Double Obscenities 1910: America’s Dirtiest Secrets Revealed
There are two main flavors of historical fiction writer: those who are thrilled to research every last detail of life in the past and those who are more easy-going and romantic about evoking the spirit of the time. I tend more toward the former, but when writing about the erotic life, a researcher-type faces some serious obstacles to getting those specifics down right.
There simply isn’t that much information about what really happened behind closed doors before the Sexual Revolution made these things acceptable to discuss publicly.
However, there is one area of sexual expression that is fairly well researched: prostitution. Accounts of prostitutes provide one of the few windows we have into sexual practices in centuries past—give or take a few daring amateur lovers who shared explicit love letters or confessed to carefully preserved diaries.
Prostitutes are “public women” after all, so the men of earlier days may have felt the institution was suited to a relatively open discussion both as a “social evil” and in the form of guidebooks to the red-light districts that thrived in cities large and small until the early twentieth century in America.
This month, I introduce a series of columns about prostitution in 1910 and what several fascinating publications reveal about sexuality a hundred years ago. I’ll take you on a gaslit journey of New York, New Orleans and San Francisco, from sumptuous parlor houses to assembly-line “cribs” where working men sated their lust on Saturday night.
This buffet of after-dark indulgence is brought to you by scholars and journalists who guided me on my journey of historical discovery. I’d like to introduce them to you.
First there is Ruth Rosen who gives us The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, published in 1982. Rosen approaches her subject with the enthusiastic sense of discovery that animated feminist scholars in the early days of second-wave feminism. Until that time, prostitution had rarely been presented at all sympathetically from the viewpoint of women. Rosen introduces us to the voices of both prostitutes themselves and the respectable ladies who tried to “save” them. Alas, the latter’s effort to enforce a single sexual standard where men would be expected to be as chaste as women was a failure.
Next is a volume that has long been in my library: Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose. This book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of courtesans of the time by Ernest Bellocq. Rose conducted interviews in the 1960s, when many prostitutes and clients who gave Storyville its sparkle were still alive to tell the tale. Rose’s book is a true gift, a glimpse into the complex dreams and disappointments of real people. I want to thank those folks for sharing! One of his informants, “Violet,” provided the outlines for Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, starring a very young Brooke Shields as the child prostitute. But the interview with the real Violet is actually more interesting.
The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Asbury, who also brought you The Gangs of New York, is a raunchy tell-all about the sin city of the West Coast. Asbury makes San Francisco sound like one big, depraved, drunken debauch—and asserts that even the respectable citizens were secretly proud to live in the wickedest city on the continent (but don’t tell New Orleans). He is a bit cold-blooded in his descriptions of vice and exploitation—reminding you that Rosen’s attention to female subjectivity was much needed–but you learn a lot about human nature.
Finally, Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 immerses the reader in our cultural capital city’s pleasure districts. The author describes how Gotham’s thriving commercial sex trade gradually became increasingly invisible, thanks to the campaigns of religious reformers early in the century and urban renewal in our time. Every cigar store used to a have a girl behind a curtain, ready for a quick encounter with a customer who was so inclined. The cigar stores are fewer and the girls in their shifts long gone. Or at least as far as I’m aware.
In casting my gaze over this repast of erotic history, I notice one interesting commonality. Each book begins with a tour of the most luxurious bordellos frequented by rich men then gradually descends to the functional cubicles of the low-end trade, the descriptions of which are oddly compelling in their pathos. It occurred to me that this tour of the different levels of sex for sale offers the American audience a double obscenity. Just as prostitution is a bald revelation of sexual need that polite society prefers not to see, the blatant class differences of the commercial sex trade likewise expose another part of human behavior our democratic society regards as unmentionable.
Yet in one respect, both the fancy bordello and the miserable crib had one thing in common for a man on the town—at the end of the evening your wallet would be empty, no matter how much or how little you had at the start.
I promise, however, that you will feel richer in the end after our many nights on the town in America 1910. Join me in October for an evening in a rich man’s paradise!