How Nationality works in Storyville

We have got to remove this evil or this country will not be ruled by the race that is now here. The family life of the white race is at stake in its purity, in its healthfulness, and in its fertility.”

-       Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, 1913 address


            In 1907, the United States Immigration Commission, popularly known as the Dillingham Commission, published its report on the effects of recent immigration.  It was scathing in its depiction of slavery; “the vilest practices are brought there from Continental Europe, and beyond doubt there have come from imported women and their men the most bestial refinements of depravity.”[1] His thoughts were echoed exactly in Abraham Flexner’s study Prostitution in Europe published in 1914. In studying European models of regulation, he concluded that European regulation of the practice had made the “vile evil” an accepted part of daily life and had, adverse to its intention, increased the rate of venereal disease by instilling the myth that clinical methods could prematurely detect VD (at that time, they could not). The study proved extremely popular, leaving millions of Americans of the opinion that there was nothing in Europe’s lax attitudes toward prostitution worth emulating in the United States. [2]

            What is more remarkable than the actual texts is the intense attention and popularity such works of “non-fiction” enjoyed (parentheses a needed addition as both works were highly subjective and opinionated). The theme resonated, as well, in fictitious portrayals of prostitution and, particularly, those stories dealing with white slave trade conspiracy theories. For example, the 1913 film Traffic in Souls, attracted over 30,000 viewers during its debut weekend in New York City, a remarkable number for that era.[3] The crux of the argument was nativist; there was a direct correlation between recent immigration and the uptick in so-called societal evils. Thus, antiprostitution campaigns, which had heretofore been localized issues, gained national prominence and became a rallying cry of the progressive era.[4]


            When we consider the role nationality plays Storyville, keep this nativist sentiment in mind. What we will discover is that the Dillingham commission, Prostitution in Europe, and the 1910 Mann Act (aimed at curbing foreign prostitutes from entering the country) had no real effect on Storyville’s commerce. In fact, what we will learn is these stories were conjured projections, reflecting hysterical fears rather than social realities.

Despite the ongoing backlash against prostitution, Storyville, the nation’s only legal prostitution zone, received little attention. This is curious as reports such as the Dillingham Commission could have obviously benefited from the unique data on social composition Storyville offered as a boundaried zone for prostitutes.

Scholars looking at the 1900 and 1910 censuses reveal that the largest share of prostitutes in Storyville were not from abroad but were actually native Louisianans. [5] This goes against the popular sentiment that prostitution was caused by a foreign invasion. It reveals to us how the antiprostitution campaigns of the progressive simply harked upon misplaced fears as part of a larger nation-building process to purge our country of foreign influences.


Storyville also reveals some other interesting paradoxes about our nation’s nativist dialogue. For example, anti-Semitic campaigns targeting the supposed “Jewish influence” in our nation’s politics had long accused the Jewish communities in New York and Chicago of recruiting immigrant girls and women into lives of prostitution. [6] Nell Kimball points out, though, in Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madame that Jewish girls were very popular among the men in Storyville. There was a prevalent myth that red-haired Jewish girls were more passionate lovers than the average woman[7]. Thus Jewish women were disproportionately represented in Storyville not because of a Jewish conspiracy but simply because of the mechanics of demand-side economics. They even warranted their own section in the blue books, often being separately categorized with a J and labeled as a whole, the “Jew Colony” (see attached image).  Following this model, we can also make similar conclusions based off the price of prostitutes, which often varied according to the girls’ nationality. Of the white prostitutes, eastern and southern European women were the least expense fairly reflecting their place in the larger socioeconomic order.[8] Important to keep in mind is foreign prostitutes only constituted 7% of the prostitute community in 1900. This number doubled to 15% by 1910 still a generally small share and fairly reflecting the foreign population growth in New Orleans over this time period[9]

 The ads and pictures within the blue books often showed off the foreign flair of various brothels.  While low end cribs were spartanly furnished, the higher end Brothels were decorated in the most garrulous of manners to reflect certain themes: the Japanese den, the Turkish den, the Vienna parlor, the American parlor, and etc.[10] Please feel free to glance through the attached pictures to get a sense of these interior design choices.


[1] Connelly, pg.55

[2] ibid, pg.86

[3] Donovan, pg.3

[4] Connelly, pg. 5

[5] Foster, p. 388

[6] Connelly, pp.60-61

[7] Kimball, Nell. Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American. New York. 1970. P.229

[8] Foster, p. 389

[9] ibid. pp. 388-389

[10] Arcenaux, pg. 403

How Nationality works in Storyville