Historical Sex Work: New Contributions from History and Archaeology

Editors: Kristen R. Fellows, Angela J. Smith, and Anna M. Munns
Publisher: University Press of Florida, 2020. 306 pages.
Reviewer: Thomas A. J. McGinn ǀ March 2022

This collection offers a series of in-depth studies of the material culture and history of female prostitution, and especially of brothels in the United States in the period from 1850 to 1920.  It aims to expand the geographical reach of scrutiny of these subjects while placing the work of historians and archaeologists side-by-side. After an introduction surveying the primary sources (under the rubrics of documents and artifacts) and scholarly literature in both fields, three sections follow, the first on “Law and Spatial Order”, the second on “Illuminating Brothel Diversity: Children and Women of Color”, and a third, “On the Flip Side: Men and Masculinities”.  A conclusion draws connections between the essays and suggests directions for future study.

The immense profitability of the business of prostitution in this period emerges with particular clarity from these essays. Brothels offered outsized returns to elite investors and landlords, supported their neighborhood economies through the purchase of goods and services from local merchants, and often paid generous fines, utility charges, and/or taxes to their municipal governments.  Some madams and pimps were themselves able to accrue impressive fortunes. The same cannot be said of the vast majority of prostitutes, however. While a number of the brothel sites under examination show evidence of a high-end lifestyle, the now-dominant view is that these features were aimed at attracting and entertaining male clients, and were not in principle intended to benefit the prostitutes themselves.

Another theme that courses throughout the volume is that of agency.  Alexander Keim draws an interesting distinction between “strategy”, which in his scheme defined the overall social, economic, and legal constraints under which prostitutes worked, and “tactics”, which in theory allowed them some scope for personal autonomy. The difficulty of making assumptions about the degree of agency enjoyed by those selling sex is suggested by a pair of essays by Penny Petersen and Angela Smith showing that some madams seem to have enjoyed a significant freedom of action that propelled, and was propelled by, their economic success, which says nothing of course about the conditions faced by the women in their charge. The most thought-provoking contribution along these lines is perhaps that of AnneMarie Kooistra examining the career of the Los Angeles über-pimp Tom Savage. The author tentatively suggests that even the most vulnerable among prostitutes might derive greater protection against abusive treatment, as well as more personal independence and economic benefit, from a relatively organized and business-like approach to their exploitation such as that offered by her main subject.

A minority of the essays are devoted to legal matters and public policy toward prostitution in this period. These subjects figure most prominently in the article by Anna Munns on the terminology used regarding criminal charges in Fargo, ND, and that by Ashley Baggett and Carol Bentley on the national hysteria over “White Slavery” and how and why this came to subside in the wake of the passage in 1910 of the federal criminal statute known as the Mann Act. The U.S. had then, as now, no national policy toward prostitution – the Mann Act stands in this sense as an outlier. Partly for this reason, crime and public policy remain areas of vital importance, and one looks forward to continued engagement with these subjects, especially on the local level.

Brothels, ancient or modern, are notoriously difficult to identify from the archaeological record. This fact renders the efforts of contributors to unearth the lived experience of prostitutes in past time so richly rewarding. Two authors, Alexander Keim and Jade Luiz, offer separate, detailed analyses of the remains of a nineteenth-century privy servicing a brothel in the North End of Boston. What makes their results especially compelling is that the site itself no longer exists, and not just on any map: the building has been buried under the construction of the famous 1990s Central Artery project, popularly known as the “Big Dig”, so that even its ruins have perished. It is impossible not to admire the resourcefulness of Kristen Fellows, who, when denied permission to conduct an adequate excavation of the remains of a brothel in Fargo, ND, managed to locate a probate inventory of the madam who operated the establishment, Melvina Massey. This document offers a wealth of information, including descriptions of the items, along with their value, found in various rooms, plus a pair of hand-drawn sketches of the building’s two floors, which its founder dubbed the Crystal Palace.

Given these heroic attempts to recover that which all but lies beyond recovery, it is worth mentioning a particular nineteenth-century brothel, for which building still stands. This edifice, built as a venue for the sale of sex by the important Minneapolis madam Ida Dorsey, can be found at 212 11th Avenue S, where it functions today as an apartment building. Penny Petersen’s superb analysis of Dorsey’s career shows how she manipulated racial stereotypes in order to market sex with Black prostitutes as exotic, and therefore upscale.

The richly-detailed accounts of the excavation of brothels that characterize this collection reflect a core truth of the experience of the archaeology of prostitution as practiced in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first century United States. A federal statute, known as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, is a driver behind a large proportion of such activity. Its Section 106, as amended, requires consideration of the effects of federally funded projects on properties defined under the law as “historic”. Another key piece of legislation, among other laws and regulations, is the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The need to comply with these rules has prompted a flow of resources supporting an increasing number of excavations in recent decades. Several of these projects have unearthed abundant evidence of prostitution and other clandestine activity. Recent trends have witnessed a widened geographical scope of investigation, embracing urban centers large and small in various parts of the country. The degree of collaboration manifested in this volume between historians and archaeologists would have been impossible just a few decades ago, if only because of a lack of material evidence.

The contingent nature of these campaigns has, to be sure, promoted a certain ad hoc approach. The vast majority of such explorations are launched in more or less immediate anticipation of a government construction project that threatens cultural resources. The dedication of archaeologists, often operating under difficult circumstances, has helped open up a wealth of data to empirical scrutiny, just as historians have done for documentary sources. At the same time, it must be recognized that historical archaeologists working on prostitution have from the start successfully utilized various forms of evidence distinct from the material record itself. This collection represents another leap forward in that well-established tradition.

What do we need now most of all?  More attention to precise and consistent definition is perhaps near the top of the list. The reader might assume from this volume that the only prostitutes working in the U.S. in this period were female, and that the only sex sold was by women to men. While we might agree that it makes sense to treat female prostitution separately from male, an approach that is certainly common in the historiography, some allowance for the existence of the latter might still be made, even, or especially, given the apparent lack of material evidence.

The variety of venues for the sale of sex in the US between 1850 and 1920 is an important theme of the collection, yet more work remains to be done on delineating the relevant categories. “Brothel” is used both as a generic term and for a specific type of location, as the authors assume the existence of a hierarchy of places for the sale of sex, without always clarifying the characteristics of the individual types or their precise relationship to each other. At different points we find different lists, or different versions of the same list. For example, one encounters “brothels, bordellos, and parlor houses” (190), listed just after “cribs, rooms in hotels, saloons, public bawdy houses, brothels, and exclusive parlor houses” (though it is unclear if all of these are intended as types of brothels), as well as “1) parlor houses, 2) bordellos, 3) brothels, and 4) cribs” (237). The categories the contributors place at the top and the bottom of the rankings, namely, parlor houses and cribs, emerge with relative clarity. The difference between bordellos and brothels, as well as the questions of when a saloon might also function as a brothel and whether female boarding houses in this period were always and inevitably brothels might benefit from more discussion.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion, based on the evidence presented, that few of those who lived in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were able to harden themselves to write the word “brothel” in a context meant for publication. Instead, euphemisms were the order of the day in contemporary public discourse. We find repeated references in the documentary sources to “bawdy house(s)”, “disorderly house(s)”, and “house(s) of ill fame”. This convention, particularly to the extent that it differs from our own usage, cries out for comment for two reasons. First, these terms are often vague and unhelpful clichés that do not always assist in placing an establishment in the ranks of the hierarchy of establishments thought to exist at this time. Second, their effect, if not also the intent behind their use, was further to marginalize prostitutes. If they cannot be avoided, they might be further qualified.

A similar point arises for the heavily clichéd metaphor “red-light district”. This can bear different meanings in different contexts, and so often emerges as ambiguous, even when accompanied by brief descriptors such as “official” or “informal”. Because of its vagueness, one might be led to question its utility.

One further observation concerns the breadth of reference. The volume focuses strictly on the scholarly literature devoted to the subject within the spatial and temporal limitations given above. This limitation is hardly unreasonable in itself, but represents something of a missed opportunity, in my view. The work of those who study prostitution and especially brothels in other cultures in past time, above all, ancient Greece and Rome, has something perhaps to contribute to our understanding of the period under study.

Among the several signal achievements of this volume must rank the light shed on the phenomenon of the purpose-built brothel. The two madams mentioned above, Ida Dorsey of Minneapolis and Melvina Massey of Fargo, ordered the construction, to their own specifications, of buildings designed to house their businesses. This makes them stand out from the majority of such establishments, which tend to be makeshift in character, insofar as they occupy spaces that were not planned from the start for the sale of sex. Purpose-built brothels are not that numerous in most societies, and yet for this very reason can speak volumes about the function and role of commercial sex in a given context. Here is a site where cultural construction assumes material form and where (male) sexual fantasy becomes flesh.

The category of the purpose-built brothel is one of several subjects that this distinguished collection presents for further investigation. The volume offers abundant testimony to the increasing sophistication of a field within historical archaeology – the study of prostitution and brothels – which is little more than three decades old, and yet is already well-established as an academic discipline. This is a remarkable, even exciting accomplishment in itself, and merits ample recognition. We can be grateful to the contributors, as well as those who have preceded them, for having overcome significant challenges in pursuit of the goal of deepening our knowledge of a subject that remains all too understudied. From its inception, the study of the material record of prostitution has proven the alignment of archaeology and history to be a fertile ground for research.  More importantly, perhaps, these scholars have shed light on the lived experience of individuals whose marginalized status has rendered them underrepresented in the written record. The book should be of interest to archaeologists and social historians of various cultures in past time, including ancient Greece and Rome. One looks forward to greater progress in this vital and intriguing field as it continues to grow.

Thomas A. J. McGinn, Professor of History, Vanderbilt University

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