Red Light Go! The Red Light District of Old New York

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 (photo via The New York Times)

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 (photo via The New York Times)

During the early 1800′s, the posh shopping and dining neighborhood in downtown Manhattan called SoHo (which stands for SOuth of HOston), enjoyed  its previous heyday as a commercial destination for well-to-do New Yorkers.  By mid-century, however, while Broadway around Prince and Spring Streets remained for some time the “Fifth Avenue” of its day, bordellos began popping up on side streets, and the area soon became New York’s first red light district:

These houses of “ill repute” were often luxurious. Guidebooks told potential customers where to seek their pleasures. Particularly informative listings could be found in the Directory to the Seraglios in New York, published by A Free Loveyer, in 1859:

Miss Clara Gordon
No. 119 Mercer Street
“We cannot too highly recommend this house, the lady herself is a perfect Venus: beautiful, entertaining, and supremely seductive. Her aidesdecamp are really charming and irresistible, and altogether honest and honorable. Miss G. is a great belle, and her mansion is patronized by Southern merchants and planters principally. She is highly accomplished, skillful, and prudent, and sees her visitors are well entertained. Good wines of the most elaborate brands, constantly on hand, and in all, a finer resort cannot be found in the City.”

Mrs. Bailey
No. 76 Greene Street, below Spring
“This quiet and comfortable resort is situated very central, and within a few moments’ walk of Broadway and the principal hotels… Gents must come well recommended or they won’t get in. . . The hostess is an agreeable lady, indued with a tasteful mind. . . Her young ladies behave with much prudence and propriety…”

(Exerpted from: SoHo A Guide by Helene Zucker Seeman and Alanna Siegfried, published by Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., New York, NY Copyright 1978)

The oldest (former) brothel still standing in NYC is at 105 Mercer Street

The oldest (former) brothel still standing in NYC is at 105 Mercer Street

Numerous brothels lined Houston Street and also Mercer Street, where the oldest still-standing (former) house of ill repute can be seen at number 105, now a private home.  Many guidebooks were published for visitors to the area, with Zagat-style reviews, one of which was A Vest Pocket Guide to Brothels in 19th-Century New York for Gentlemen on the Go, published anonymously in 1870 that can be seen in its entirety on the New York Times website.  There were an estimated 500 brothels in New York City at the time of its publication.

After the Civil War, as New York’s commercial and entertainment centers began moving further uptown, to Union Square and then to what is now Times Square, the textile industry began moving into the area and remained until the 1950′s, when the first artists in search of large raw spaces began moving in.  By the 1970′s the galleries had taken over, and by the 1990′s, the galleries had been replaced by retailers.  If history is indeed cyclical, should we soon expect the ladies who lunch to be replaced by ladies of the night?

A page from A Vest Pocket Guide to Brothels in 19th-Century New York for Gentlemen on the Go (1870), in the New York Historical Society archives

 

References:

A Free Loveyer, Directory to the Seraglios in New York, New York: publisher unknown, 1859

Annonymous, A Vest Pocket Guide to Brothels in 19th-Century New York for Gentlemen on the Go.  New York: publisher unknown, 1870.

Siegfried, Alanna, and Helene Z. Seeman. Soho: A Guide. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1978.

 

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