Although brothels and prostitution have been around since the dawn of time, they enjoyed a sustained period of growth—a golden age, if you will—throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the New World of America.
There are many indirect consequences and outright bizarre facts as a result of the brothel’s popularity during this time. And some of them are not the first thing that might come to mind when thinking of so-called “houses of ill repute.”
10. It Was Often (And Bizarrely) The Better Option For Women
Back then, women had no legal right to property and only minimal opportunities for employment in grueling factories or in the service of wealthy families. (Neither paid very well.) So working as a prostitute, particularly in a brothel, was often the preferable option, and certainly one that made the most financial sense.
Not only were these prostitutes guaranteed a roof over their heads, but they also earned more money in a day or evening than ladies working in a factory made in an entire week. In addition, the prostitutes had independence that other women simply did not have at the time, even though it wasn’t recognized legally.
In fact, it wasn’t at all unheard-of for these women to accumulate enough wealth to own substantial amounts of land. Particularly in the western United States, some even funded industrial building and irrigation projects. In short, women working as prostitutes in 19th-century America were among some of the highest earners and most influential people in the country.
9. Helped Break Down Racial Barriers
As brothels spread—particularly in the southern states—they unintentionally helped to break down racial barriers, if only in a small way.
Although New Orleans, for example, strictly enforced racial segregation in almost all areas of the city, there were no such boundaries in a small block called Storyville, where prostitution and brothels were decriminalized. Not only were black prostitutes available, but there was also more crossing of cultures in general. This occurred with sex workers, those who worked as general staff or club entertainers, and, to a lesser degree, members of the public who used the services available there.
However, it should be noted that this wasn’t a two-way operation. White men were free to choose white or black prostitutes, but black men were permitted to conduct business with black prostitutes only. In fact, although it would appear to be a step in the right direction, arguments have been made that this “one-way” arrangement shows another exercise in control as much as anything else.