New Orleans: Prostitution In The Big Easy
While prostitution is illegal here in the U.S., there have been occasions in the past where it was legal in certain cities, including New Orleans. From 1897 through 1917, it was legal for ladies of the evening to openly ply their trade within a designated section of The Big Easy. This red light district was known as Storyville, named for New Orleans alderman Sidney Story, who drafted the legislation. Between 1895 and 1915, guides known as “Blue Books” were provided to Storyville’s visitors; these books, inscribed with the motto: “Order of the Garter: Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense” (Shame to Him Who Evil Thinks), listed the district’s services, including house descriptions, prices, and particular services, as well as the ladies employed at the brothels. The houses ranged from elegant establishments to seedy rooms known as “cribs”.
In 1917, the U.S. government shut down Storyville’s brothels, although New Orleans city officials strongly protested; this was during WWI, and federal government officials believed these houses were a “bad influence”, per the U.S. Secretary of the Navy. Despite this, prostitution continued to flourish within Storyville’s speakeasies and jazz clubs throughout the 1920s. (Speakeasies were secret nightclubs where alcohol was served; during the 1920s, alcohol had been banned throughout the U.S. This era was known as Prohibition).
A few years ago, I purchased “Storyville Portraits”, a fascinating book containing the pictures of New Orleans prostitutes taken by photographer E.J. Bellocq circa 1912. Very little is known about Bellocq other than his profession as a commercial photographer.
Some of the prostitutes who posed for Bellocq were dressed in formal evening attire, some were naked, some were clad in their undergarments. He had developed a comfortable rapport with these ladies and allowed them to pose any way they wished.
Bellocq’s beautiful and haunting photos provided the inspiration for Louis Malle’s 1978 film “Pretty Baby”.
While a few of the photos might be considered a bit risqué by some, they are not exploitative, and in fact, depict a loving and even somewhat poignant view of ladies of the evening in a more innocent and gracious era.
– Marie Brown (Silky)