An 1849 Guide Lists Philadelphia’s Best Brothels

Haunting Photographs of the Prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans’ Legalized Red Light District, circa 1912

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now often found themselves living alone in urban centers, away from family and unrestricted by the increasingly outdated apprenticeship model of employment.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.

1849 Philadelphia Brothels Guide 1849 Philadelphia Brothels Guide 1849 Philadelphia Brothels Guide 1849 Philadelphia Brothels Guide 1849 Philadelphia Brothels Guide

(Via Slate)

Philadelphia was not only a hotbed of prostitution.  In 1912 New Orleans had a similar area of prostitution in Storyville.

Photos of the Prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans’ Legalized Red Light District, circa 1912

Haunting Photographs of the Prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans’ Legalized Red Light District, circa 1912

First of all, the pictures are unforgettable – photography’s ultimate standard of value. And it’s not hard to see why the trove of glass negatives by a hitherto unknown photographer working in New Orleans in the early years of this century became one of the most admired recoveries in photography’s widening, ever incomplete history.

E. J. Bellocq (1873–1949) was an American professional photographer who worked in New Orleans during the early 20th century. Following his death in 1949, eighty-nine glass plate negatives of portraits of female prostitutes from New Orleans’ Storyville district were found in his desk. All of the images were taken circa 1912. Photographer Lee Friedlander acquired them and made contact prints of the 8 x 10 negatives on the same gold toned printing-out paper that Bellocq used in his rare prints. Friedlander is credited with salvaging and promoting the work. The mystery surrounding the photographs and the personality of E.J. Bellocq is furthered by the fact that many of the plates were cracked, scratched, or damaged at the time when Friedlander acquired them.

Haunting Photographs of the Prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans’ Legalized Red Light District, circa 1912 Haunting Photographs of the Prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans’ Legalized Red Light District, circa 1912