Blue Books and Brothels: Storyville and the Legislation of Morality

A while back I met with a gentleman, and one of the topics that came up in conversation was New Orleans’s “sordid” history–namely, the period from 1897-1917 when the city set up Storyville, a red light district where prostitution was legal.

We discussed my fascination with E. J. Bellocq, a photographer working at that time who, despite earning a living photographing (among other relatively mundane things) Catholic school students’ school pictures, was drawn to the…less wholesome side of New Orleans in his art.  He is now best known for his Storyville Portraits, a collection of photographs of Storyville prostitutes taken around 1912, just five years before Storyville was shut down. These pictures weren’t found until after his death, but they’re wildly popular now–so much so that they have completely overshadowed his other work, such as his photos of the opium dens in what was then New Orleans’s Chinatown (now the CBD).

Clara Miller of Mahogany Hall, Prostitute in New Orleans's Storyville
Anyway, a couple days later, after he’d left town, I got an email from him with a link to this site.  It’s a fun little site with lots of info, but I think the most interesting thing about it is the collection of photographs of Blue Books.  Blue Books were basically guides to Storyvile–like the of paper.

It’s striking how similar the Blue Books are to the advertising methods used in the industry today.  Look at Clara Miller’s ad–her main selling points are her lovely disposition, her worldly (she’s traveled to Europe) yet relateable (she’s a local girl born near Baton Rouge) personal history, and her eagerness to please (she “can sit up all night if necessary”).  And of course, she’s a beautiful octaroon.  Sounds a lot like an elite professional companion, seeking extended dates, no?

I love the intro, in which the publishers swear that the listings contained in the book are truthful representations of the ladies and services they advertise.  “This book contains nothing but Facts,” they write.  Oh, I wonder how many men were duped by the ol’ bait-and-switch back then.  The predominant business structure in Storyville was the brothel arrangement, where several women worked in a house under a single owner/employer. It was basically the equivalent to today’s agencies. And the brothel owners (Madams) could really submit whatever information, real or false, they believed would attract customers (is this sounding familiar yet?).  I hope they made sure the girls had a chance to read the ads first!

And on that topic, what of the bait-and-switch?  Back then, since the business was legal, I guess situations like that one were much less problematic–it was just a matter of the gentleman saying, “No, thank you, that’s not what I was expecting,” and moving on to the next available lady that struck his fancy.

And what of brothels?  There weren’t really any “independent escorts” in those days; women worked for business owners, who charged them a fee for the room, the advertising, security, etc. (again, like an agency).  This is one of the reasons I’m against “legalizing” sex work–once there are strict regulations, we basically lose all control over how and where we work, and what we do with our own bodies.  Look at the situation in Nevada.  Sure, the brothels are legal, but the women working in them are dehumanized to the point that they are simply equipment, and the laws are such that the person who benefits most from their work is the employer (brothel owner).  The women are not permitted to leave the property (?!????!!!!!??), they are subjected to–and charged for–weekly medical exams*, they must pay rent, a flat grocery fee (regardless of what they eat), and several other miscellaneous fees for services and items they are forced to buy, and they are forced to directly compete with the women they must work and live with for the duration of their stay.  And before they receive their paychecks, the employer takes (from what I understand) about half of their earnings.

*I am 100% supportive of frequent health checks, but I’m not supportive of treating grown adults like children by shuttling them in a bus to a clinic every week for invasive tests that they must pay for, and then reviewing their medical information before they even have a chance to see it.

To me, decriminalization is a much better option.  Let’s allow consenting adults to make their own decisions about who and what they do in the bedroom, shall we?  And then maybe people won’t have to hide, and there will be legal recourse for providers who are assaulted, or for clients who are set up and robbed.  Imagine how much healthier and safer the sex industry would be if crime victims didn’t have to fear being arrested after calling the police for help?

It sounds infinitely less barbaric than socially and physically isolating women who would like to provide a service in exchange for pay by busing them out to a ranch in the middle of the desert to hide their sordid shamefulness from “polite” society.  I mean, come on, the prostitutes working in Storyville were required to live in the district too, but that that was 100 years ago, and at least Storyville was just outside the French Quarter.

Blue Book, guide to Storyville, red light district in New Orleans

Well, I could sit here all day commenting on these ads and rambling on about how the more things change, the more they stay the same, but I would only really be entertaining myself, lol.

Anyway, fascinating stuff.  Check out the link to the Blue Books on the website if you have a minute.

Update as of 3/2017:

I’ve recently come across the writings of Missy Mariposa, a former independent escort-turned-legal brothel worker at Sheri’s Ranch. Her experience at Sheri’s Ranch has been overwhelmingly positive, and doesn’t resemble the restrictive and exploitative environment I imagined. I fully admit my image of brothel work was based on a couple episodes of a reality show I saw way back when, and a few descriptions I had read by workers at another legal brothel in Nevada (not Sheri’s Ranch). Missy has fully embraced brothel work, and she explains why in this post: Why I hung up my heels as an independent and embrace the brothel. Color me enlightened!

4 Replies to “Blue Books and Brothels: Storyville and the Legislation of Morality”

  1. Annie,
    We know each other and I wish I’d known of your interests. I have “history” i guess you could say with the period(which went on decades after in other mansions) and have been collecting blue books, photographs, Sunday Sun Prints, tokens, and most anything i come across from the area.
    Ive recently relocated(never thought id leave) for a job that was just too good for me and my family and it is hard to explain how different it is. We know there we are different but we dont realize how much.
    A shame that something that was once an industry run by women, worked by women who needed to be cared for and understood the power in their profession which was full and rich is now a pimp run, forced labor, industry that is almost as blank as the stare from the eyes of someone dead. No life in it anymore. Well there are exceptions(cough cough) and I almost feel like those that know the glory and grace of the indulgent and depraved should educate and lead.

    “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense” We are not gone.

    1. First, I think it’s dangerous to over-glamorize the past. Women didn’t even have the right to vote back then! Also, I am not in favor of legalization, as it is not conducive to independent sex work. With legalization, many, many people profit who are NOT doing the work, and the actual workers’ rights are curtailed in favor of the interests of managers, brothel owners, clients, special interest groups, anyone who has a vested interest in selling licenses and collecting personal info from the worker, etc.

      Decriminalization, on the other hand, simply says, “it’s no longer illegal.” I believe this is the safest and most ethical way to approach the situation. The government has no business in the bedrooms of two consenting adults, regardless of what they’re doing with their bodies and why.

      “A shame that something that was once an industry run by women, worked by women who needed to be cared for and understood the power in their profession which was full and rich is now a pimp run, forced labor, industry that is almost as blank as the stare from the eyes of someone dead. No life in it anymore.”

      I’m not sure where you’re getting that from. No offense, but it sounds like a mishmash of rescue-industry cliches. This industry is alive and well with people who do sex work by choice, and are activists for the rights of sex workers everywhere. This is NOT a forced labor industry in the U.S. The numbers you hear in the media (millions of women forced into prostitution every year, etc.) originate from an old study that attempted to estimate how many women are at risk of being sex trafficking victims–a study which counted “living in neighborhoods where rap music is popular” as a risk factor. It’s an imaginary number that the government, law enforcement, and the media use as an excuse to arrest sex workers and keep sex work criminalized. And as long as we have a for-profit prison industry, it’s going to be hard to change that.

      Also, please don’t use the “empty shell” trope when speaking about sex workers. We’re not dead, we’re not empty shells, most of us don’t have blank stares, etc. etc. etc. We’re people with feelings and goals and interests and friends and family and lives and favorite TV shows and ice cream flavors and vices and hobbies and stories and wishes and dreams and…just please don’t reduce us to a Law & Order: SVU cliche.

      Check out these sex worker-run organizations (these are only a few; we’re a worldwide movement now!):


      (And that’s just the NOLA branch of a national organization. There are several chapters across the country.)

      FIRST: Decriminalize Sex Work Now

      APNSW (Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers)

      (They came up with my favorite slogan to date, which I think sums up my attitude toward the idea that sex workers need to be “rehab-ed”: “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights.”

      Scarlett Alliance (Australia)

      Sex Professionals of Canada

      Most of us do not have “pimps,” but of course, some of us work for someone else. “Pimp” is a loaded term with racist connotations, so I try not to use it, and I’ve pretty much phased it out of my vocabulary. What is a “pimp” anyway? Someone who finds business and facilitates it for a sex worker? And what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that the same thing an “agency” (usually just one person answering a phone and setting up appointments) does? Maybe we should listen to a sex worker explain it to us:Who’s Your Man

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!!


  2. I came across your page. .. researching Storyville. You articulated my feelings exactly. Our government needs to stop legislating morality. ITS ironic a woman can choose to have an abortion because it’s her body. But yet we can’t be free to engage v in voluntary sex acts just because the government dictates.

    1. Hey Alaina,

      Thanks so much for commenting. Glad we’re on the same page, so to speak. There’s a growing sex workers’ rights movement nowadays (the decriminalization of sex work was even a topic at Amnesty International’s 2014 Human Rights Conference a few days ago!). Here in New Orleans we have SWOP-NOLA, our local chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project.. If there’s an organization advocating for sex workers’ rights in your area, I’m sure they’d appreciate it if you showed your support!

      <3 Annie

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