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3 "No Work, No Money, No Home" Choosing Prostitution
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The Causes

Early nineteenth-century reformers, popular literature, and even some of the more scientific studies stressed seduction and


abandonment as a major cause of prostitution, a reason that accorded with some prostitutes' explanations. In the typical scenario, women were portrayed as pure, trusting, and affectionate, while men were characterized as unprincipled lechers. An example of this sentimental approach to seduction is found in Sanger's mid-century study:

A woman's heart longs for a reciprocal affection, and, to insure this, she will occasionally yield her honor to her lover's importunities, but only when her attachment has become so concentrated upon its object as to invest him with every attribute of perfection, to find in every word he utters and every action he performs but some token of his devotion to her.

Love then became a "passion" and an "idolatry" that developed gradually in the woman "until the woman owns to herself and admits to her lover that she regards him with affection." Although such an acknowledgment should have inspired the lover with high resolve to protect her, it frequently became instead

the medium for dishonorable exactions ... fatal in consequences to her, [as he] tramples on the priceless jewel of her honor.

It should be remembered that, in order to accomplish this base end, he must have resorted to base means.... Pure and sincere attachment would effectively prevent the lover from performing any act which could possibly compromise the woman he adores.[18]

There were usually two possible endings to the typical story of deception: the young girl was immediately forsaken after the illicit sex, or she was induced to elope with the young man and shortly afterward abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new city. It was said that most of these young women then turned to lives of prostitution, either because they had lost all self-respect or because their families and friends, on learning of their sins and indiscretions, disowned them and turned them out. In April 1834, the New York Sun carried a story about a baby left on the steps of a respectable home on Grand Street. A note from "Maria," the baby's mother, said she had run away from home with a man who proved to be a villain, and she could not return home because she had been so disgraced. Because she must resort to an "abode of infamy to get bread," she was leaving the child to the respectable family in hopes that "the blessings of Providence [will] attend the guardian of my child."[19]


Its Beginning.
A Morality Tale In the typical nineteenth-century tale 
of seduction, an innocent, unsuspecting young woman was 
persuaded or tricked by flattery and false promises of love 
and marriage into having premarital intercourse. She then was 
abandoned, usually in poverty, to care for herself and her 
offspring. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)

Many stories of seduction reinforced the popular notion that men, even apparently trustworthy men, were really lechers. The New Era in October 1837 told of Mary Burke, a victim of a variety of men across the professional spectrum, who was arrested in a Walnut Street brothel. Burke told the judge that she had been born in Ireland, where her schoolmaster had seduced her when she was fourteen. Because of her sin, she was thrown out by her father. She bore a child and moved to Quebec, where she became intimate with her confessor, a Catholic priest, which resulted in another child. She then moved to Montreal, was seduced by a constable, had a third child, and eventually went to the Grey Nunnery with her children. Later, she came to the United States with another man who abandoned her in New York, and there, because of economic need, she began a "business of her own." Burke provided the names of all of her seducers, but her tale of "multiple seduction" did not move the judge to dismiss her case.[20] Nevertheless, few explanations of a woman's fall could elicit as much sympathy as that of seduction and abandonment. Seduction certainly played a decisive


Its End.

role in causing some women to enter prostitution, but its frequency was probably overstated by reformers and possibly by the women themselves, who may have wanted to justify their situation to reformers who favored such explanations. In Sanger's study of 2,000 prostitutes, approximately 13 percent gave "seduced and abandoned" as their reason for entering prostitution. A few more said they were "seduced on board emigrant ships" or were "seduced in emigrant boarding houses," but the total number reporting seduction as a reason still represented only 14.5 percent of the cases (table 8).[21]

Entrapment and trickery, followed by rape, was another scenario said to lure women into prostitution, one believed especially effective with immigrants and young women from rural areas. Joe Farryall was a typical "professional" recruiter whose guile was said to have caused the ruin of many innocent young women. Farryall and his wife, Phebe, operated a house of prostitution on Franklin Street and kept it supplied with inmates from as far north as Vermont. Periodically, Farryall trav-


Table 8
Sanger Survey: Causes of Prostitution




No .


Direct Causes


Seduced and abandoned




Seduced on emigrant ship




Seduced in emigrant boarding house








Ill-treated by family, husband




Persuaded by prostitutes




Bad company




Drink and desire to drink




Wanted easy life




Too idle to work















Additional Contributing Factors


Death of father




Death of mother




Intemperance of father




Intemperance of mother



a Percentages are rounded to the nearest half.

SOURCE : William Sanger, History of Prostitution , 488, 539, 544.

eled through the countryside and, either through his charms or by promises of a better and more exciting life, persuaded young women to follow him to New York, where they were raped or intimidated into sexual compliance. Men like Farryall were rumored to be getting from $50 to $500 per recruit.[22] Another method of tricking young country girls and newly arrived immigrants was by promising training and work in millinery or other trades. Only after arriving at the designated employment address in the city would a woman discover the true nature of the establishment.[23]

It was said that agents and madams seeking new recruits also operated in conjunction with employment businesses, known as intelligence


offices, where women would be told they were being hired as seamstresses, milliners, or domestics. The Advocate of Moral Reform reported that many houses of infamy were connected with millinery establishments, partly to conceal the true character of the houses from the young women hired and from the public. Reformers also claimed that unsuspecting young women were lured into brothels in response to advertisements for rooms "to let"; once inside, the new boarders were allegedly drugged and then seduced or raped so that they agreed to become prostitutes because of their shame. Employers' sexual use of women, especially servants, was also said to contribute to prostitution; many females learned through force or ultimatums that sexual favors were an expected part of employment, and failure to cooperate might result in their dismissal.[24]

In the Sanger study, the twenty-seven interviewees who said they were "violated," or who were immigrants seduced en route to America or in "emigrant boarding houses," possibly were victims of such methods of trickery or entrapment rather than of emotional attachment to a "heartless seducer." But only a tiny fraction of the women Sanger interviewed—2.5 percent—reported experiences that might be interpreted as entrapment, despite the emphasis on such cases in the writings of reformers and the popular press.[25]

A few stories of seduction by trickery or entrapment also appeared in House of Refuge records. Elizabeth McNeal said she had been in service for eight years, but was forced to seek new places on many occasions. One place of employment she had obtained through an intelligence office turned out to be a brothel. Although McNeal said she left this employment after learning the nature of the place and claimed she did not have "criminal connection" while there, her record noted that she frequently had been in the "company of bad girls" and had stayed at two other prostitution houses.[26] Angela Hadden stated that at age sixteen she had left her Westchester home for a nearby community to learn the tailoring trade and get away from her father, who drank too much and was "ugly." One of the customers of the tailoring establishment, a druggist, said he knew of a woman in New York City who wanted help and would hire Hadden. Learning that her father planned to come get her, Hadden went into the city and sought out the druggist to pursue the job opportunity. He took her to a house on Mott Street and there, according to her Refuge ease history, Hadden and the druggist "were


locked up, and he succeeded after many threats and much struggle in seducing her, he left her in this bad house and never saw her again. She attempted to escape, but was watched and kept very closely, until she became broadly on the town, where she has been in practice for two years."[27] Joe Farryall, on one of his tours through New England, was reported to have persuaded his orphaned and impoverished fifteen-year-old second cousin, Mariah Hubbard, that she was working too hard and ought to come to New York, live with his family, and become a "lady." Delighted to leave her place of service for such wonderful prospects, Hubbard accompanied Farryall to New York, was seduced en route, and was taken to his Franklin Street brothel, where she said she was forced to begin prostituting herself.[28] Two other young girls, Sarah Buchanan and Frances Day, told of being first seduced by their employers at places of service when each was but twelve years old. Day continued working for her employer, the deputy sheriff, until she was fifteen, but Buchanan reported the incident to her mistress, which ended the employer's marriage and cost Buchanan her position. Employees at the House of Refuge were suspicious that Buchanan's and Day's unfortunate initial sexual encounters had led to further ones, since each girl had had later associations with brothels. Buchanan eventually returned to her mother, who ran a prostitution house, and there, in company with the prostitutes, she began "walking" and going to the theater in the evenings. Her grandmother intervened and had her sent to the Refuge. Frances Day later went to work in a brothel, where she said she was employed as a chambermaid, but she told Refuge officials she only stayed there a short while because of the "bad" nature of the house. Police said they found her wandering the streets with "no friends and no clothes" and therefore committed her to the Refuge.[29]

In the cases of entrapment, as in those of seduction and abandonment, women were usually portrayed as naive victims who, because they were "tarnished," were left with few options in life but prostitution. The women were doubly victims, first of seducers or rapists who took advantage of them and second of the upstanding, respectable members of the community who shunned them. Many nineteenth-century commentators emphasized the role played by respectable society in causing prostitution by not forgiving sexual transgressions or not offering a helping hand when needed. One former prostitute, Susan Striker, was indentured by the House of Refuge to a family in Ithaca, New York. Her


behavior was reported to be exemplary, and the family found no fault with her, but a year after her indenture the mistress of the house returned her to the Refuge upon learning that Striker had once been a prostitute. Another young girl, fifteen-year-old Susan Badger, reported that she lived in service with a family in the country for eight months until they learned her mother was a prostitute, and she was sent home.[30]

Perhaps even worse than the seduced woman's rejection, critics argued, was a double standard under which an offending male, recognized as a seducer, would be accepted by society while his hapless victim would be allowed no option but prostitution.[31] One writer reflected on the pernicious effect of this double standard in 1869:

Vice gives a woman's nature a more terrible wrench than a man's. It is harder for her to draw a veil over the past; it seems constantly to come back to her to rebuke her and to overwhelm her with disgrace. Her opportunities to rise are not comparable with the boy's, who finds a hundred doors opening before him, while she finds nearly every honorable door closed. Most ladies are less patient with the frailties of their sex than men.[32]

Although nineteenth-century society may not have been as harsh on "dishonored" women as sources or "ideals" seem to imply, rigid attitudes about female chastity and the acceptance of a double standard probably had a role in causing some seduced women to enter prostitution. Many of these women may have believed prostitution to be the most "appropriate" occupation available to them because they internalized the feelings of guilt and shame expressed by society in comments or actions that indicated they had been "ruined" or "dishonored." Current research indicates that sexual experience, even a terribly traumatic experience, might also indicate to a young woman that "regardless of her other attributes, she can serve as a sexual partner should she wish to," thus establishing prostitution as a possible option for an occupation.[33] Therefore, though seduction and entrapment most likely did not directly create as many prostitutes as contemporary literature would suggest, the seduction experience and the response of others to that experience may have led some women to reevaluate their opportunities and limitations in life, thereby influencing decisions to become prostitutes.

Another way in which women, as victims of circumstances, were said to be led into prostitution was through unfortunate home lives. Although the home as a secure respite from the harsh world was idealized


in the nineteenth century, and reformers' reports often described in detail longings they were certain prostitutes felt for the lost warmth and love of their families and homes, most reformers also realized that many prostitutes came from domestic situations that were unhappy, strife-ridden, and oppressive to the degree that prostitution seemed a favorable alternative. Often such homes had a single parent or perhaps no parent at all. Among Sanger's interviewees, more than 67 percent had lost their fathers, and almost 62 percent had lost their mothers.[34] Among New York City girls admitted to the Refuge for suspected prostitution, at least 50 percent had lost one or both parents, usually the father, and for the year 1830, the figure was 69 percent. Parental death obviously forced a change in the family structure, and it commonly entailed the loss of the major economic provider, with frequent family impoverishment and a need for girls to go to work at a very young age, often in service, where they were sent away from family and home. As a result, many suffered from loneliness and a lack of love and affection. Mary Jane Box, profiled in Chapter 2, was sent out to service at age seven and spent the next few years at approximately fifty different places of employment, never staying more than a few months at any one. Box was "led astray" at age thirteen, about the time her widowed mother died. Not surprisingly, the young orphaned teenager stated that "it was her passion for company that led her to do as she did, and not the love of money."[35]

Many prostitutes told of abusive and cruel treatment by parents or spouses. Over 8 percent, or 164, of Sanger's interviewees said they became prostitutes because of "ill-treatment of parents, relatives, or husbands." In response to a question about marital status, 103 said they had separated from their husbands because of "ill-usage"; it is not known if these 103 considered the abuse to be the reason they entered prostitution and are included in the 164 who gave ill-treatment as the major cause. Several Refuge girls also told of physical abuse by parents. Mary Power, whose family ran a boarding house, said her parents repeatedly accused her of sleeping with young male boarders and would beat her for it, until she finally decided she could take it no longer and ran away from home. Her plan was to go to New Orleans to earn high wages through what Refuge officials described as a "bad life."[36]

Other prostitutes said they had suffered unhappy home lives because their parents were alcoholic. In Sanger's study, 30 percent said their fathers drank intemperately, and 17 percent said their mothers did.


Refuge records also show alcoholism in many of the young prostitutes' families, with the father's intemperance mentioned twice as often as the mother's.[37]

Another abuse influencing some young women to enter prostitution was described by a Refuge officer as "what the thickest darkness ought always to cover," incest.[38] Mary Ann Ray, who was brought to the House of Refuge because she had been "broadly on the town," was first seduced by her father's brother, and even her father had tried to seduce her. Phebe Huson said her first sexual experience was with her brother when she was between twelve and thirteen.[39]

"Respectable" upbringings also appeared to drive some women to prostitution because their home lives seemed too restrictive. As a general rule, young girls in the nineteenth century were not allowed much independence. Many thought it was dangerous for a young female to travel alone on omnibuses, steamships, or other public transportation, or to be without supervision at public amusements, picnics, or on the streets at night since these were the places it was believed women would be "led astray" or even molested. Although this protectiveness may have reflected a middle-class apprehension, the general acceptance or tolerance of this attitude can be seen in the fact that, under the law, any woman alone on New York City streets at night could be arrested as a prostitute.[40] There were legitimate reasons for parental curbs on personal freedom, but many adolescent girls and single women resented the restrictions. Refuge records indicate generational problems also existed over issues such as parental discipline, strict moral values, and requirements that young working women contribute all or most of their income to the family coffers. Such domestic conflict led some to leave home and support themselves by becoming prostitutes.[41]

A final incentive to leave home and enter prostitution was that the life of a prostitute offered the opportunity to meet new people outside one's family or neighborhood. Some may have hoped that a brief period in prostitution would increase their chances of attracting a husband, either through contacts or savings, which could mean economic security or even upward social mobility.

Although nineteenth-century reformers believed that men were largely responsible for the recruitment or "downfall" of most prostitutes, they recognized that women often had some responsibility also. For the most part this was said to be the work of women who were already in


the profession who had lost all decency and morality. William Sanger believed prostitutes persuaded others to enter the profession because of "a fiendish desire to reduce the virtuous of their own sex to a similar degradation with themselves."[42] Although there is a lack of evidence to support this theory of devious motivation, there is evidence that prostitutes did recruit others. Much to the dismay of reformers, prostitutes usually did not seek out strangers, but rather recruited those closest to them—their daughters, sisters, or friends. Such women appear to have been motivated not by desire for vengeance, as Sanger would have it, but by their sense of the advantages of their trade.

House of Refuge records list several cases of mothers practicing prostitution with their daughters. One such case was that of Charlotte Willis, who was reported to have become a common bawd after leaving the Refuge. Charlotte's father, who ran a boarding house, tried to have her readmitted to the Refuge but was refused. Later the Refuge recorded that Charlotte's "mother has left her husband, took up with another man, keeps a bad house, and the above daughter is one of her sluts." Susan Brown employed two of her daughters in her establishment at Cotlears Hook, and Bridget Mangren's two daughters were prostitutes in her brothel on Worth Street. House of Refuge records also document many cases of sisters working together in prostitution. Julia Decker and her older married sister were arrested by the New York police for being common prostitutes. According to the Refuge journal, the sister had left her "lazy" husband and returned to her former prostitution profession in partnership with Julia. After their arrest, the police released the sister, but Julia, a minor, was committed to the Refuge. In another example of sibling recruitment, the Advocate of Moral Reform reported that a prostitute enticed her sister to join her in New York by sending her a silk dress with a note telling her of the good wages she could make there through prostitution.[43]

Friends, probably more than relatives, were responsible for introducing young girls to "the sporting life." Mary O'Grady was sent to the Refuge by her father for staying a week in a brothel. O'Grady said she had gone there to stay with a friend who had once boarded in her home. She claimed she "did not stay with men" while at the house, but several years later, after being released from the Refuge, she was reported to be a "girl of the town doing as bad as she knows how."[44] Frances Sage and


Delilah Harvey were also friends who entered prostitution together. According to a rambling account in Refuge records, Frances's

first difficulties arose from being induced to attend the chatham Theatre by other girls, by that means she got acquainted with the play actors, who gave her and other young things a general pass, and the actors would stay with them. therefore she increased in ludeness. took board in church st. and also in white st and 3 avenue. was taken up as a girl of the town, and sent here accordingly, I learn from Delilah Harvey . . . that Frances was the first one that caused her to stay with a man.[45]

Another young woman, Sarah Denny, was brought to the police station by the madam of a Church Street brothel who had tried unsuccessfully to persuade young Denny to return home. Denny told police she had been well-treated and happy at home but had received a letter from a friend who described in glowing colors the pleasures and enjoyment of her life of prostitution, so she had come to New York to join her friend in her exciting life.[46]

Sanger's study indicated that seventy-one women, or 3.5 percent, had entered prostitution because they were "persuaded by prostitutes," and an additional eighty-four, over 4 percent, were influenced by "bad company," which probably meant companions who were prostitutes, who frequented places prostitutes might be found, or who observed a more relaxed moral code of conduct. The designation of "bad" companions most likely reflects a value judgment by the interviewers, not the interviewees, and probably represented a woman's close associates or those she considered her friends. Still, a combined total of 7.5 percent in Sanger's study who attributed the cause of their prostitution to the influence of companions or others in the profession does not represent a large percentage of prostitutes. As a secondary cause of entering prostitution, however, the influence of friends and companions probably played a much larger role than Sanger's statistics indicate. If a woman had left home, was abandoned, or was economically destitute and was deciding what to do with her life, the example or encouragement of a prostitute friend or acquaintance might help make prostitution appear to be the best or easiest option. House of Refuge records support this assumption. Intake officers at the Refuge do not appear to have asked directly what caused a girl to begin prostitution, but the "influence" of


friends and associates said to be of questionable character was listed as a contributing factor in the prostitution or suspected prostitution of a majority of the cases of New York City girls who entered the Refuge.[47] Current sociological research also supports these findings. Studies indicate that when a woman is under economic stress and has experienced a change in her life (death of a key family member, divorce, a move, leaving home, a new job), and when this change results in her isolation, the disruption of old relationships, and the loss of her network of social support, then contact with persons in the prostitution business may take on a special significance. If the woman is in a position to observe the life of prostitution, she may see "that prostitutes earn large sums of money, that the occupation is not as dismal and degrading as she may have thought, and that the work provides opportunities for excitement, status, friendship, and perhaps even love."[48]

In cases where seduction, entrapment, unhappy home life, or associates were given as causes of a woman's prostitution, nineteenth-century records usually portray the woman as a victim whose "fall from virtue" was the result of the actions or influence of others. Reformers and investigators preferred and doubtless to a degree encouraged such a portrayal because then the woman's role in the decision to become a prostitute, or the fact that she exercised some element of choice, was obscured. More notable, however, are those cases in which women implied or expressed that their decisions were the result of a willingness to become prostitutes or of their enjoyment of the lifestyle of prostitution, remarks that reformers and commentators tended to neglect. Since such a woman was supposedly a victim, and since a female's sexuality was usually denied, commentators provide no analysis of the fact that a woman may have viewed her decision as a positive one. Some women in the Sanger study expressed their choice positively as a wish to be free from limitations. Nine percent of the women said they entered the profession because of "drink and the desire to drink," 6 percent wanted an "easy life," and 1.5 percent said they were "too idle to work." Prostitution obviously appeared to offer the hours, resources, and opportunities for one better to enjoy life as one wished, and it did not require as much hard work as conventional professions. It was not work at all in the usual sense.[49]

A much larger number, slightly under 26 percent, listed "inclination" as their reason for choosing prostitution. These women may


have given this answer because they thought the interviewers believed them to be "depraved," or the comment may have reflected a prostitute's self image, her notion that she chose an occupation appropriate to her character or nature. It also may have reflected her belief that the profession was one in which she could do well, or that it was one she preferred to the others available. Sanger observed that the response also might mean "a voluntary resort to prostitution in order to gratify the sexual passions" but dismissed this interpretation as implying an "innate depravity, a want of true womanly feeling, which is actually incredible."[50]

The single cause of prostitution that probably influenced more nineteenth-century women than any other was economics. For most commentators, economic influences were interpreted in negative terms—women were forced into prostitution because of destitution and economic need. Sanger's study reinforced this point in its conclusion that over 26 percent of New York's prostitutes at mid-century were in the profession because of "destitution." Yet Sanger's and others' descriptions of many prostitutes' lives as well as information in prostitutes' tax records indicate that there was another side to economic causation. Prostitution had very positive rewards for some women. Many chose the occupation because it offered a better life a more comfortable lifestyle and the means to accumulate savings. Though not all of the women who sought these benefits in prostitution gained them, the possibility of significant economic rewards served as a strong incentive in pulling women into the profession.

Both the positive and negative economic reasons for choosing prostitution become clearer when one considers the limited occupational opportunities and wages available to nineteenth-century women. Nineteenth-century writer Virginia Penny, in How Women Can Make Money , described wages and conditions in traditional female occupations in New York City in the period 1859 to 1861. Penny noted that most of the jobs open to women were over-filled. She argued this was partly because 100,000 New York men were in pursuits well-adapted to women, jobs such as printing and manufacturing. She also noted that, as a rule, a man earned two to three times the salary a woman might earn for the same job. Although Penny described wages and conditions in over five hundred occupations, most women were employed in a small number of skilled and unskilled trades, notably domestic service


and sewing, that had been practiced by working females for several decades. These same limited women's occupations and their inadequate pay had been described by Matthew Carey in the 1830s in Plea for the Poor, and little had changed for working women in the three decades between Carey's and Penny's publications. In some trades, such as shirt-making, women's wages had actually declined in this period.[51]

The two mid-nineteenth-century occupations engaging most New York City laboring women were the sewing trades and domestic service, occupations from which women frequently moved into prostitution. Approximately 49 percent of the prostitutes interviewed by Sanger had been employed as domestic laborers before becoming prostitutes, and another 21 percent had been in the sewing trades. Leaving aside the 25 percent of the interviewees who either had lived at home or had not been employed at all prior to becoming prostitutes, 70 percent of all prostitutes with previous labor-force experience had worked in these two trades.[52] The conditions and wages in needlework and domestic service in the period 1830 through 1870 make clear why women found it so difficult to support themselves in both trades, and why prostitution offered comparatively a good livelihood.

A chronically depressed trade, needlework was oversupplied with semi-skilled women and girls who were forced to accept subsistence or less than subsistence wages. Increasing immigration after 1840, and the transition from hand to machine work after the patent of the sewing machine in 1846, exacerbated the problem of labor oversupply in the sewing trades. Furthermore, women in needlework, like other laborers, had to contend with cycles of depression and periodic unemployment, while inflation reduced the value of their already inadequate wages.[53]

In the 1830s, for example, Carey reported that seamstresses were paid from 6 cents to 12-1/2 cents per shirt; depending on her skill, a shirt-maker could produce about six to nine shirts per week, thus earning 36 cents to $1.12 per week. Writers for the next two decades continued to quote the payment for shirts at 6 cents to 10 cents each, with the best seamstresses making two, or perhaps three shirts per day if they worked from sunrise to midnight. Some women working in overcrowded slum tenements were said to be earning as little as 4 cents a shirt.[54] By the time Penny wrote in the 1860s, women were still earning approximately 6 cents per shirt and, on the average, were making from 75 cents to $1.08 per week. After the Civil War wages dropped even lower. If a woman


had the opportunity to make linen pleated shirts, she might work fifteen to eighteen hours a day for two days in order to make one shirt, but she would get 50 cents for the finer product and consequently could earn as much as $1.50 per week.[55]

Poor wages were not the only source of hardship for shirtmakers. Their long hours left them with little or no free time, and they frequently suffered from poor health and distorted posture as a result of sewing for hour after hour with neck and arms bent forward. Some seamstresses, such as Rosina Townsend, suffered from eyesight problems probably caused by sewing all day and into the night with poor lighting. Fraud and abuse were common; for example, employers might ask two hundred women to make free shirts to demonstrate their skills and then hire only twelve women from the group. Some employers would require a deposit for materials taken home, from which they would then deduct a sum when the shirt was returned, claiming some fault in the work.[56] And sometimes seamstresses were required to give sexual favors in order to keep their jobs.

Shirtmaking was among the worst paid of the needle trades, but the slightly higher wages available for other kinds of sewing were often offset by long periods of seasonal unemployment. Living conditions for all types of seamstresses were usually miserable. Wages did not keep up with rising food prices and rents, forcing many sewing women into confined and depressing quarters, as noted by the New York Tribune in 1845:

These women generally "keep house"—that is, they rent a single room, or perhaps two small rooms, in the upper story of some poor, ill-constructed, unventilated house in a filthy street, constantly kept so by the absence of back yards and the neglect of the street inspector . . .. In these rooms all the processes of cooking, eating, sleeping, washing, working, and living are indiscriminately performed.[57]

Although reportedly many laboring women felt needlework was more respectable than domestic service, household service did not require as much training and thus was a type of employment open to more women. In the 1850s, in one of the poorest areas of New York, the sixth ward, 45 percent of the women under thirty were employed in domestic and personal services. They were usually required to work as much as fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, sleeping in cramped quarters and eating leftover food from the family table. Domestic wages generally were from


$1 to $2 a week, with room and board provided. Many servants complained of long hours, lack of free time, and insulting attitudes on the part of employers' families.[58] A woman with dependent children or others to care for could not live out in domestic service, though she might do housework by the day, earning $3 to $6 a week, virtually all of which went for lodging and food.[59]

Jobs in domestic service were not always easy to get. Because of the oversupply of women laborers, especially after the heavy Irish and German immigration began in the 1840s, there were always more women seeking domestic positions than there were jobs available, and replacement servants were readily available if a woman displeased her employer in any way. As early as 1846, before the influx of the largest groups of immigrants, the New York Tribune reported that at least one thousand women were looking unsuccessfully for employment in household service. By the 1850s, it was estimated that approximately one-fourth of the domestic servants in New York City were constantly out of work.[60]

Even at their best, positions in the sewing trade and domestic service did not provide much financial support or security for a woman. For the average worker, these employments probably did not pay enough for a woman to maintain herself, much less children or dependent adults. Sanger found that 65 percent of the women who had worked before becoming prostitutes had earned between $1 and $2 per week, and 75 percent of those employed had received less than $3 per week.[61]

Such wages were inadequate to support a family. Matthew Carey calculated the annual expenses faced by a woman with two children:[62]

Rent (50¢ per week)


Clothing/shoes for self and children


Fire, candles, soap (6¢ per day)


Food, drink (6¢ per day per person)




Working five days a week, for 18-3/4 cents per day, such a woman would earn $48.94 for the year, resulting in a yearly deficit of $84.66, which had to come from some other source. If the woman had a working husband, Carey calculated, and if expenses were increased only slightly to support a family of four, the husband would need to be earning


approximately twice what his wife was earning, if she continued to be employed, and three times the amount of her salary if she was not.[63]

Carey apparently was calculating expenses for a very poor family living at a minimum subsistence level. The amount he estimated necessary for a person's daily food supply in the late 1830s was 6 cents, and by the 1850s the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor was estimating a necessary minimum of 10 cents a day. Carey also calculated rent at a low 50 cents per week. Other sources from 1830 to 1870 indicate rents were usually higher. Two poor women in 1834 were quoted in the New York Sun as saying they would do almost anything to earn enough to pay their weekly board of $3. (In contrast, Carey estimated an individual needed 92 cents a week for room and board—42 cents for food and 50 cents for rent.) The New York Tribune reported in 1845 that working women usually had to pay at least $1.50 a week for poor accommodations they shared with others, but that some of the filthiest and worst boarding houses charged as little as $1 per week. In the late 1850s a general survey of New York showed that working women paid $1.50 to $3.50 for room and board with washing occasionally provided, but fuel was never included for that sum. Furthermore, the poor often had to pay more for expenses such as fuel because they purchased such necessities by the item instead of in bulk.[64]

Because most laboring women could not hope to command as high a salary as that needed for a family to live "moderately," a woman could only hope she would continue to be completely or partially supported by a parent, spouse, or relative. Otherwise, she would have to seek supplementary income elsewhere. Reformers and charities stressed that they offered assistance and refuge to prevent women from feeling they had no choice but prostitution, but there were limits on this type of help. Rescue homes often would not take a woman if she was pregnant, had a child, was diseased, or seemed "unsuitable," regardless of her great need. Even if a woman met the specifications for admission to the home, strict requirements, daily regimen, and religious training may have made the asylum appear to be more of a punishment than temporary prostitution would be. Furthermore, available public and private charities were not abundant. In 1837, after much publicity concerning the economic plight of the estimated 20,000 poor seamstresses and tailoresses in New York, a benefit evening was held at Hannington's Diorama to raise funds to assist poor needlewomen to keep them from starving or


turning to prostitution. The benefit received much publicity in the daily press, yet the total amount raised for the cause was only $70.65, a sum a single seamstress easily could have earned by prostitution in a few weeks. More established forms of temporary aid were available to the needy through societies such as the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. In the 1850s, the Association estimated that it gave temporary aid to 30 percent of the sewing women of the city. Nevertheless, the AICP's officers calculated there were 195,000 men, women, and children in absolute want in New York City and stated that it would take at least 10 cents a day to supply each with the necessary food. In its role as the disbursing agent of city relief funds appropriated by the Common Council, the AICP expended a total sum of $95,018.47 for the year November 1, 1854, through November 1, 1855, but this amount was $41,500 less than they estimated was required to feed those in absolute need for only one week.[65] Certainly women had reason for doubting that public benevolence could alleviate their destitution.

Thus, when most jobs meant long, hard hours at little pay, when no jobs were available for a woman to fill, or when no friends, relatives, or benevolent groups supplemented inadequate funds, prostitution may have seemed both the easiest and most promising option available. There was always a market for prostitution, and the profession seemed to be convenient because a woman did not have to leave her home and children for long periods of time. It also meant less time on the job than did working in a factory, as a seamstress, or as a domestic. Prostitution especially may have appeared to be an easy alternative or solution for a woman who was being sexually exploited in her job. Those who were expected to extend sexual favors to their employers simply to keep their employment with its meager wage may have decided they might as well be paid for something they were being forced to give away under abusive circumstances.[66]

Some of the women who entered prostitution for economic reasons found that their life situations did not improve—in fact, they sometimes became worse. Though nineteenth-century observers stressing socioeconomic factors pointed to destitution as a cause of prostitution—the only economic alternative left for some women—observers stressing moralistic causes reversed the argument and claimed that destitution and utter debasement often were the results of a woman's choice of a life of


prostitution—the dream of a better life gone afoul. Nineteenth-century sources contain vivid descriptions of extreme cases of prostitutes whose lives were in decline. In the dens and thoroughfares of the Water Street area, these prostitutes were said to have "rot[ted] to death . . . [f]oul, bloated with gin and disease, distorted with suffering and despair, the poor creatures do what they can to hasten their sure doom."[67] For women like these whose lives were tangled in a web of alcoholism, poverty, illness, and despair, or who were at the margin of existence, destitution and degradation may have been the results of prostitution— inevitable results according to moralists. Nonetheless, for women who, for whatever reason, found themselves in society's lowest stratum—both those already working as prostitutes and those contemplating the practice—prostitution served as an opportunity, possibly the only way to earn enough for a daily living.

For a broader group of women with limited economic resources but a narrow range of occupational choices, however, the most compelling reason for choosing prostitution was that it was the most lucrative of the available alternatives. As one prostitute said her aunt once told her, "Every young girl is sitting on her fortune if she only knew it."[68] Little education was necessary for a woman to make comparisons between the income offered by the daily wage in any of the trades open to females and the price being paid for "going to bed" with a man a single time. True, lucrative was a relative term. For some women in low brothels or at the bottom levels of streetwalking, prostitution's wage may have been only a little more than they might earn in another trade. For others, however, it offered not only the opportunity for earning more on a daily or weekly basis but also the possibility of accumulating some money for the future. Either way, a woman's choice of the occupation was often an economically sound decision.

Prostitutes were, of course, paid variously for their services, from those who worked in the finest parlor houses in better neighborhoods to streetwalkers in the poorer wards of the city. Payment of less than $1, however, appears to have been considered low for a New York prostitute's services. Even reformers who worked at the House of Refuge seem to have had some idea of what was a "disgracefully" low price to be paid in the trade. Giving the case history of one of the eighteen-year-old inmates at the Refuge, the intake officer commented that the young


woman had been working as a strumpet "and I judge as low a thing of the kind as we ever had for she would sell herself for a shilling if she could get no more."[69]

Other sources indicate that a woman could generally count on earning quite a bit more than a "shilling" per customer. In calculating the weekly income in a first-class brothel, Sanger estimated that each prostitute probably entertained at least two customers an evening and seldom took in less than $50 a week, suggesting a charge of several dollars per customer. In calculating the average weekly income of all the New York public prostitutes of all classes, Sanger used a figure of $10 per week.[70] In 1847, another source reported that a man could expect his purse to be $5 to $10 lighter if he spent the night in a brothel, and a decade earlier, Mariah Hubbard told Refuge officers that, while practicing prostitution in a Franklin Street brothel, she had earned from $3 to $10 per customer. One of Helen Jewett's patrons once chastised her that she "might be anyone's for $5," an indication that this was probably less than the going rate at her establishment.[71] By the 1870s, sources reported that prostitutes could earn $20 a week in the less fashionable houses, $30 to $40 in middle-class houses, and $150 a week in the finest houses.[72]

A woman who used prostitution to supplement her income from another profession, who practiced it occasionally when other work was not available, or who did not wish to have to share income with a brothel's management, might operate her business out of her own room or might utilize an assignation house. In 1835 Rachael Near said she was being "kept" by a doctor who visited her two times a week and paid her $5 to $7 a night; with additional customers on alternate nights, she sometimes was able to earn $40 to $45 per week.[73] Other women who used assignation houses and private rooms said they earned from $1 to $5 each time they entertained a customer. Sarah Williams, a black prostitute, said she charged all customers a flat fee of $2 and always had plenty of money.[74]

Although these wages indicate that prostitutes could earn more per week than could other laboring women, and dramatically more than unskilled laborers, a prostitute's expenses were higher. Rents in both brothels and assignation boarding houses were more than in regular boarding establishments, though a part-time or independent prostitute might operate out of quarters no different from, or more expensive than, those used by laboring women. Information in newspapers and reform-


ers' records indicates that most prostitutes in the 1830s were paying between $3 and $10 a week for board. The New York Magdalen Society reported that prostitutes in what they ranked as fourth-class houses paid $3 weekly in rent, third-class houses charged $7, second-class houses, $10, and first-class houses, $15 a week.[75] In the 1860s the more established of the lower-class houses were said to be charging $10 a week, middle-class houses $20 to $25 per week, and the higher-class houses $40 to $50 weekly. In addition to these rental costs, prostitutes living in brothels usually had to pay the madam or management a fee for each visitor they entertained.[76]

Because personal attractiveness was an asset in the business, most prostitutes spent more on clothing than did the average woman. Many newspaper accounts of professional prostitutes describe them as "attractively dressed in the latest fashion," although other prostitutes, especially in the cheaper brothels and rougher neighborhoods, were said to look tawdry and cheap. Expenditures for one's appearance included not only clothing but jewelry, perfumes, and hair dressing. Sanger reported that prostitutes in the higher-class brothels were visited daily by hair dressers, a service that cost them $2 to $3 per week.[77] Although a prostitute might have to be prudent in her expenditures on clothing and personal adornment in order to be able to put money aside, her chances of earning more than expenses were greater in prostitution than in alternate work.

Prostitution's high level of business expenses attests to both ample income and a reasonably comfortable standard of living for many women. Even though in most cases those who achieved significant economic and material comfort were either managers or re, sidents of established houses, their lifestyle was visible to surrounding community residents, and their working conditions must have appealed to other women. Many prostitutes began their day at noon and worked from approximately six o'clock until an hour or two after midnight. In brothels, meals and housecleaning were provided, and women often had assistance with dressing and hair arranging. Although laboring women had little leisure time, prostitutes considered being seen at the theater or strolling in the afternoon on Broadway as public exposure helpful in their business as well as enjoyable entertainment. A prostitute's clothing, whether flashy or fashionable, was better than that of other laboring women, and brothels, attractively or ostentatiously furnished, were more comfortable than the crowded attic rooms and damp cellars that


housed the city's poorest workers, male and female.[78] Even the less established prostitutes who worked independently or occasionally may have been able to earn just enough to have some extra necessities and a modicum of free time not available to those females who were trapped in the seemingly unceasing, low-paying labors practiced by most working women.

It is true there were dangers in prostitution for all its practitioners: possible arrest, violence, undesirable company, and disease. Those women who sank to the bottom levels of prostitution usually had these dangers compounded by economic insecurity, additional health problems, discrimination because they were poor, and, thus, limited prospects for improving their lives. But poor women not in prostitution also faced dangers, problems, and limited possibilities in their jobs that may have seemed equal to, or even worse than, those of the least fortunate prostitutes. Laboring women who worked long hours under poor conditions seldom could afford a nutritious diet or medical care, and hence suffered from poor health. Job security was at the whim of an employer, and young working girls had little recourse in the face of employer abuse or cruelty but to run away. In the event of theft at one's place of employment, the burden of proof usually lay on the employee. Consequently, when a poor woman compared the relative wages, hours, conditions, and dangers, prostitution compared very favorably with other professions available to women. More importantly, prostitution offered prospects for improving or enhancing one's economic situation in several ways, including discretionary income above necessary expenses, a long-term higher level of economic comfort, and an opportunity to accumulate savings for the future.

Nineteenth-century reformers often claimed that women went into prostitution in order to have extra funds, or "pin money," to indulge their "love of dress," "love of finery," or "desire to go to immoral places such as the theater." Even though critics may have viewed such desires as moral weaknesses, working women, like the rest of society, commonly wanted to be able to have more goods, better living conditions, and more money to spend on entertainment and themselves. By practicing occasional prostitution in addition to another job, a daughter could make extra cash that could be spent on herself, while her regular wages would continue to help support her parental family.[79]


Prostitution also offered some hope for economic and social mobility and a long-term higher level of economic comfort. Some women hoped to achieve this by meeting better "prospects" for a husband. Whatever the marital disadvantages of prostitution, its practitioners, unlike most other working women, did meet men on the job, and often prostitutes married. Also, some prostitutes raised their standard of living in the trade or even achieved notable economic mobility. If a woman were successful in the profession, her income could rise sharply, and she might accumulate enough capital to set herself up in business, either where she had lived or in a different location with a new identity. Most prostitutes, of course, did not fare so well, but it was one of the few jobs that offered women some possibility of sharing in a "rags to riches" story, or its more reasonable "impoverished to comfortable" variant.

Prostitution also offered some hope for future savings. Insurance against old age or provision for future security was beyond the means of most working people in the nineteenth century. A factory worker or a domestic servant might worry just as much as a prostitute about her physical decline as she aged. In each case, aging could mean a woman would become less "efficient" at what she was doing, leading to a loss of income. But compared to other working women, prostitutes had a greater opportunity to accumulate capital and assets against these threats, and at an earlier age.

Certainly, not all prostitutes achieved one or more of these benefits. Those who made a long-term career of prostitution were most likely to reap its greatest rewards. Nevertheless, the achievement of a small temporary benefit as well as the hope for improved long-term prospects were both encompassed in the positive pull or "dream" that brought women into prostitution on an occasional or a lifetime basis.

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