From 1897 to 1917, prostitution operated legally in a district of New Orleans known as Storyville. Beautifully produced by the Historic New Orleans Collection, this abundantly illustrated history of turn-of-the-century prostitution offers an unusual and fascinating glimpse into America’s past.
An authoritative, illuminating introduction by librarian and rare books curator Arceneaux explains the significance of Blue Books, directories to the licentious pleasures of Storyville. Addressed to the white, middle-class men who frequented the district, Blue Books were sold at venues such as saloons and barbershops; because of the Comstock Act (1873), material deemed lewd could not be sent through the mail. Without directly mentioning sex, the Blue Books listed and advertised beer houses, speak-easies, and bordellos, providing rosters of madams and prostitutes by name, address, and race: C (colored), W (white), and O (Octoroon, one-eighth black). Some books identified Jewish prostitutes with J; “first class bordellos” rated a star. Advertisements highlighted the brothels’ luxurious features: expensive furniture, pricey paintings, and refined, elegant women eager to offer diversions such as musical entertainment. One madam, “a head-liner among those who keep first-class octoroons,” boasted about her singing ability as well as her “pretty creole damsels.” Warning that not all establishments were reputable, Blue Books aimed to set “the stranger on a proper grade or path as to where to go and be secure.” Advised a 1908 book, “when you go on a ‘lark,’ you’ll know ‘who is who’ and the best place to spend your time and money.” Temptations were many: in that year, for example, the directory listed 697 women to choose from. Along with brothel listings, readers found advertisements for liquor, cigars, and, not surprisingly, so-called cures for venereal diseases, such as “Anti-Crab Lotion” and “Hellmann’s No. 206 Mixture. A sure cure in a short time.” Now extremely fragile, the books have been digitized for examination at the Historic New Orleans Collection website.
Rare and vivid evidence of the thriving business of pleasure.