Sex work

By Macayla Baer.

Sex workers, brothels, and the laws regarding them have always been the subjects of urban myths at colleges throughout Pennsylvania. It was because of these myths that I decided to research what, in actuality, the sex industry was like in Allentown during the iron boom from 1865 to 1900. Little archival evidence exists on the subject because sex working was considered an illegal activity. However, using different records, censuses, and directories, I was able to piece together an idea of how the sex industry was viewed as well as how it was handled at the time.

As the iron industry took off in the 1860s, Allentown became prominent nationally, due to the consistently growing population. Allentown experienced rapid urbanization at the time and is therefore comparable to other larger cities along the east coast including New York City and Philadelphia. In those larger cities, although sex work was illegal at the time, it was also very lenient due to its large source of output into the economy (Keire, 2010). I was able to verify this using the Allentown jail records.
Going through the course of about 30 years, there we’re only fifteen or so women and five men who we’re arrest for keeping a brothel, brawdy, or disorderly house. All of these houses involved different levels of illegal activity ranging from sex workers to gambling. Most of the people who we’re charged we’re sentenced to less than two months in prison, and the majority we’re also pardoned early. The sex industry helped the economy of a rising city, and because of that people tended to look the other way about it.

This is exemplified in the census, directories, and jail records, none of the names from the jail records appeared in any of the censuses or directories. This was a huge hint to me that something must have been covered. There was written evidence that these people not only existed, but also came back to Allentown. In fact there was one woman, Sarah Danner, who appear three times in the jail records. I calculated the time between the charges and deduced it was probably the same woman, and she, all three times put Allentown as her returning city. She was not mentioned in any census or directory.

This led me to believe that, like the larger cities at the time, there may have been a creation of a red-light district. Red zones were established so that illegal activity could be contained to certain areas, but the community could still reap the overall economical benefits (Keire, 14). This could explain why everyone in the jail records was left out of the census.

In order to attempt to map out where the red light district was located, I used a couple of factors that we’re common with many sex workers at the time. Figure 1 plots women who were either head of households, boarders, or non-relatives, we’re also never married or divorced, and had and an “unknown” occupation. While these clearly do not define a sex worker, it is a narrower search for them. The map in Figure 1 illustrations a clear lack of data, shown by the small amount of women who fall under the categories. There are also no obvious patterns in the layout of where the women live, providing further evidence for my prediction.

Figure 1. Single/unmarried/divorced women who are either head of household, boarders, or non-relatives, with careers listed as “unknown.”

The sex industry itself was also depicted more often than not as a woman’s choice rather than a victim of circumstance (Branson 2008). Women could choose to go into other industries. It might not have paid as much and was dangerous, but it was not illegal. In fact, as the iron industry began to close, the town tried to expand the silk mills even more so that women would have a place to work. Instead, “hundreds of girls are driven from this valley every year to become harlots’” (Stepenoff, 108). This proved to show that the women honestly thought that prostitution was a valuable enough career to continue. It also linked prostitution with the iron industry. As iron took off, more men moved to Allentown, and as it fell, prostitution went with it.

I found this to be the most interesting because it contrasts so much with today’s view of sex workers. While it is still on the more lenient side of the law, we tend to hold a very negative connotation towards it, rather than looking the other way. I also doubt how many women in the present would continue their life in the industry if they had another option to leave.
While there we’re no catalogs on sex workers and very little archival evidence, what I happened to piece together still gives an accurate view of the sex industry in Allentown. It mostly likely followed its neighboring, larger cities with the creation of a red light district that was left off the map. The leniency at the time would be consistent, as would the explanation for why people would appear and disappear from public census and directories. Prostitution did exist, and apparently, was a valued enough career that many women choose not to leave it, even when they had the opportunity.

Figure 2 depicts the leniency of the sex industry in big cities. Although illegal, they still clearly attract interest from those outside the red-light district looking to wander in.

Figure 2. National Police Gazette A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside.
Figure 2. National Police Gazette A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside.

Works Cited

Branson, Susan. Dangerous to Know: Women, Crime, and Notoriety in the Early Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Keire, Mara L. For Business & Pleasure: Red-light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States, 1890-1933. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Rosen, Ruth. The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Stepenoff, Bonnie. Child Labor in Pennsylvania’s Silk Mills: Protest and Change, 1900-1910. 2nd ed. Vol. 59. State College: Penn State University Press, 1991.