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Foreword I was once digging in the Huntington Research Library in Pasadena for a "history as literature" feature for this magazine. Helped by Paul ZaIl, one of the wizards of that library, I tracked down something that looked promising: the diary of George Washington's personal secretary, written during the first years of the United States after the Revolution, when the government was briefly headquartered in New York. The diary had never been published. The young secretary, Bob Lewis, was Washington's nephew, suggesting that he was trusted and had good access to the first president. Reading it, however, I was both disappointed and fascinated. It seems that when Bob went to his room at night and took out his quill for his private jottings, he wasn't at all interested in Uncle George or Aunt Martha or any of the irksome details of that formative moment of our nation's history. Instead he wrote down very little except for brief descriptions of the madams and bathhouses and brothels he visited. He was young and fresh out of the Virginia countryside, and his absorption in this world was understandable, but a list of prostitutes does not exactly make for rich reading. Yet I did find it interesting that for a young man in the City of New York in the 1780s, it seemed to be quite normal for his social and sexual life to be largely confined to this demimonde. Prostitution in fact heated up as America's Eastern cities burgeoned in size. The period from the 1830s to the 1870s, according to historian Timothy Gilfoyle, was an age of widespread toleration of the money-for-sex industries in cities—including theaters, where sex was sometimes openly practiced, tenement houses, masked balls (which people attended in various stages of undress), "model shows," and burlesque. The number of prostitutes and occasional prostitutes in New York during this period has been estimated at a mind-boggling five to fifteen percent of the female population. A young female who made two or three dollars a week in a laboring job could make ten or more dollars for a single trick. This was of course also a time when women could not sue in court, execute a will or vote, and some took control of their lives however they could. It was the era of a "carnivalized" American culture, when everything went. Guidebooks to houses of prostitution in the guise of "reform" pamplets were sold on street corners. One of the bromides in political commentary these days is that American life suddenly began to get brutal and dangerous starting with the drugs—particularly cocaine—and the gratuitous violence that began coursing through the nation's media starting in the 1960s. In an attempt to find "causes" so that they can make pronouncements, politicians and pundits display the memory of earthworms. They know the smell they're following, but they don't remember a lot about the smells of the past. Violence in America, drugs, prostitution, media excess, pornography, political corruption—none of these things was either invented in the last part of the twentieth century or even particularly notable by comparison with America's past. The use of drugs, for example, has decreased over the course of American history, when one considers that the consumption of alcohol (historically the most widespread abused drug, and one of the most toxic when used to immoderation) has been in decline since the Colonial era. By current standards, Americans used to be a shockingly bibulous and stoned lot. Opium derivatives were available and widely used through much of the nineteenth century; babies were often killed by accidental overdoses of morphine-based patent medicines. Heroin began to be used in injectible form as early as the 1880s. The "snowbird" or cocaine user has been a constant of the American underworld since early in this century. As for intemperance in political dialogue, the scandal-mongering and cheap shots of current politicians look tame by comparison with the extremes of political rhetoric from the Revolution through most of the nineteenth century. Newspapers were associated with parties and causes, and slashing, inflammatory rhetoric was commonplace. Articles brimmed with fierce ad hominem attacks...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 5-10
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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