Some of you might know that one of my personal goals is to never, ever stop learning (this is why I sometimes need to schedule dates around classes I’m taking, even though I’ve finished school). And some of you might also know that I love local history, especially the history of the “adult professions” in New Orleans. I’ve written a bit about the era of Storyville in New Orleans.
Storyville was the red-light district of New Orleans between 1897 and 1917, and it was just across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. Of course, the “ladies of the evening” had been working in that neighborhood long before then, and its closure didn’t stop them–as Martin Behrman famously stated upon learning that the Navy had ordered the district shut down, “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.” Storyville is, of course, a fascinating topic, and it’s a neverending source of subject matter for a variety of stories and films set in New Orleans, both fiction and nonfiction. But it isn’t the end-all be-all, even for its time period. It’s actually just a small part of the story.
New Orleans is a diverse city, and it always has been. In Storyville, white gentlemen could visit white, black, or creole “ladies of the evening” in small rooms they’d rent called “cribs.” But Black men weren’t allowed to visit these ladies Storyville. In fact, Black men in Storyville were usually there to perform as musicians–they weren’t allowed to play, as it were, with the ladies of Storyville, but they could play for them and their clients.
So, what was a Black gentleman to do? Well, just uptown there was a neighborhood called “Black Storyville” where he could find a lady willing to spend a little time with him for a price. It wasn’t technically legal (like it was in Storyville), but officials turned a blind eye.
A sort of Mardi Gras rivalry between the ladies of Storyville and the ladies of Black Storyville developed, and the Baby Dolls tradition grew out of that.
And lucky me! Knowing how much I love local history (especially parts of it that aren’t so well-known), one of my sweet clients bought me a book all about it: The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition, by Kim Marie Vaz of Xavier University of Louisiana and published by LSU Press.
It’s a really fun and fascinating read about a subject most people don’t know much about. Highly recommended to anyone who’s interested in learning more about the history of New Orleans, and much appreciated by me. So thank you–you know who you are ;)