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This book is a study of the life and work of prostitutes in New York City between 1830 and 1870. During this period the New York City prostitute had to cope with the limited economic, social, and legal options available to women at the time, yet she managed to create a life for herself that, though fraught with difficulties, was open to possibilities. New York prostitution was at a unique juncture in its history during these years because some of the women involved were able to establish a significant degree of control over the business, and because the more fortunate ones were able to reap meaningful economic rewards.

The story of the New York prostitute is not easy to tell; it is filled with ambiguities, ironies, and even contradictions. Were these women's lives characterized by victimization or agency, dependence or independence, constraints or possibilities? There are no simple answers. There were limits to their lives, of course, for like all people, they made their choices in a world, as Marx put it, which they neither made nor controlled. Some prostitutes prospered and lived fruitful lives. Others experienced disappointment and heartbreak. The desire here, therefore, is to avoid talking about these women in any particular category, but to see them as the immensely varied group of human beings they were, drawn together by the way they earned money, whether as a temporary expedient or a long-range commitment.

Recent historians of American prostitution have done much to help us to understand these women within a theoretical framework stressing


gender and class. My own research has led me to put greater emphasis on the role of gender than on class, though certainly the existence of the poor and the increase in New York's foreign-born population during these years were factors that exacerbated class issues and fostered restrictions in people's lives. But "limitations" were a fact for all women where gender largely truncated legal, economic, and social possibilities. In a society where women were subordinate to men, "class" became a function of the gender system, a reflection of the status of the male on whom a woman was dependent or from whom she inherited or was given economic independence. Without a connection to a male, a woman discovered that her socially structured powerlessness almost invariably left her in the lower part of the socioeconomic order. Although the American dream promised that class was not a hard-and-fast designation, upward mobility and economic success were more often bright dreams than achieved realities. And yet, in an environment where feminine and class identities were somewhat fluid, as they were in New York at this time, there were some promising possibilities for women.

Ironically, some of the possibilities offered by prostitution were the result of the profession's dubious socio-legal status. Prostitution's position at the fringes of the law and outside the realm of respectability allowed a woman freedom from many of the restrictions and conventions that circumscribed the activities and opportunities of other females. Furthermore, a successful prostitute gained a degree of economic and social independence from the constraints of a patriarchal, or male-controlled, structure, even though she worked in an occupation that was dependent on a male clientele. Thus, in spite of the limitations dictated by nineteenth-century America's socio-legal system, some prostitutes were able to manipulate the oppressions and dependencies inherent in the system more effectively than many other working or male-supported women, and they succeeded in creating opportunities for improving their lives and the lives of those they cared for.

Though the lives of the majority of nineteenth-century prostitutes have been obscure, there is a surprising array of sources that have helped to recover their history, offering us a deeper understanding of individual prostitutes and hence of their career sisterhood. By piecing together bits of information from contemporary sources such as newspapers, brothel guides, reformers' surveys and reports, along with data from public documents such as tax, census, court, and police records, it is possible


to discern many hitherto unknown dimensions of the prostitutes' private and public lives. One of the most illuminating sources for the present study is a collection of prostitutes' letters not previously cited in other works on nineteenth-century prostitution.

This study considers New York City's prostitutes within a broad historical context. The first chapter discusses social changes in the nineteenth century that caused prostitution to become identified as a major social issue and attempts to determine the magnitude of this "problem" in New York by estimating the number of women who practiced prostitution. The second chapter presents collective and personal profiles that suggest the variety of women who chose the profession. The remaining seven chapters explore both the public and private dimensions of these women's lives. Despite a wide range of personal motives, most women chose prostitution from the limited occupational options available because they wished to provide as well as possible for themselves, their children, and other loved ones. In addition to economic rewards unavailable in other female occupations, prostitution offered social freedoms that traditional employments and familial restrictions did not allow. Prostitutes understood that most people judged their profession unrespectable, but theirs was not an unredeemable status: they might move on to other, respectable occupations, to marriage, and even to wealth.

Officially outside the law, New York's prostitutes were in a vulnerable position, constantly subject to legal harassment and discrimination. Nevertheless, many found that cooperative relationships with fellow citizens and with public officials facilitated their utilization of the workplace, the legal system, and the municipal structure to their advantage. In mid-century New York's rapidly changing urban environment, prostitutes were more often integrated into than ostracized from the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Furthermore, though most prostitutes practiced the trade as an occasional or part-time occupation, many of those who became long-term professional prostitutes were able to achieve economic goals and have managerial experiences that were not generally available to other women at the time.

But to note the ameliorating aspects of the prostitute's life does not negate the dangers and hardships—violence, disease, undesirable company, possible arrest, and incarceration. The degradation and difficulties inherent in the profession, widely recognized at the time, were real.


Only with the emotional support of family and especially close friends within the profession were many prostitutes able to function effectively in their often-difficult working situations.

Prostitutes, like other nineteenth-century women, were mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, lovers, and laborers, and they experienced the common cares, desires, and constraints of women of their time. Like other women with few resources, they had limited opportunities and faced daily difficulties that often necessitated hard and potentially debilitating choices. As women who needed to earn an income in the nation's largest and most dynamic urban center, prostitutes coped or failed to cope, as their personal strengths, weaknesses, and luck dictated, in a world never made easy for them.

This study, of course, owes much to the recent historiography of prostitution. Judith Walkowitz, through her research on nineteenth-century English prostitution, and Ruth Rosen, through her studies on American prostitution, have been instrumental in restructuring the discussion of this topic among historians. Their studies, and the works of others who have followed, have expanded our understanding not only of the lives of the women who chose to be prostitutes but also of the ways in which a society's response to prostitution reflects its social structure and cultural values. New research continues to explore different aspects of prostitution, enlarging both the chronological and geographical perimeters of the topic while offering a broadened perspective on the historical experiences of all women.[1]

Two of the recent works that discuss New York prostitution have been especially provocative for my study. Ruth Rosen's The Lost Sisterhood (1982), a study of prostitution in America's large cities in the early twentieth century, provides a continuation of the story I begin in the nineteenth century. In Rosen's study, the independent prostitution businesses of the mid-nineteenth century which I describe—businesses that were run predominantly by females and offered individual prostitutes a significant degree of freedom within the profession—were replaced in the twentieth century by a more commercialized and rationalized form of prostitution. Rosen's research picks up the thread of the narrative after late-nineteenth-century Tammany politicians incorporated prostitution into their tightly woven network of political-business interests, and control of the sex trade shifted to organized crime syndicates, pimps, and other third-party agents who made a living by


exploiting the prostitutes. Rosen stresses the impact of gender and class biases in creating an environment that drew women into prostitution, allowed their exploitation, and inspired Progressive laws and reforms that were designed to abolish the trade. In spite of increasingly oppressive conditions surrounding the practice of prostitution in this period, however, Rosen emphasizes that prostitutes were making choices about their lives, albeit within a framework of limited and unattractive options. Furthermore, prostitutes were better able to cope with their difficult lives because they were given support, protection, and a sense of self-worth by other women in the subculture of urban prostitution.[2]

Christine Stansell's fine book, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (1987 ), describes how prostitution, especially casual prostitution, was interwoven with other aspects of New York City's working-class culture. Her study, like mine, emphasizes the structured dependencies of women in mid-nineteenth-century New York society: the "large oppressions but small freedoms" of these women, and the "possibilities" that poor women, including prostitutes, "traced out" for themselves, in large part because of networks of support and mutual assistance.[3] Because Stansell focuses on casual and street prostitution, as opposed to the more organized brothel-based forms of the profession, the prostitutes in her study are a part of a more homogeneous class structure than are those in my study.

My study places greater emphasis than do those of other historians on the positive appeal and rewards of prostitution, especially for women better situated in the profession, including long-term career prostitutes. There is some danger in this, as Stansell notes: "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."[4] Of course, one should not "accept easily" positive appraisals of any career as fraught with difficulty, danger, and a potential for degradation as prostitution was, but it is perhaps time that Victorian prejudice ceases to blind us to the human possibilities in the lives of those it deemed fallen, just as we have come to see the human limitations for those women the Victorians declared wholly blessed and fortunate.


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