active pursuit of her appetites was the reformers' rendition of an obvious fact of youthful prostitu­tion: It was not solely the resort of hopelessness and misery....

We are still too much influenced by the Victorians' view of prostitution as utter degradation to accept easily any interpretation that stresses the opportunities com­mercial sex provided to women rather than the victimization it entailed. Caution is certainly justified. Prostitution was a relationship that grew directly from the double standard and men's subordination of women. It carried legal, physical and moral hazards for women but involved few, if any, consequences for men. Whatever its pleasures, they were momentary; its rewards were fleeting and its troubles were grave. But then, the same could be said of other aspects of laboring women's rela­tions with men. Prostitution was one of a number of choices fraught with hardship and moral ambiguity....

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