Ye Olde Red Light District: Prostitution in Colonial America


I love visiting historic villages. I like the reproductions of houses with their provincial dirt floors and low ceilings. The town square with the stocks and wandering goats. It's nice being thrust back in time and seeing firsthand how our forefathers spent their days.

But if you're wondering how they spent their nights, you may not get that information on the guided walking tour. And that's why I was amused to read Slate's take on Sex Shops in Colonial America. Writer Brian Palmer exposes prostitution in colonial America: the tricks of the trade and the punishment for the purveyor. Did you know that Philadelphia's early red light district was called "Hell Town"? Me, neither. Or that Revolutionary War soldiers took unauthorized leave to New York's "Holy Ground"? In colonial Williamsburg, the term was supposedly disorderly houses. Keep in mind that London was rife with prostitutes, but they were a bit harder to come by in the more austere American colonies. Taverns and theaters were good places to hit up if men were looking for willing women. Brothels were especially prevalent in seaside towns such as Charleston, S.C., and Newport, R.I. Most prostitutes worked by word-of-mouth recommendations. Interestingly, they were hardly ever punished. If they were, the sentence was a rather scarlet letterlike public display of oneself in Puritan-controlled areas. The clientele usually escaped with their reputations unscathed. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, openly confessed that he got it on with "strumpets."

I wonder when attitudes shifted. Today, if a major public figure's dalliance with prostitutes is exposed, his stock goes way down. Are modern Americans more puritanical than the colonists? Your thoughts in the comments section below.

For more on the American colonies, read these articles: Who was America's first murderer? American Colonial Life Were the American colonists drugged during the Salem witchcraft trial?