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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 efforts by Baltimore and its courts to grapple with the expanding prostitution trade in the decades before the Civil War. Initially, local officials and courts attempted to take a suppressive approach to prostitution, in keeping with long-standing common-law precedents that enabled the state to police urban disorder. However, efforts at suppression proved prohibitively taxing on city resources, which prompted the adoption of a bifurcated approach to commercial sex in which the local officials and magistrates continued to punish public prostitution while largely tolerating indoor prostitution. By the 1840s, Baltimore had developed a regulatory approach to the sex trade that was intended to ensure that it remained as contained and orderly as possible. This system continued to function for nearly two decades before a groundbreaking 1857 legal intervention allowed city residents to seek equitable remedies for the presence of brothels in their neighborhoods. The precedent set in Hamilton v. Whitridge would set the stage for the containment of brothels within red-light districts, although it would take the Civil War to usher in that new phase of spatial regulation.
A vivid social history of Baltimore's prostitution trade and its evolution throughout the nineteenth century, Bawdy City centers women in a story of the relationship between sexuality, capitalism, and law. Beginning in the colonial period, prostitution was little more than a subsistence trade. However, by the 1840s, urban growth and changing patterns of household labor ushered in a booming brothel industry. The women who oversaw and labored within these brothels were economic agents surviving and thriving in an urban world hostile to their presence. With the rise of urban leisure industries and policing practices that spelled the end of sex establishments, the industry survived for only a few decades. Yet, even within this brief period, brothels and their residents altered the geographies, economy, and policies of Baltimore in profound ways. Hemphill's critical narrative of gender and labor shows how sexual commerce and debates over its regulation shaped an American city.
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