A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside

A comic titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside

Prostitutes were active all over New York city, [note] ” While three and four story row houses and boarding houses proliferated, a sometimes confusing array of baudy houses appeared. In fact, the distinctions between public brothels, parlor houses, houses of assignation, furnished room houses, and panel houses were often unclear. A house filled exclusively with prostitutes was outwardly indistinguishable from a female run boarding house with a few tenants more ” Gilfoyle 162.[/note] but there were large concentrations in the Tenderloin, in the vicinity of Chatham Square and on the lower east side. [note]Much of the material here is summarized from Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of ErosGilfoyle extracted his data from police records, and notes that his figures are likely underestimated; he limited himself to arrests that specifically cited a ‘disorderly house’ or used a similar phrase for prostitution.[/note] There was very little glamorous about prostitution, though there were streets and neighborhoods that were designed to engage the interests of the wealthiest. These often worked in partnership with opium dens.

One such area was Soubrette Row:

The Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1883, at 1411 Broadway, on the block between West 39th Street and West 40th Street. A second “Soubrette Row” existed on West 39th Street, and it was also scandalous as a place of prostitution. “‘Soubrette Row’ in West Thirty-ninth street is no more,” The Evening World (New York, NY) declared in August 1894. The term “Soubrette Row” was never an official one, and it was rarely used by 1930. Source: Barry Popik

Anthony Comstock got involved:

Although Comstock concentrated on visual forms of “sexual depravity,” on several occasions his moral forays extended to sexual behavior itself.  On one June evening in 1878 Comstock calmly entered a well-known Greene Street brothel. Posing as an ordinary customer he inquired about the house’s “Busy Fleas” performances. Convinced he was in the right place Comstock paid $5 and sat down to relish the evening’s entertainment. Three women thereupon entered the room dancing to the house’s piano music. According to Comstock he attentively watched the three women slowly disrobe and seductively expose themselves to several patrons. Then, to his amazement, they placed their faces and mouths between one another’s legs and lick[ed] or pretend[ed] to lick or suck on one another’s private parts. Expressing disgust,  he arrested the three performers. ….Comstock’s clandestine crusade, however, was not over. He covertly ventured into yet another brothel using the same disguise. This time he observed women putting their heads. in his words, between the legs of one another and their mouths upon the sexual organs or vagina, beer poured upon the vagina of one girl by the other. … Others feigned intercourse with each other and sucked each other[‘s] breasts. Comstock incarcerated everyone in the house.   Source: Gilfoyle. City of Eros 162-63).


I’ve adapted and recast this map from Gilfoyle’s detailed work.

1880 Census

There is also a lot of information available because while prostitution was illegal, prostitutes did not hesitate to tell census workers exactly what they did for a living. I came across an example of this in the 1880 census.

Mary Brown 1880 Census

Mary Brown 1880 Census

If you click on the image you’ll get a larger version of one portion of the official census sheet.  From it you can see that on June 10 in 1880, Henry Davis, census taker, knocked on a door in a tenement building at 101 Forsyth Street on the lower east side and took down information. He recorded one head of household (Mary Brown, 48 years old, originally of Germany) and eight borders. Mary Brown gives her occupation as ‘keeper of a house of ill repute’ while all the borders (women mostly between 18 and 28) call themselves prostitutes. The census tells us that most of them were born in New York, that they are all white, and they can read and write. Compared to other census years the  1880 census doesn’t provide much information, but the map provided above makes some things clearer.

On the lower east side the highest concentration of arrests for prostitution fall east of The Bowery, south of Housten, along Allen and down to Chatham. Mary Brown’s address sits almost in the middle of this area. There seven other households in the building, but none listed prostitutes as residents.

Houses of prostitution were as elaborate as the neighborhood and clientele called for.  There were African-American brothels, Anglo brothels, and black-and-tan brothels that were considered the lowest-of-the-low, because young white women entertained  men of color. There were also houses that focused a specific ethnicity, as in the establishments in the [[French Quarter]], south-east of Washington Square Park.

Judicial System

Gilfoyle examined police documents to establish the distribution of prostitution, but notes that this methodology means that his numbers are conservative.

As in Chapter 2 I included only places and Individuals accused of the specific disorderly-conduct charge of prostitution. Other disorderly-conduct charges I disregarded, although many of the places probably accommodated prostitutes. Consequently, the following maps, tables, and figures for the decades after 1870 are a conservative measure and probably underestimate the level of prostitution in New York .

Gilfoyle 384 chart

A guide to houses no Gentleman would dare to frequent

It’s worth looking closely at Cowan’s 2011 New York Times article on The Gentleman’s Directory, which provides hints on which brothels to visit.


Prostitution 1875 NYC

Prostitution 1875 NYC

Approximate locations of 153 houses of prostitution, circa 1870, as catalogued by “The Gentleman’s Directory,” with some descriptions from the book. (Gilfoyle 1994)
“is presided over by Jenny Mitchell, a very agreeable and entertaining lady, who has 4 highly accomplished young lady boarders,” the Directory asserts. With elaborate furnishings, it is “a first class house.”
on the other hand, is a “second class establishment” where “the landlady and her servants are as sour as her wine.”
Beware the many “well-dressed and comely females … unattended by companions of the other sex,” who can be seen along the boulevard. For these are “Nymphes de Pave” — streetwalkers — who have “robbed many an unsuspecting stranger of his all.”
A large red lamp marks the establishment of Harry Hill, where “an hour cannot be spent more pleasantly.”
A “great resort for sportsmen both of this and of the other country,” where “everything is conducted in a respectable and orderly manner.”
The “bewitching smiles of the fairy-like creatures who devote themselves to the service of Cupid” here “are unrivalled by any of the fine ladies who walk Broadway in silks and satins new.”
“In the short space of six squares, included between Canal and Bleecker streets there are 41 houses containing barrooms, 8 houses of assignation, 22 houses in which furnished rooms are let to girls, and 11 segar stores. With few exceptions, these houses are of the third class.”





  1. “A Doubtful Doctor Arrested.: Anthony Comstock Revives the Annie Plant Malpractice Case.” New York Times 10 June 1879: 3. Print.
  2. “Anthony Comstock’s Work.” New York Times 1883: n. pag. Print.
  3. Bailey, Martha J. “Momma’s Got the Pill: How Anthony Comstock and Griswold v. Connecticut Shaped US Childbearing.” American Economic Review 100.1 (2010): 98–129. Primo. Web.
  4. Bates, Anna Louise. Weeder in the Garden of the Lord : Anthony Comstock’s Life and Career. Lanham, Md: University Press of America, 1995. Print.
  5. Beisel, Nicola Kay. Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America. Princeton University Press, 1998. Print.
  6. Bennett, De Robigne Mortimer. “Anthony Comstock: His Career of Cruelty and Crime.” (1878): n. pag. Print.
  7. Blanchard, Margaret A, and John E Semonche. “Anthony Comstock and His Adversaries: The Mixed Legacy of This Battle for Free Speech.” Communication Law and Policy 11 (2006): 317–366. Print.
  8. Broun, Heywood. Anthony Comstock, Roundsman of the Lord. Trade ed.. New York: A& CBoni, 1927. Print.
  9. Comstock, Anthony. Frauds Exposed: Or, How the People Are Deceived and Robbed, and Youth Corrupted. J. H. Brown, 1880. Web.
  10. —. New York Society for the Prevention of Vice Annual Report. N.p., 1883. Print.
  11. —. The Ninth Annual Report of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. New York: N.p., 1883. Print.
  12. Cowan, Alison Leigh. “A Guide to Houses No Gentleman Would Dare to Frequent.”  The New York Times. 26 Jan. 2011.
  13. Garlson, Allan C. “Comstockery, Contraception, and the Family The Remarkable Achievements of an Anti-Vice Crusader.” Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society n. pag. Print.
  14. Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros : New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. New York, NY; London: WWNorton, 1992. Print.
  15. Heywood, Ezra  Heywood. Free Speech Report of Ezra H. Heywood’s Defense : Before the United States Court in Boston, April 10, 11 and 12, 1883 : Together with Judge Nelson’s Charge to the Jury, Notes of Anthony Comstock’s Career of Cruelty and Crime, Tragic and Comic Incidents in the Malicious, Savage Persecution, Suffered by Moral Scientists Devoted to Social Evolution and Other Interesting Matter. Princeton, Mass: Co-Operative PubCo, 1883. Print. Making of Modern Law : Trials, 1600-1926.
  16. Hill, Marilynn Wood. Their Sisters’ Keepers: Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870. University of California Press, 1993. Web.
  17. Horowitz, H. L. “Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s.” Journal of American history (Bloomington, Ind.) 87.2 (2000): 403–34. Print.
  18. LaMay, Craig L. “America’s Censor: Anthony Comstock and Free Speech.” Communication Law and Policy 19 (1997): 1. Print.
  19. Russell, Thaddeus. A Renegade History of the United States. 1st Free Press hardcover ed. New York: Free Press, 2010. Print.
  20. —. “How 19th Century Prostitutes Were Among the Freest, Wealthiest, Most Educated Women of Their Time.” AlterNet 27 Sept. 2010. AlterNet. Web. 30 Oct. 2015. Note: I don’t agree with the premise but the article is very informative on 19th century prostitution in the U.S. more generally.
  21. “Sharp Practice by Mr. Comstock.: He Procures Another Indictment Against Mrs. Chase It Is Set Aside.” New York Times 11 July 1878: 3. Print.
  22. Silberman, Marsha. “The Perfect Storm: Late Nineteenth-Century Chicago Sex Radicals: Moses Harman, Ida Craddock, Alice Stockham and the Comstock Obscenity Laws.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) (2009): 324–367. Print.
  23. West, Mark I. “The Role of Sexual Repression in Anthony Comstock’s Campaign to Censor Children’s Dime Novels.” Journal of American Culture 22.4 (1999): 45–49. Web.
  24. Wood, Janice Ruth. The Struggle for Free Speech in the United States, 1872-1915: Edward Bliss Foote, Edward Bond Foote, and Anti-Comstock Operations. Routledge, 2011. Print.

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