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This chapter traces the expansion of Baltimore’s sex trade and the rise of brothel prostitution over the course of the antebellum period. Although prostitution is often called “the world’s oldest profession,” it resembled a “profession” in urban America only after the 1820s, when rapid changes to the structures of labor and increased mobility created both a supply and a demand for sexual labor beyond the structures of maritime neighborhoods. The sex trade’s geographies shifted toward new centers of business and trade, and labor patterns in the trade changed. In keeping with a broader trend of business specialization and capitalist labor practices, Baltimore’s sex trade came increasingly to revolve around brothels where madams dictated aspects of sex workers’ behavior, extracted surplus value from their labor, and commercialized both sex and intimacy to a much greater degree than before. Women involved in the sex trade adapted their ventures to cater to dominant cultural preferences, from the domestication of courting to the embrace of racially exclusionary labor practices.
This chapter traces the expansion of Baltimore’s sex trade during the Civil War and the reactions of civilian and military authorities to its growth. Baltimore was an occupied city and staging ground for Union troops for much of the war, and the presence of thousands of soldiers in and around the city swelled the demand for commercial sex. As the economic hardships that accompanied war drove more women into sex work, Baltimore’s prostitution trade expanded far beyond its antebellum scale. Prostitution drew the attention of military and civil authorities, who were fearful of the potential the brothels had to undermine military discipline, civilian relations, and the health of soldiers. Baltimore’s brothel keepers managed to keep Union officials at bay by cooperating with their efforts to round up errant troops and providing valuable intelligence gathered from their clients, and many managed to make small fortunes by catering to soldiers. However, the attention the war brought to the violence, disorderliness, and disease-spreading potential of the sex trade would have profound long-term consequences for Baltimore’s sex workers and their enterprises.
This chapter traces how the rise of brothel prostitution embedded commercial sex into the world of urban real estate and urban commercial networks. As a portion of the sex trade moved out of the streets and taverns and into houses, the sex trade became a source of profit for urban real estate investors and speculators. Meanwhile, the conspicuous consumption required to sustain a high-end brothel and the costs associated with maintaining one ensured that money generated by sex work circulated throughout the city and extended its reach far beyond those directly involved in prostitution. Taking up calls by historians to examine the ways that women’s labor contributed to the capitalist economy, this chapter explores the networks of real estate investors, entrepreneurs, laborers, medicine dealers, and proprietors of entertainment establishments who profited from women’s entrepreneurship and sexual labor. Although women were increasingly defined in nineteenth-century America as nonproducing dependents, their labor as sex workers and the commercialized fantasies they created around prostitution contributed in important ways to the urban economy.
This chapter traces the development of the anti-vice and good governance movements that eventually succeeded in securing the closure of Baltimore’s already ailing red-light districts in 1915. The most successful of Baltimore’s anti-vice movements had its origins in evangelical Christianity, but concerns over industrialization, urbanization, and women’s role in the changing economy ensured that it developed a diverse following. Women’s rights organizations, Progressive political reformers, and physician and public health advocates all focused on prostitution as a symbol of the perils of urbanization, economic inequality, and political corruption. The relationship between political reform and anti-vice reform eventually proved to be the most significant one, as reform Democratic and Republican victories in state elections ushered in a period of state support for anti-vice measures. Following the white slavery scare of the 1910s, Maryland’s governor appointed a new Police Board and a state-level anti-vice commission. The combined efforts of the Police Board and the Maryland Vice Commission would ultimately result in the closure of Baltimore’s formerly tolerated brothels.
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