This Guide to the Stranger offered young men visiting Philadelphia guidance in their choice of brothel or “bed house” (where rooms could be rented by the hour, for assignation purposes). The entire text of the 1849 booklet is available here, via the Library Company of Philadelphia.
Historian Rodney Hessinger notes that by the 1840s a culture of “rakes”—male libertines who partook in sex, drink, and fashion—had grown, fed by the new life circumstances of middle-class young men. Members of this demographic now often found themselves living alone in urban centers, away from family and unrestricted by the increasingly outdated apprenticeship model of employment.
In his preface, the author of the Pocket Guide poses as rescuer of his fellow “gay city buck,” warning them away from the dangers of untrustworthy women: “How many hundred men, yes, I may say thousands, are weekly led into the snares employed by the wily courtezans [sic],” the author muses. Referring to the risk of venereal disease or robbery, he warns: “A single visit might be the cause of utter ruin and disgrace.” Often enough, assumptions of untrustworthiness came coupled with racism; “yellow girls” and a madam who had “had connection with the lowest negro” provoked the author’s sarcasm and scorn.
The houses in the Pocket Guide were located in Philadelphia’s waterfront area; along the South Street corridor, where a large population of free black Philadelphians lived; and just west of Washington Square, at the corner of Twelfth and Pine, cheek-by-jowl with the families of working-class and artisan laborers.
Historian Marcia Carlisle points out that the city’s prostitutes didn’t stay confined to the buildings where they conducted their business, soliciting men in public parks and theatres at night and in the business district during the day. It’s funny to imagine an anxious purchaser of the Pocket Guide meeting such a woman, finding out her address, then hastily drawing out the pamphlet and flipping through to find her listing.
Philadelphia was not only a hotbed of prostitution. In 1912 New Orleans had a similar area of prostitution in Storyville.