Introduction

Come. Follow us as we delve deep into the annals of American History. Our journey, here, takes us deep into the dark heart of New Orleans, circa turn of the 20th century. We will travel through time and space to arrive at the South Station Depot, Basin St., New Orleans. This is our point entry into the quixotic world of Storyville.

Storyville, or the Tenderloin as it was commonly referred to, was the first legalized prostitution area in New Orleans. Established by Alderman Sidney Story (hence its name) in 1897 it attempted to restrict the area within which “Lewd and Abandoned Women,” i.e. prostitutes, could take up residence and ply their trade. It was a novel solution to an age-old problem that, across the country, had been “tacitly tolerated, relatively undisturbed, but tightly woven into a web of payoffs and corruption[1].”

Storyville fits within the larger picture of a changing nation during the progressive era. Prior to about the 1880s, de facto prostitution zones existed in every major American city; almost considered a necessary evil to fulfill men’s immoral and lascivious appetite[2]. However, as the landscape of America changed post-industrialization, so too would views of the immoral profession.

 From 1860 to 1910 large American cities increased in population seven-fold. By 1910, almost half of all Americans were city-dwellers[3]. Mark Connelly points out, “between the closing of the landed frontier in 1890 and the end of World War 1, the United States was transformed from a predominantly rural-minded, decentralized, principally Anglo-Saxon, production-oriented and morally absolutist society to a predominantly urban, centralized, multi-ethnic, consumption-oriented, secular, and relativist society[4].” Naturally, a new evaluation of prostitution emerged in this period; one that Connelly says regarded it as the new code word for a wide range of anxieties engendered by the great social and cultural changes of the late 19th century.

It is within this backframe that we find our Storyville. Storyville is unique in that it is the only boundaried domain in which we can actually examine the make up of the prostitution community. Here, we can take production out of the equation, thus limiting our reliance on Marxist economic determinism and allowing, in turn, for a clearer picture of how a community’s social structure/hierarchy was necessarily defined in the South by the constructs of race and nationality. Gender, too, plays a critical but very unique role in determining one’s social value within Storyville.

We must keep in mind through out our journey that Storyville is a boundaried and symbolic domain[5]. Here was an area specifically demarcated for vice. Police corruption ran rampant and we can safely say the normal rules and regulations behin a society’s underpinning did not apply to Storyville social structure. Nevertheless, one clearly emerged and as we investigate Storyville, we will 1) try to understand how and why race and nationality played a determining factor in one’s social positioning and 2) how traditional gender roles are inverted. We will ask what both of these things say about the larger question of turn-of-the-century American values and, precisely, what fears and anxieties Storyville’s community may reflect.

 

 

 

A Note on Our Method

We derive our method from the theoretical work of the new social historians.[6] We stress the importance of this “bottom-up” approach; one which relies upon personal testimony in order to see the real effects of the structural factors at work within Storyville. We combine this with an interest in statistical analyses of the 1900 / 1910 censuses and civil legislation to provide us a more macro view to complement our micro approach.[7] We purposefully restrict the focus of our inquiry to an historical issue with a defined focus, in part because we wish to emphasize these personal dimensions within our historical experience. Our ultimate goal is to explore the hierarchy of Storyville and the internal contradictions that exist within this inverted system. This study is as much about the relationship between gender, class, race, and nationality as it is about Storyville.

 

 


[1] Connelly, Mark Thomas. The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era. UNC Press. Chapel Hill. 1980; pg.3

 

[2] ibid, pg.5

[3] Donovan, Brian. White Slave Crusades: Race, Gender and Anti-Vice Activism: 1887-1917. University of Illinois Press. Urbana and Chicago. 2006; pg.22

 

[4] Connelly, pg. 6

[5] See Tilly, Charles, Peter Stallybrass, and Allon White. "The Politics and Poetics of Transgression." The American Historical Review 93.4 (1988): Print.

 

[6] See Henretta, James. Social History as Lived and Written. The American Historical Review, Vol. 84, no.5 (Dec. 1979) pp. 1293-1322. University of Chicago Press on behalf of the American Historical Society.

 

[7] See Foster, Craig. “Tarnished Angels: Prostitution in Storyville, New Orleans, 1900-1910.” he Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 31.4 (Winter, 1990). pp. 387-397. JSTOR

 

 

Introductory Essay
Introduction