The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era

The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era

The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era

The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era


During the opening decades of the twentieth century, highly visible red-light districts occupied entire sections of many American cities. Prostitution, still euphemistically referred to as the "social evil," became one of the dominant social issues of the progressive era.

Mark Thomas Connelly places the response to prostitution during those years within its complete social and cultural context. He shows how the antiprostitution movement became a focus for many of the anxieties and social tensions of the period. For many, prostitution seemed ominously linked to the changing status of women, the emergence of permissive sexual morals, uncontrolled immigration, the rampant spread of venereal disease, the decline of rural and small-town values, and urban political and moral corruption. Indeed prostitution became a symbol and code word for a host of unsettling issues and social changes.

Connelly probes the complex relationship between prostitution and the other major social issues of the time. He shows that the response to prostitution was ambiguous. It was forward-looking in that it violated a traditional taboo by openly discussing an important aspect of sexual behavior, but it was also one of the last efforts to rebuttress traditional Victorian beliefs about the proper role and position of women in American society.

Combining the techniques of social, cultural, and intellectual history, Connelly interprets every major aspect of his subject: the relationship between prostitution and the issue of independent, mobile women in the cities; the obsession with "clandestine" prostitution; the belief in a direct relationship between prostitution and immigration; the problem of venereal disease; the urban Vice Commission reports on the extent of commercialized sex in the cities; the "white slavery" issue and the belief that a conspiracy was afoot to debauch native American womanhood; and the concern about prostitution in connection with the last great issue of the progressive years, the mobilization for World War I.

The Response ot Prostitution in the Progressive Era shows that great tension, anxiety, and doubt were important aspects of the profound reorientation in American society that gives the progressive era its distinctiveness as a historical period. Connelly reasserts their historical importance in this study of a major social and cutural episode in American history.

Originally published in 1980.


Tonight I saw some of the whore-house district--from the outside, & amateurishly.--An enormously long dance hall, Thalia[,] with a free vaudeville program; a search-spot-calcium light flashing from the rear thru a dusky 100 feet to fall on the twinkling legs of a soubrette. Orchestra of 10-12 pieces, but cracked plaster on the wall behind the stage. Then the lit[e]s turned on for dancing by the great crowd of muckers, soldiers sailors etc. with whores, who couldn't pass beyond the bar by the rail. Announcers & waiters w[ith] eye shades. Whores leaning over the rail coaxing me "Oh you Ginger--long--thin." Free balcony w[ith] drinks. Long line of gallery booths one side. . . . Reg[ular] vaudeville program.--Another dance hall with small stage; whores leaning over swinging gates only.--

Sinclair Lewis, San Francisco, 1909

It was hard for anyone, even the most naive visitor from some provincial hamlet, to miss them. They were known to all, those who cared to know and those who did not, certain streets and certain blocks in certain parts of town. During the first two decades of the twentieth century there was at least one red-light district in virtually every American city with a population over 100,000 and in many of the smaller ones, too. Chicago and New York, as befitted their eminence, had several each.

Many Americans undoubtedly considered prostitution an unfortunate but inevitable part of social relations; it was, after all, hardly a new problem. Thus, during much of the progressive era, urban prostitution was tacitly tolerated, relatively undisturbed, and often tightly woven into a web of payoffs and corruption involving municipal officials, political machines, the police, and others who filled their pockets with the profits that prostitution generated. It was a time when the house of casual pleasure was still almost as much a part of social life as the cocktail lounge is today, when red-light districts were as fundamental a part of the urban scene as cobblestones, trolleys, sweatshops, and tenements. The Tenderloin, the Levee, Storyville, and the Barbary Coast--the famous vice districts in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco . . .

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