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Red-Light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States, 1890–1933

Mara L. Keire

Publication Year: 2010

Mara L. Keire’s history of red-light districts in the United States offers readers a fascinating survey of the business of pleasure from the 1890s through the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Anti-vice reformers in the late nineteenth century accepted that complete eradication of disreputable pleasure was impossible. Seeking a way to regulate rather than eliminate prostitution, alcohol, drugs, and gambling, urban reformers confined sites of disreputable pleasure to red-light districts in cities throughout the United States. They dismissed the extremes of prohibitory law and instead sought to limit the impact of vice on city life through realistic restrictive measures. Keire’s thoughtful work examines the popular culture that developed within red-light districts, as well as efforts to contain vice in such cities as New Orleans; Hartford, Connecticut; New York City; Macon, Georgia; San Francisco; and El Paso, Texas. Keire describes the people and practices in red-light districts, reformers' efforts to limit their impact on city life, and the successful closure of the districts during World War I. Her study extends into Prohibition and discusses the various effects that scattering vice and banning alcohol had on commercial nightlife.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Studies in Industry and Society


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p. ix

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pp. xi-xiv

On 29 April 2008, my son, Nathaniel Keire McKenna, was born. Coming five and a half weeks before his due date, Nat was, as my friend Chris Kobrak observed, the first Keire/McKenna to deliver early. Chris’s statement holds particular true for this book. This project took years to complete, and over that time, I wracked up many debts. I owe the most to my academic ‘‘parents,’’ David Musto, Ron Walters, and Dorothy Ross...

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INTRODUCTION: It’s A Wonderful Life: Red-Light Districts and Anti-Vice Reform

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pp. 1-4

In 1947, when director Frank Capra first released his Christmas classic, A Wonderful Life, he impressed neither the film critics nor American audiences.1 Hopelessly anachronistic from its cinematography to its subject, It’s A Wonderful Life seemed more a product of the 1920s than a new film for the postwar era. Indeed, as with another nostalgic classic, The Wizard of Oz, released only eight years earlier, viewers immediately recognized that the movie’s version of small town America had already largely vanished. Although Capra’s sentimental message appeared painfully obvious,...

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CHAPTER 1 Segregating Vice, 1890–1909

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pp. 5-22

Reformers closed the red-light districts, but first they created them. In the 1890s, elite good-government advocates proposed the establishment of vice districts as a way to isolate working-class politicians from their more unsavory constituents. By repudiating the moral extremes of prohibition, the symptomatic focus of social hygiene, and the individualized efforts of rescue work, these Gilded-Age reformers broke with previous anti-vice movements and offered reputational segregation as a pragmatic solution...

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CHAPTER 2 The Sporting World, 1890–1917

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pp. 23-50

Vice districts had a very different impact on urban life than the one the mugwumps first imagined when they proposed reputational segregation as a solution to cities’ social-order problems. After some initial protests, members of the urban machine heartily embraced districting as a method of anti-vice control. Reformers, disillusioned by the machine’s co-option of vice districting, eventually...

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CHAPTER 3 Race, Riots, and Red-Light Districts, 1906–1910

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pp. 51-68

The modern definition of segregation, meaning racial division in society, only emerged in the twentieth century. During the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, Americans called red-light districts ‘‘segregated districts’’ and described the process of localizing vice into delimited neighborhoods as ‘‘segregation.’’1 Segregation’s association with vice districts was so ubiquitous...

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CHAPTER 4 The Vice Trust: A Reinterpretation of the White Slavery Scare, 1907–1917

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pp. 69-88

In the narratives of the white slavery scare, which peaked in the United States between 1910 and 1913, urban reformers intertwined the story of the sexually coerced maiden with a heated condemnation of the business of vice. Although the white slavery scare was an international panic, local reformers gave white slavery narratives local relevance by retelling the standard story in a language...

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CHAPTER 5 The War on Vice, 1910–1919

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pp. 89-113

The economic critique of commercialized vice gave the Progressive era movement its intellectual coherence. It also set its programmatic agenda: closing down the segregated red-light districts found in most cities across the country. To achieve this goal, reformers worked nationally to build an anti-district consensus, but in the seven years before the United States entered the First World War, the...

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CHAPTER 6 The Syndicate: Prohibition and the Rise of Organized Crime, 1919–1933

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pp. 114-135

Neither the sporting class nor anti-vice reform survived World War I intact. Anti-vice reform, which started as a city-based movement to fight urban political corruption, had turned into a national initiative to eliminate brothels and close down red-light districts. With the power of the federal government behind it, the Commission on Training Camp Activities overrode local sentiment and ended a...

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CONCLUSION: Progressivism, Prohibition, and Policy Options

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pp. 136-140

During the 1920s, the Lost Generation ridiculed the ‘‘Puritanism’’ of their parents’ generation, in part for its support of Prohibition. Their characterization, like historian Richard Hofstadter’s influential dismissal of temperance as outside of the mainstream of Progressive reform, unfairly discredited the Progressives and their initiatives.1 The people they ridiculed for endorsing moral reform during the first quarter of the twentieth century had tried an array of options...


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pp. 141-215

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 217-224

This project started out as a history of drug use, but I quickly discovered two things. First, excellent work already existed on drug use. And second, people at the turn of the century, both reformers and users, saw connections between nonmedical drug use andother aspects of urban culture. While historians now see dancing, drinking, gambling,sex, and drug-taking as issues more separate than connected, contemporaries...


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pp. 225-231

E-ISBN-13: 9780801898778
E-ISBN-10: 0801898773
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894138
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894131

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 12 halftones
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Studies in Industry and Society
Series Editor Byline: Philip B. Scranton, Series Editor, Published with the assistance of the Hagley Museum and Library See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 649906432
MUSE Marc Record: Download for For Business and Pleasure

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Subject Headings

  • Vice control -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Prostitution -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Red-light districts -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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