- Bawdy City: Commercial Sex and Regulation in Baltimore, 1790–1915 by Katie M. Hemphill
Adding to a robust literature on nineteenth-century prostitution, Katie M. Hemphill’s monograph tracing the rise and fall of brothel culture in the city of Baltimore breaks ground in several respects. The extensive scope of its chronology, stretching from 1790 to 1915, connects two historiographies more often treated separately: the sporting culture of the antebellum era and the mass entertainment culture of the Progressive era. Bawdy City’s focus on Baltimore also introduces a new geographical setting to a literature that has often centered on a handful of cities, including New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. The presence of significant numbers of enslaved people and free Black people in the city before the Civil War, as well as its growing Black population after the war, make the location especially well chosen for a study that straddles the entire nineteenth century. Hemphill is particularly strong in exploring how shifts in the racial order, pre- and post-emancipation, shaped the state regulation of sex work.
Bawdy City draws both from the court and police records that have provided the rich source base for many studies of prostitution and its regulation and from newspaper collections that have become increasingly searchable in the age of digitization. These sources are complemented with extracts from correspondence and institutional records. The result is a well-rounded treatment that sheds light on the social practices of sex work, its location in the nineteenth-century capitalist economy, and its cultural perception by those involved in the trade, as well as by its critics.
The narrative traces a familiar arc. During the early republic, most white and Black women who engaged in sex work practiced their trade along the city’s wharves, servicing sailors and maritime workers. Hemp-hill situates this labor in the framework of the “makeshift” economy (29). Limited opportunities for women led them to cobble together incomes from a variety of seasonal and casual labor. When the antebellum market revolution expanded the city’s capitalist economy, sex work in Baltimore became professionalized, and brothels emerged as the primary site for this commerce. Prior to the Civil War, Baltimore’s brothels were almost [End Page 500] exclusively white institutions. The state tolerated brothels, which contributed to the market economy by earning money for landlords, liquor distributors, and purveyors of luxury items that madams used to decorate their parlors. Although no laws criminalized the sale of sex, brothel owners and workers were routinely fined as a public nuisance under the common law. The authorities treated prostitution as a communal concern of public immorality.
The Civil War created boom conditions for the brothels, generating demands for a more regulatory approach to sex work that would monitor prostitutes to protect public health. But instead of adopting this European model, Baltimore like other American cities shifted to a geographical form of regulation. White middle-class citizens insisted that sex workers injured their individual property rights to enjoy peaceable neighborhoods. Policing shifted focus to excluding brothels from white neighborhoods and relocating them in emerging Black neighborhoods, populated by the growing influx of emancipated people from the city’s rural hinterlands. The creation of new informal red-light districts in Black neighborhoods opened up the brothel trade to Black sex workers, leading to new economic opportunities for emancipated women and men. Finally, at the end of the nineteenth century, the growing industrial economy led to expanded economic and residential independence for women. A new youth culture of “charity girls” and “sitters”—a unique Baltimore term referring to women who received commissions for sitting with male consumers at saloons and cafés and encouraging them to consume more—reshaped the commercial sexual economy. Sex work underwent a “recasualization of its labor practices” (229). In the early twentieth century, the state clamped down on brothels, and sex work moved out of doors, leading to the rise of pimps as “protectors” of this insecure street trade.
The basic dynamics of...