The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

June 3, 2016

The Official Guidebook to Whoredom — New Orleans’ Storyville Blue Book and the Women it Commodified

New Orleans has plenty of prostitutes today, but about a hundred years ago, sex work in this city was legal, zoned, taxed, sponsored and cataloged.  Yes, I said “cataloged,” by which I mean approximately what Land’s End and Fingerhut mean when they say “catalog,” only it’s not snow boots that are for sale but the bodies of women, complete with Zagat-like ratings for the services of each.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New Orleans planned Storyville, a community of whore houses, segregated officially between octoroon “cribs,” where women of color or of mixed racial background sold their bodies, and all-white Maisons de Joie, perhaps the most famous of which was Mahogany Hall, memorialized by Louis Armstrong’s “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Storyville was named for the legislator who suggested its legal codification, reform-minded Alderman Sidney Story.  Women of ill repute were supposed to be confined to a sixteen-block ghetto in the Treme section of town, and the implication of their zoning was not only to restrict the work of prostitutes but also their lives, as women who worked there were supposed to stay within the boundaries set up by the city government for almost any imaginable activity.  It was as if they were under house arrest, only they were expected to continue to work as whores to the benefit of the madams, pimps, and Tom Anderson, mobbed-up cabaret owner and the putative “mayor of Storyville,” who seems to have taken a cut of everybody else’s ill-gotten gains in this district.

storyville whorehouse bedroom

This is where clients could expect to have sex for money, — no visible sign of venereal diseases on those throw pillows.

The city itself of course turned a profit, as it could tax these very lucrative businesses that were kept under a watchful eye.  As one government official remarked about sex-for-hire in New Orleans — “You can make prostitution illegal in New Orleans, but you can’t make it unpopular.”  The city, too, was reaping benefits from the legalized trafficking of women’s bodies, and some men’s bodies, too (there are some references to “fairies” in Storyville, though they are not cataloged like women are), it seems. The only initial concern expressed about Storyville by many city officials was that it should not encourage men of color to sleep with white women, though white men were free to roam the district and purchase anybody’s body at will.

Before the establishment of an official tourist bureau, New Orleans businesses compiled something it called Blue Book, too racy to mail according to federal law, but the City of New Orleans determined could be given out to tourists and thrill-seekers of any kind.  In it, potential whorehouse customers could see a list of women for sale in Storyville, divided between white and black women, and inside, one could see photos and read about the various charms and talents of the women for sale, like they were seat cushions on display at Pottery Barn.

The purported purpose of the sixteen-block ghetto designated for whores was, according to the prose of Blue Book, was first, “to put the stranger on the proper and safe path … free from ‘hold-ups’ and other games,” and perhaps more atrociously, “it regulates the women,” keeping the rest of the city free from women who make a living selling their bodies. The purported purpose was therefore to pen in and legalize the transaction of the prostitute and Jon for the Jon, especially if he were white, but it made the woman a prisoner of a mobbed-up prostitution district.  If the sex worker entered Storyville freely to start work there as a prostitute, the law henceforth could hold her hostage even if she wanted to quit the oldest profession for something new.  It made her subject to pimps like Tom Anderson, madams who might tolerate brutality or cheat women of their wages, and with a smile in Blue Book, she was trapped night after night, day after day, in a Mahogany prison.

blue book prostitute mademoiselle rita walker

Mademoiselle Rita Walker’s Blue Book listing exoticizes her, and the combination of her barefoot dancing and expensive wardrobe make her a spicy commodity.

I do not assume for a minute that all the women in Storyville were there against their will.  Surely some of them, whom men at least called by names of royalty or aristocracy — there was “Queen Gertie” and “Countess Willie” — might have found work in a brothel preferable to other forms of menial labor open to working-class women, and perhaps the work itself was less exploitative than some “legitimate” jobs.  In a world where sexual harassment was frequent and legal, maybe getting paid for sex was better than being used for sex while officially being a washerwoman, nanny, or store clerk.  But the fact that these women couldn’t leave if the city didn’t let them slip by, if the mayor of Storyville did not wink — that made Storyville into a gilded form of convict prostitution.  It was not unlike the situation of sharecroppers just outside of town who might have been menaced by the Klan if they threatened to board a train for New York City in the middle of the sugar cane harvest.  In Storyville and the plantation, just like at the Hotel California, you could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.

And the idea that women were for sale like stoves at Sears — how American a way to hurt people! Capitalism is often subtly ugly when it sells clothes made in factories where workers do not make a living wage, but the clothing itself is lovely.  This, though, was not subtle.  The commerce of the female body is here, and adding insult to injury,  the women in this trade were expected to smile for a photo that advertised them like washboards or shoes.  They were reduced to things, rides at the carnival, adventures — not fully human at all.  I wonder if we remain inured to this kind of commodification of women as pornographic websites speak of parts, not people.  What is voluntary in our day troubles me less than the thousands of underage girls advertised for “outcall massage” in legal classified ads, girls kidnapped, brutalized, and peddled for profit by the mob.

I wonder if we continue to live in a society that could sanction the selling of female flesh while male flesh is mercifully off the auction block these days. Joe Francis has made a wholly disreputable bucket of cash from his disgusting Girls Gone Wild series that convinces women to flash their breasts for his profit.  Women in New Orleans, at least some of them, lift shirts for plastic beads once a year.  Again, I am less troubled by girls lifting shirts than I am boys filming and making bank off of it.  I am not really against whores, ghettoed or not, but I am uncharitable in my views toward Jons and am really totally ready to cut a pimp.  New Orleans places no stigma on what the French call louche.  I particularly take exception to bohemian proclivities expressed by one person that others leech and exploit.

Storyville did not end because of any moral sentiment from the city government of New Orleans.  Rather, the United States military insisted, under the aegis of Woodrow Wilson, who was no whoremonger, that it would be morally and physically unhealthy for soldiers and sailors to catch a boat to World War I through a port town where hookers operated legally.  One may be pretty certain that the president did not consult the soldiers in question about this, but he was adamant.  As a result, Storyville’s interests were less lucrative to New Orleans business and government than a military port contract.  The Mahogany Hall and its neighboring buildings were shuttered, but unsurprisingly, the hooking has continued on the DL to this day. It’s not hard to find a prostitute for sale in New Orleans in the twenty-first century, but it is hard to find a published catalog of them, and the city has ceased to sanction anything they do officially.  There are no doubt plenty of cops on the take, plenty of pimps, and plenty of frightened girls who never went wild, who just fell into the hands of abusers. Storyville might be closed, but it is still open in spirit all day and all night in the city that zoned it.

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