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As part of its past exhibit “Capitalism by Gaslight: The Shadow Economies of 19th Century America,” the Library Company of Philadelphia has made available online source material that truly titillates, including a guide to Philadelphia brothels from 1849.

Titled  A Guide to the Stranger or Pocket Companion for the Fancy, Containing a List of the Gay Houses and Ladies of Pleasure in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, the century-and-a-half old book is like an old time-y Yelp for prostitutes in Philly. In fact, the writer insists that the guide is meant to save men from the “snares employed by the wily courtezans [sic]” at brothels which were, in today’s parlance, shady.

“With this book in hand,” asserts the anonymous writer, “a man will be enabled to shun those low dens of infamy and disease with which this city abounds, as a true and authentic description of the grade of each house is here briefly given.” Even better is that the bad brothels are designated – just like hotels or restaurants are on today’s social media – with icons for easy understanding.

“Avoid each and every place that is marked with a woeful X,” continues the writer, “as a single visit might be the cause of ruin and disgrace.”

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Throughout the guide, readers are treated to gems like a review of Miss Mary Fisher’s establishment at 3rd and Lombard streets. It appears the writer even has an axe to grind against one of the prostitutes in the otherwise positive review of Fisher’s house, saying “The women at this house – with one exception – are perfectly irresistible; a man will never rue a visit to this beautiful abode of pleasure.” Fisher’s house did not have an X mark near it.

A house that did garner the writer’s ire and X designation, though, was Mary Spicer’s house at 3rd and Race streets. “This woman has been well known for years as a keeper of a house of ill-fame. The house is well-furnished and the girls dress well, but the stranger and wayfaring man must not be deceived by appearances.” While this is purely speculative on our part, we sort of assume women with X’s near their house listings didn’t do something the reviewer wanted (after all, that’s sort of how Yelp works, too.)

It’s clear that anonymous, nasty commentary isn’t anything new in society. And, humanity’s propensity toward vice, whether that includes sex work or drugs or whatever, isn’t new, either.

Says the Library Company, “these illegal forms of commerce were integral to the success of the larger American economy and continue in varied forms today.” The exhibit even has an online “Rogue’s Gallery” for download.

It’s an amazing view into Philadelphia’s history. Obviously, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

About The Author

Contributing columnist

Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His @PhillyWeekly column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” took the 2014 First Place Spotlight Award for weekly newspaper commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists and the 2014 Second Place Award for weekly newspaper commentary in the United States and Canada from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. He also blogs daily for PW on various topics including queer culture and news, mass transit, politics, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, civil liberties, activism, media and everything else Philly.

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