Selling Sex


Few women were prostitutes in America during the Colonial and early Republic eras. Yet even though social mores remained relatively unchanged throughout the 19th century, American cities would come to offer plenty of opportunity for purveyors and purchasers of sex, and the trade thrived.

By the middle of the 19th century, prostitution had become a highly lucrative business. Some girls and young women were unwittingly lured into the profession. Others, widowed or abandoned, turned to prostitution to support themselves and their children. Still others sold their services knowingly and willingly, often on a part-time basis. Prostitution allowed young women (many of them African Americans) a modicum of economic and social independence they could not have had otherwise. Savvy women worked their way up to become successful madams who lived in relative comfort.

Exact figures are impossible to come by because prostitutes tended not to report their income to census takers or admit their occupation to reformers. Many worked in legitimate trades as well – typically as seamstresses, flower sellers, or domestic servants. What is certain, however, is that prostitution remained big business in America’s large cities throughout the 19th century. In New York City, where we have the most reliable figures, about 1.3% of the female population worked in the business before 1850, increasing to over 2% after mid-century. Women between the ages of fifteen and thirty prostituted themselves at much higher rates. By 1855, the estimated total value of the business of prostitution, including alcohol, lodging, entertainment, and services rendered, was over six million dollars, second only to tailoring in cash value and twice as high as the value of printing, brewing, and sawmill establishments combined.

Like other sectors of the shadow economy, brothels depended on the implicit consent of authorities, who rarely made arrests and often frequented prostitutes themselves. This also held true as the sale of sex diversified. With a few notable exceptions, pornographers, abortionists, quack medicine purveyors, and theater operators were rarely prosecuted until the Comstock era, beginning in the early 1870s.