In the 19th century, parlor house brothels catered to upper class clientele, while bawdy houses catered to the lower class. At concert saloons, men could eat, listen to music, watch a fight, or pay women for sex. Over 200 brothels existed in lower Manhattan. Prostitution was illegal under the vagrancy laws, but was not well-enforced by police and city officials, who were bribed by brothel owners and madams. Attempts to regulate prostitution were struck down on grounds that it is against the public good. Seventy-five percent of New York men had some type of sexually transmitted disease.
The gold rush profits of the 1840s to 1900 attracted gambling, crime, saloons, and prostitution to the mining towns of the wild west. Widespread media coverage of prostitution occurred in 1836, when famous courtesan Helen Jewett was murdered, allegedly by one of her customers. The Lorette ordinance of 1857 prohibited prostitution on the first floor of buildings in New Orleans. Nevertheless, prostitution continued to grow rapidly in the US, becoming a 6.3 million-dollar business in 1858, more than the shipping and brewing industries combined.
By the US Civil War, Pennsylvania Avenue had become a disreputable slum known as Murder Bay, home to an extensive criminal underclass and numerous brothels. So many prostitutes took up residence there to serve the needs of General Joseph Hooker‘s Army of the Potomac that the area became known as “Hooker’s Division.” Two blocks between Pennsylvania and Missouri Avenues became home to such expensive brothels that it was known as “Marble Alley.”
In 1873, Anthony Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public. Comstock successfully influenced the United States Congress to pass the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery or transport of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material and birth control information. In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act of 1875 that made it illegal to transport women into the nation to be used as prostitutes.
In 1881, the Bird Cage Theatre opened in Tombstone, Arizona. It included a brothel in the basement and 14 cribs suspended from the ceiling, called cages. Famous men such as Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Diamond Jim Brady, and George Hearst frequented the establishment.
In the late 19th century, newspapers reported that 65,000 white slaves existed. Around 1890, the term “red-light district” was first recorded in the United States. From 1890 to 1982, the Dumas Brothel in Montana was America’s longest-running house of prostitution.
New Orleans city alderman Sidney Story wrote an ordinance in 1897 to regulate and limit prostitution to one small area of the city, “The District”, where all prostitutes in New Orleans must live and work. The District, or Storyville, became the most famous area for prostitution in the nation. Storyville at its peak had some 1500 prostitutes and 200 brothels.