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Journal of the History of Sexuality 12.4 (2003) 575-604

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Prostitution and Moral Reform in the Borderlands:

El Paso, 1890-1920

University of Texas at El Paso

El paso native Owen Payne White eulogized the passing of the frontier in his numerous books and articles about El Paso and the Southwest. For White and authors like C. L. Sonnichsen and H. Gordon Frost, the El Paso of the past was a glorious tribute to gambling, prostitution, and, above all, lawlessness.1 White regretted El Paso's transformation in the last decade of the nineteenth century from "a town of twelve thousand that was about 80 percent adobe, and 92 percent sinners" to "a city of twenty five thousand that was 75 percent brick and only 90 percent sinners." He also bewailed its "descent into obscurity," which occurred when "Civic Pride, and Reform, and Social Consciousness" closed the bordellos and dance halls of the Utah Street red-light district and attempted to end "El Paso's chief industry which of course was sin."2

This case study, circumscribed by time (the Progressive Era) and locale (the El Paso borderlands), examines how national sociopolitical concerns played out in a regional context. During the Progressive Era, coalitions of [End Page 575] diverse and disparate reformers attempted to solve perceived problems within urban industrialized society. These reformers shared a belief that "objective" scientific experts from medicine and the social sciences held answers for a civilization destined to progress. While many groups debated the causes and cures of prostitution, sexuality, and venereal disease, the impulse for reform in sexual matters manifested itself in opposing directions: some sought the regulation and inspection of prostitutes, others the suppression of vice through public education or the abolition of the vice trade by criminalizing it.

Although the road to "progress" was not straight or even narrow, the status of prostitution in the United States in 1890, at the beginning of the Progressive Era, was quite different from what it was after World War I. By 1918, the antiprostitution movement had abolished almost all of the red-light districts in the United States. El Paso, however, continued to have a "Zone of Tolerance" where prostitution flourished through the 1930s.3 Saddled with frontier and borderland traditions, the efforts of El Paso's reformers sputtered to a halt many times. For El Paso's civic leaders, what was "morally correct" was not always economically sound; they had to choose whether to represent El Paso as a "Sin City" or a "Sun City." This case study will compare national sociopolitical trends with the reform impulse that took shape in the El Paso borderlands, focusing specifically on the major reform efforts prior to World War I. It will examine El Paso's attempts to embrace national Progressive views and how proximity to the western frontier and the Mexican border suggested different solutions to the problem of "the social evil."4

Arriving at the "Pass of the North" in 1881, the railroads quickly transformed El Paso from a quiet Mexican village (population 736 in 1880) [End Page 576] into an international trading center and booming metropolis (10,338 residents by 1890), proud of its new image as the "Queen City of the Southwest." Yet, as White recollected, El Paso's boisterous frontier character spurred its tourist trade, for "by 1887, whenever a cattleman, a cowboy, a miner, a prospector, a merchant, a lawyer, or a thief anywhere in Arizona, New Mexico, or West Texas found an extra dollar in his pocket he headed hell-bent to El Paso to get rid of it."5 His destination was the booming and officially sanctioned vice zone known as the Utah Street Reservation.

The first railroad passengers to arrive in El Paso included prostitutes within their ranks. Settling into brothels and one-room cribs along south Utah Street, prostitutes first came under legal scrutiny in 1882 when the city chose to "enforce" sections 49 and 74 of the city charter concerning wanton women by imposing a license...


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