Prostitution in 19th Century America
Compiled by Martha Sledge


Laura Hapke, Girls Who Went Wrong.

Maria Carla Sanchez,  Reforming the World, chapter on prostitution, fiction, and moral reform movements.


Louisa May Alcott, Work, the character of Rachel/Letty

Lillie Devereux Blake, Fettered for Life, (1870s), Rhoda probably had an earlier life as a prostitute.

Ned Buntline, The Mysteries and Miseries of New York

Jennie Collins, Nature’s Aristocracy (1870), writes about how unjust economic and social conditions push poor women into prostitution.  See in chapter 3, “The Soldier’s Wife” and “Comfort and Plenty in Exchange for Virtue,” and in chapter 4, “Wellie’s Fate” and “She Is Not Worth Saving” about such women.

Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

Rebecca Harding Davis, “The Promise of the Dawn.”  Lot is a fascinating character.

Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall, there are prostitutes living on the same street with Ruth Hall.
Fanny Fern, “Sewing Machines,” “A Gotham Reverie,” and other essays.

Hannah W. Foster, The Coquette. Is the fallen woman of related interest?

George Foster, New York by Gas-Light (prostitutes in every essay!)

Margaret Fuller, “Asylum for Discharged Female Convicts” (essay)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Crux” and a number of her short stories deal with prostitution (and particularly the problem of syphilis).

Sutton Griggs, Overshadowed (1901), doesn’t feature a “professional” prostitute, but the character Dolly Smith is a procurer who negotiates between white men and their desired black mistresses.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, Priscilla has often been read as a prostitute.

George Lippard, Quaker City: The Monks of Monk Hall (1845)

Herman Melville, Redburn, Harry Bolton is read as a prostitute.


David Graham Phillip, Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, offers some really complex and interesting depictions of prostitution, both forced (as Susan is kidnapped and awakens to discover that she has been repeatedly raped in a brothel) and prostitution where she is in control.  Phillips’ argument about marriage v. prostitution is interesting next to Sister Carrie!

Susanna Rowson, Charlotte Temple.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851), Cassy and Emmeline have become concubines to Legree.

Walt Whitman, “To a Common Prostitute”

Sarah Winnemucca, Life Among the Piutes, Sarah Winnemucca is accused of and defends herself from charges of prostitution.

In the American Periodical Series database, a search for “prostitutes” limited to poetry turns up scads of “elegies” and other like poems on dying and repentant prostitutes.

19th-c. pulp fiction representations of prostitution:
George Thompson,  The G’hals of Boston; or, Pen and Pencil Sketches of Celebrated Courtezans (1850)
Argus, Norton; or, The Lights and Shades of a Factory Village (1849) available in Wright Amer. Fiction.
Jasper Colfax,  Over the Brink; or, The Peril of Beauty (1869) available in Wright Amer. Fiction.
Charles W. Alexander, Only a Mill Girl! or, Vinnie Roche’s Sad Fate (1879) available in Wright Am. Fiction
Ellen Merton, the Belle of Lowell (1844) avail. in Wright Am. Fict. see pp. 9-10 and others
Matthew H. Smith, Sunshine and Shadow in New York (1868) see chap. “Street-Walkers”

Documentary texts are available in Rosen, The Maimie Papers.


There’s the case of Helen Jewett to look at though that would be journalistic.

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