Abstract

This article examines the historical origins of the term red-light district. It argues that red lights became associated with prostitution in the United States not only because of red’s popularity in the decor of nighttime businesses but also because of color symbolism popularized by the transportation revolution. As red signal lights on railroads came to indicate “stop—danger,” people accustomed to viewing prostitution as a moral and physical threat read that symbolism onto nighttime businesses’ existing practices of display. Meanwhile, places of prostitution that were located near railroad tracks in the American West embraced the red light as a form of advertising. The red light’s simultaneous status as a lure and warning captured ambivalent responses to prostitution. As a result, it became a potent symbol of late nineteenth-century efforts to keep the sex trade at arm’s length while also treating it as ineradicable. When city officials tried to control the harms of prostitution by segregating it, the products of their efforts came to be known as “red-light districts.” Although the term has in some ways transcended its roots, scholars should be conscientious about their use of it given its implicit moralization of both the sex trade and urban space.

In 1920, the United States Public Health Service issued The Case against the Red Light District, a short but scathing pamphlet opposing zones of tolerated prostitution. The pamphlet was little more than a standard social hygiene tract of its time, but its title captured the remarkable rise of a phrase and an idea: the red-light district. Thirty years earlier, red-light district had not yet appeared in print, at least as far as historians know. By 1920, it was so ubiquitous in reform literature, vice commission reports, and the broader vernacular that even the US federal government used it in official writing. Its popularity has continued to this day. It remains the favored English-language means of referring to areas—be they certain blocks, stretches of road, or whole neighborhoods—associated with prostitution and other types of sexual commerce. Although originally a US usage, it has transcended both national and chronological boundaries.

Curiously, for a term that is so widely used in popular culture and historical writing, red-light district seems barely to have a history of its own. Few scholars pay attention to its etymology, perhaps because its meaning is so accepted and its imagery so evocative. Outside academia, the origins of the term and the association between red lights and prostitution have become the stuff of lore, with potential explanations relayed without evidence or citation.

This essay is an attempt to recover the history of red-light district as a term and a concept. At its heart are two interrelated questions. How and why did red lights in the nineteenth-century United States become so strongly associated with sexual commerce that they became a metonym for it? Why did that symbolism eventually give rise to the notion of the red-light district?

As it turns out, the association between red lights and prostitution had complicated roots. Red lights in nineteenth-century America did not start out as symbols of prostitution per se (although the color red has had long-standing and cross-cultural associations with illicit sexuality). Instead, red was a staple color of nighttime businesses in urban America, especially those associated with entertainment and leisure. It was not until the transportation revolution of the latter half of the nineteenth century that red lights became more strongly associated specifically with sexual commerce. The proximity of commercial sex establishments to busy waterways and newly constructed railroad lines consolidated the association between the red lights displayed by nighttime establishments and the red signal lights that meant “stop—danger.” Americans who were already accustomed to viewing prostitution as morally dangerous embraced the symbolism, as did the proprietors of saloons, brothels, and dance halls, who used eye-catching red lights to hail potential clients. For all these social actors, red lights captured the mix of attraction and revulsion that so often characterized reactions to prostitution.

Because of their associations with marking danger, red lights eventually became a symbol of urban reform projects undertaken by city officials, police, and reformers in the 1890s and early twentieth century. The phrase red-light district dates to the 1890s, when Americans experimented with consolidating vice so that it might be made legible and therefore avoidable. At the time of its creation, the red-light district emblematized an early Progressive Era determination to delineate the undesirable from the desirable urban landscape. The red light captured multiple, sometimes conflicting sentiments toward prostitution. Gradually red-light district transformed into a floating signifier capable of describing any area of a city associated with concentrations of sexual commerce, regardless of how those concentrations came to exist or what types of commerce they encompassed.

The Red Light as Emblem of Commercial Sex

No one seems to know for certain how red lights became associated with prostitution, but this is not for any lack of speculation on the subject. Theories circulate on the internet, while popular histories posit a variety of origin stories, from sex workers in early European ports carrying red lanterns to conceal the skin damage of syphilis on their faces to miners leaving their red lanterns outside brothels.1 In the United States, where the first known print usage of the phrase red-light district appeared in 1893, the most popular explanation highlights a variant of the miners’ lights story and is situated in the railroad towns of the emerging American West.2 As this version goes, brakemen who worked on the rails would visit one-room cribs for sex and leave their red signal lanterns outside the door to mark the house as occupied or to allow their employers to locate them. The lanterns became such a familiar sight that red light eventually became a metonym for an establishment where sex was for sale.3

Interestingly, this railroad story contains a kernel of truth even as it obscures a longer and more complex history of red’s association with commercial sex and with the nighttime economy. In the United States, the practice of displaying a red light outside a business did not originate with brothels in the West but rather with the attempts of urban businesses around the country to operate in the uneven lightscape of the nineteenth-century night. By the 1850s most cities were marked with extremes of light and darkness. Recently installed gas lighting glowed a bright white-yellow on major commercial thoroughfares and in neighborhoods where residents could afford the installation of lines, but side streets and alleys populated by the poor remained notoriously mired in gloom.4 Businesses that stayed open late and operated at the margins of commercial districts and in areas populated by working people took to displaying lanterns covered in red paper or red glass globes to mark their doorways and make it easier for patrons to navigate dark streets. Drinking establishments were the red light’s most frequent displayers, so much so that by the late 1860s, two saloons in the Great Lakes region of the United States had christened themselves “Red Light” to suggest the nature of their business.5 However, wanderers of urban streets could also spot red lights illuminating the exteriors of dance halls, drug stores, restaurants, billiard halls, and ice cream and oyster shops.6

The red light’s popularity as a means of advertising nighttime businesses extended to red’s general ubiquity as a color of decor for places of pleasurable consumption. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, reds and pinks were staple colors of theaters, restaurants, and saloons in both the United States and the United Kingdom.7 Crimson was historically a color of royalty, and crimson-upholstered seating, red curtains, and pink and red accents created an air of wealth, luxury, and sensual indulgence in spaces of leisure.8 The color also created visual intrigue, as a disapproving visitor to Chicago’s disreputable saloons and dance halls observed in 1884: “Wherever I went I found some attempt at color—red mostly, and flashy, but still a glare of color from the gaudy mirrors and costly frescoes of the swell groggery uptown to the dive bar down the alley with its red lantern and its faded tissue paper.” The visitor understood that fancy and run-down establishments alike used red to lure would-be patrons with “bait for the eye.”9 Other, less negative accounts interpreted red lights as a warm welcome for those with money to spend. A red glow in front of a business, as one novelist would write in 1888, signaled to its beholder that “there was good cheer within for anyone holding the talismanic key—cash.”10

Red light, then, did not start out as a sign of prostitution, although prostitution’s overlap with the types of spaces that displayed red lights almost assuredly laid the groundwork for the association. Prostitution in the nineteenth century was an illicit industry, and women who solicited in public or kept houses of ill repute were both subject to arrest and prosecution. Nevertheless, prostitution was also a known and often tolerated part of the landscape of business and entertainment districts. Brothels tended to cluster near saloons and restaurants, and women who sold sex mingled with potential clients in theaters, drinking establishments, dance halls, and other places of recreation. Many of the early establishments that displayed red lights or went by the name “Red Light” were linked with the sex trade, including the two Red Light saloons in the Great Lakes region. Similarly, many high-end brothels outfitted their parlors with red and pink furnishings and accents. Some even took to displaying red lanterns outside, a practice that linked them aesthetically to the broader pleasure economy in which they thrived.

As early as the 1870s, however, red lights were becoming increasingly associated in the American imagination with distinctive spaces where prostitutes operated, especially in the West. One reason was that red had a long (if inconsistent) history of being linked with sexuality, especially illicit sexuality and commercial sex. This history dated back centuries and spanned multiple cultures, from the Vedic period, when prostitutes operating in the lower Indus valley donned red clothing and jewelry, to the red costumes that medieval European authorities required prostitutes to wear and red lanterns that hung outside wine houses that allowed prostitution in thirteenth-century China.11 Red had a persistent status as the color of love, lust, carnality, and sexual attraction.12 People in the nineteenth-century United States were aware of some of these historical precedents, just as they were aware that red lights were the marker of brothels in various “exotic” spaces around the world, including Tokyo’s Yoshiwara District and parts of Paris.13

In the United States, however, color symbolism popularized by the so-called transportation revolution did more than anything else to cement the link between red lights and illicit sexuality. Here the lore gets it right: the red light of the brothel was intimately linked to the red lights that signaled “stop” on the rails. This was not because railroad men somehow pioneered the practice of placing a red light outside a brothel; red was already popular in the color schemes of nighttime businesses. Rather, the extensive proliferation of these and other signal lights across the American landscape imbued the existing practices of displaying red lights with new meanings that evocatively captured the fascination, revulsion, and fear with which contemporaries regarded commercial sex. The railroad was instrumental to projecting the red light as a preeminent symbol of the pleasures and dangers intrinsic to prostitution.

Here is how the process unfolded. As the United States underwent a dramatic expansion of its transportation infrastructures between 1810 and the end of the nineteenth century, the necessity of organizing the increasingly complex movements of steamboats, ships, and trains led to a proliferation of signal lights. Red lights, in particular, became common sights along the rail lines and the shore. On the rails, they signaled hazards on the tracks and marked the back of trains to prevent collisions. On the water, glowing red signals steered boats away from rocky outcroppings, indicated when bridges were drawn, and marked the sides of watercrafts to prevent accidents. The generally understood meaning of a red light was “Stop—danger ahead,” so much so that some river and rail towns in the West and Midwest passed ordinances specifying that such lights were to be used to mark any hazards on the road or sidewalk. Pedestrians passing by recognized them as signaling “caution; don’t fall into the man-trap,” man-trap being a term used to describe particularly treacherous walkways or open holes.14

Nineteenth-century Americans, particularly those living in western rail towns, readily mapped the “stop—danger” symbolism of the red signal light onto the red lights displayed outside saloons, brothels, and other places where prostitution traditionally thrived. In part, this was because Americans were already accustomed to viewing such businesses as morally dangerous. Indeed, brothels and saloons even shared the “man-trap” nickname with sidewalk hazards because of the moral and physical perils they allegedly posed to men who might descend into them.15 Writers who decried urban prostitution and saloon culture seized on the parallel symbolism of signal lights and the traditional red lights of the saloon and brothel to suggest that even the aesthetics of places of prostitution visibly exposed their dangers. In 1875, for instance, a St. Louis reporter observing the bawdy houses and rowdy dance halls lining Poplar and Almond Streets wrote that they all had a similar aesthetic at night: “There is the same red light hung out in front of the door.” Notably, the reporter made an immediate connection between the red lights that he observed and signal lights: “Rays which come from the light-house to warn vessels from danger of rocks,” he wrote, “could not be more suggestive than those same red lamps which hang out to indicate to the passer-by what he may look for within.”16 Meanwhile, a newspaper in Hanover, Kansas, informed its readers in 1877 that the bright red light that had recently started to shine over town “is the signal of destruction which the dram shop has hung in its cupola.”17

The proximity of commercial sex establishments to transport sites also intensified the links between the glow of signal lights and the glow outside bawdy houses. In many cities and towns throughout the country, prostitution thrived around ports, docks, and railroad stations. In the midwestern cities and western towns, where urban development was a direct product of the construction of the railroads, the close spatial relationship between areas of prostitution and other forms of vice was especially pronounced. Establishments that displayed red lights in cities like Chicago and St. Louis were often situated within blocks of railroad stations and other transportation hubs because they traditionally enjoyed a hearty clientele of railroad workers, watermen, and travelers.18 The aforementioned Almond and Poplar Street vice areas in St. Louis, for instance, sat just blocks from the Iron Mountain Railroad Depot and near the city’s levee.19 Tellingly, many of the first documented references to “Red Light” saloons and brothels and to brothels displaying red lights came out of these types of midwestern cities and towns. It was there that the parallels between signal lights and the red lights of nighttime establishments seemed most obvious.

In all likelihood, keepers of saloons and brothels in these areas embraced the transportation symbolism of the red light as a stop sign and consciously adopted it as a symbol of their enterprises. Red lights were often regarded as warm and appealing, but their associations with peril added a different layer of allure. To the unsuspecting wanderer, the red light might mean “stop, don’t enter; this is a house of ill-fame.” To the knowing man-about-town it might be a playful temptation—“stop here!”

Mapping references to the red light’s use over time and space further supports the argument that transportation signal lights made the red light an icon of prostitution. Plotting the locations of “Red Light” establishments on a map displaying the paths of historical railroads reveals how the red light’s association with prostitution spread from the Midwest along railroad routes.20 From St. Louis, they made their way down to Texas in the late 1870s, quite possibly via the very Iron Mountain tracks that sat near the Almond Street vice district. Those tracks connected St. Louis to its commercial tributary centers in the cotton region of Texarkana and from there, via the Texas and Pacific Railroad, to various cities across North and East Texas. Within a year or two of the Texas and Pacific’s arrival in Sherman and Fort Worth in the mid-1870s, both towns had developed “Red Light” establishments. Fort Worth’s vice district sat across from the railroad tracks and boasted a raucous Red Light dance hall known to be frequented by prostitutes, as well as several brothels that displayed red lights outside their doors.21 The red light visually united the brothel district with the rail yard, highlighting the close connections between the railroad and the sex industry. In small western towns where railroad tracks marked the boundary between the respectable parts of the town and “the wrong side of the tracks,” those connections seemed obvious anyway.22

The spread of the red light continued to follow the railroads throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Kansas and Nebraska, which were linked to St. Louis via the railroad and to Texas via the cattle trade, were the next states to adopt the red light as the emblem of their vice establishments. The name “Red Light” graced a disorderly house in Omaha by 1873, a disreputable dance hall in Cawker City by 1878, and a brothel in Leavenworth and saloon in Topeka by 1879.23 These were all railroad towns. By the 1880s, the practice of displaying red lights or calling establishments “Red Light” had started moving up the Chisholm Trail via cattle drives. The Red Light became a popular moniker for disreputable establishments in Oklahoma and in cow towns in the south of Kansas and in neighboring Missouri.24 From there, the Red Light name migrated to railroad towns farther west along the Kansas Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads.25 When the railroad extended into West Texas in the 1880s, a resident of El Paso opened the Red Light saloon and dance hall near the railroad depot on Utah Street. One reporter who visited the Red Light claimed that its women patrons were all “long since sunk from respectability” and that everywhere around the bar were gathered “burly sons of toil holding upon their laps these women of prostitution.”26

As the railroad carried the iconography of the red light to rail towns throughout the American West, the association between red lights and prostitution deepened, thanks to the integration of prostitution into western saloon and dance hall culture. Granted, solicitation for sex took place in many saloons and dance halls in eastern cities, but smaller western towns often had even less separation between the saloon and the brothel when it came to how vice was organized and concentrated. As the next section will discuss, it was common for authorities in these settlements to designate—formally or otherwise—particular streets or sections of town that would be set aside for vice of all types. Many gambling dens and drinking establishments also featured handfuls of small rooms where women boarded or where assignations could take place between prostitutes and clients. All forms of vice overlapped until it was impossible to distinguish the red light that represented the saloon or dance hall from the red light that signaled the availability of paid sex.

Eventually, the red light’s symbolic association with illicit sexuality made its way back to eastern cities, including New York. Red lights had been a part of the nighttime landscape there for some time, but their presence in certain areas of the city became both more pronounced and more notable. As the rise of electric power created new possibilities for brilliant and eye-catching displays of light, sections of New York City’s East Side became internationally known for their red glow at night. On one stretch of oyster houses and cafes just blocks from the Bowery and near the train tracks, lightbulbs covered with red glass globes or left to shine through flimsy red drapes created a striking visual effect. The lights were understood to signal nighttime establishments that allowed prostitution or otherwise welcomed the kind of promiscuous mingling of men and women that was often regarded as tantamount to prostitution in the Progressive Era.27

As the red light’s use expanded, commentators continued to highlight its ambiguous dual function as a lure and a warning. In 1899, the annual report of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children complained of “those wretched institutions of the east side, located in what has become known as ‘the red-light district,’ so named because of the numerous red lights displayed within its precincts, marking the locations of so-called ‘cafés.’” The cafés, the report claimed, were “breeding places of immorality” whose female keepers were notorious for enticing young women and girls into prostitution.28 The red lights were part of that enticement, as well as a symbol of the larger perils that the bright lights and gay attractions of the big city posed to naive youth. The society wanted these locations shuttered and their keepers prosecuted to protect girls from temptation and “ruin.” Other commenters, however, argued that houses of prostitution distinguished by red lights were a better safeguard against corruption than the alternative. In a speech given before the American Public Health Organization in 1880, Dr. Albert L. Gihon, medical director of the US Navy, insisted that so long as prostitution existed, “is it not better that the red light and conspicuous number should mark the door of the strange woman?” Gihon, who was familiar with European systems of regulating prostitution, spoke of making brothels distinguishable as an important safety measure to warn away unsuspecting persons. Returning to the idea that the red light was the symbol of danger, he declared, “Society is criminal which allows these pitfalls to exist without the signal-light and sign-board which should mark their site.”29

By rendering vice legible in the urban landscape, red lights became apt metonyms for the zones of sexual commerce emerging in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In the 1890s, people started to write and speak of red-light districts, a full twenty years after the practice of displaying red lights outside brothels and other spaces of masculine leisure began to catch on in the United States. A precursor to the term had appeared as early as 1880, when a newspaper in St. Louis, a city that had experimented with licensed prostitution a decade prior, referred to an area of the city as a “red light locality.”30 Nevertheless, that reference was an isolated one until the early 1890s, when red light district began to appear in midwestern newspapers.31 It quickly entered the national lexicon, and its use in print became more frequent with each passing year. By the 1910s, it had already become the favored term for neighborhoods with high numbers of bawdy houses. Understanding why this phrase developed and why it so quickly entered the US vernacular requires turning attention to the changing nature of urban sex trades and public responses to prostitution in the late 1800s.

The Genesis of the “Red-Light District”

If the railroad boom of the 1860s-1880s forged an association between red lights and prostitution, the late nineteenth-century impulse toward regulating prostitution through spatial containment ultimately gave rise to the phrase red-light district. When it emerged circa 1893, red-light district was Americans’ second attempt—tenderloin being the first—to coin a generic term for an area with a high concentration of vice. The need for such a term was a recent development at the time. Even though most US cities before the 1880s had neighborhoods that were notoriously given over to prostitution and to disreputable entertainments, urban residents were content to refer to these neighborhoods by their own colorful, individual nicknames: Five Points and the Bowery in New York, the Meadow and the Causeway in Baltimore, the Black Sea on Boston’s Ann Street, and Rocketts in Richmond, just to name a few.32 There was no shorthand that connected these disparate locales or implied that they were part of a unified urban phenomenon.

The absence of a generic name for a vice-laden neighborhood prior to the late 1870s reflected the loosely organized nature of prostitution in many American cities, especially in the East. Up to and through the Civil War years, urban neighborhoods with high concentrations of brothels and streetwalkers differed from those that would emerge later out of the zoning impulses of the late decades of the nineteenth century. For one thing, earlier districts were not the creations of municipal authorities or police. Although policing practices undoubtedly affected which brothels could stay open and which had to move or shutter, authorities in most cities had not yet settled on an approach to prostitution based on containing it to particular neighborhoods. The geographies of commercial sex were still mostly ad hoc and inchoate, shaped by the profit motivations of real estate owners and brothel keepers, the currents of supply and demand for sexual labor, the proximity to transportation infrastructures, and the ability or inability of neighborhood residents to protest the presence of prostitution in their areas. Prostitution tended to cluster in poorer neighborhoods, often ones whose residents were Black or immigrant and in areas where land was not yet desirable for other purposes, but it was not contained there. Prostitution could usually be found virtually anywhere in a mid-nineteenth-century city, so that no one neighborhood had anything like a monopoly on sexual commerce. Moreover, concentrations of vice establishments seldom persisted for long; early sex districts, insomuch as they existed, were mostly “fragmentary, dispersed, and short-lived.”33

After the Civil War, increasingly strident efforts to control prostitution and its boundaries would give rise both to more concentrated vice districts and to new attempts to name them. The rise of terms like tenderloin and red-light district was tied to gradual changes in approaches toward the management of prostitution. By the mid-1860s, wartime concerns about the health of soldiers and the controversy sparked by the passage of the British Contagious Diseases Acts drew Americans into sustained national and transatlantic conversations about prostitution policy. Medical men, religious reformers, municipal officials, and urban property holders all weighed in on what was to be done about a prostitution trade that had come to be regarded as a pressing threat to the physical and moral health of the social body.34 No consensus emerged out of their conversations, but the increased public attention focused on prostitution gave rise to diverse and highly localized regulatory approaches that nevertheless shared some common characteristics. With few notable exceptions, including the aforementioned St. Louis, urban officials and police did not seek to mitigate the supposed harms of prostitution by implicating the state in its licensing or by subjecting women themselves to invasive inspections. Neither did they seek to eliminate prostitution entirely, a feat that many of them regarded as impossible given the supposed intractability of male sexual urges. Instead, they focused initially on governing the sex trade by shaping its geographies. They sought to contain and concentrate prostitution within specific areas as a means of limiting its negative effects.

Some of the earliest attempts at segregating vice emerged in the American West, notably the mining and cattle settlements that had already pioneered the association between prostitution and red lights. These municipalities did not have to contend with the remnants of older built environments and so their residents and public officials were free to experiment with nascent forms of zoning. Mayors, town councils, and local business elites set aside areas for prostitution and other disreputable recreation. Sometimes, these areas were located in central commercial districts. In Tombstone, Arizona, for instance, dance halls, saloons, and brothels were initially restricted to the main drags on Allen and Fremont Streets and forbidden from encroaching on residential neighborhoods.35 In other cases, officials forced vice districts to relocate to the outskirts of the settled parts of town, usually near railroad tracks or rivers that might separate them from the homes and resorts of more “respectable” residents. Ellsworth, Kansas, relocated its brothels and dance halls a half mile east of the main area of settlement to a neighborhood called Nauchville; Dodge City housed its brothels and disreputable saloons “below the dead line” of the Santa Fe Railroad tracks; officials in El Paso used the regulatory authority granted to them under Texas law to contain disreputable saloons and brothels to Utah Street in the southern part of town.36 In practice, the separation between spaces of vice and other areas was seldom as absolute or pronounced as segregation schemes would have it, but the impulse toward containment was nevertheless evident in town planning.

The trend toward the consolidation of vice in commercial districts or marginal neighborhoods played out in more established cities as well, albeit in a slower and less organized fashion. Eastern cities’ nascent attempts at zoning had to contend with the persistence of established urban forms, and they did not initially involve metaphorically fencing prostitution into certain areas so much as fencing it out of others. In response to increased pressure from genteel urban residents who complained that neighboring brothels were moral nuisances that jeopardized their property values, police in cities from Baltimore, Maryland, to St. Paul, Minnesota, began to use the threat of injunction or raid to force disreputable women to relocate from well-heeled residential areas. Many states and municipalities also created laws and ordinances in the 1870s and 1880s that barred houses of ill fame from existing within a set distance from schools or churches.37

While most laws and ordinances shied away from specifying where sex businesses were to go—after all, disorderly houses were technically prohibited by law—certain areas were freer of potential impediments to sexual commerce than others. Entertainment and commercial areas brought steady streams of clients and had fewer homeowners who might complain about their presence, while marginal neighborhoods tended to house residents who lacked the political and social standing to protest the incursions of vice. Predictably, these areas were more likely to become host to brothels and street prostitution. Local authorities largely tolerated vice in “slum” neighborhoods, not least because the presence of commercial sex served to reinforce the stereotypes of sexual disorder and moral laxity that were used to justify the subordination of Black and immigrant urbanites.38 These quiet, informal, but reasonably successful efforts to shape the geography of vice enabled one urban guide in 1878 to pronounce without irony, “It is a singular fact, often noted but never satisfactorily explained, that certain localities in all large cities, without apparent cause, become the haunts of vice.”39

The growing concentration of prostitution and other illicit businesses in the 1870s and 1880s gave rise to one of the first efforts to coin a term for the urban phenomenon of the “gay and dubious neighborhood.”40 As American reformers, journalists, and local officials searched for a way to highlight that vice was not an isolated phenomenon unique to any particular place but rather a common feature of urban life, they turned initially to tenderloin. The term originated in New York City, where it described an area of Manhattan that ran roughly north from Twenty-Third Street to Fifty-Seventh Street between Fifth and Eighth Avenues.41 Once a place of residence for elite urban dwellers, the neighborhood had evolved after the Civil War into the home of theaters, shops, saloons, and brothels.42 The tenderloin moniker, taken from an expensive cut of beef, gestured to the mix of luxury, indulgence, and carnality that characterized the neighborhood—and, indeed, early vice districts in general. The outsized impact of New York City in national culture soon helped to spread tenderloin to cities and towns across the country, including the one city where it persists even today, San Francisco.43 The term became such a popular descriptor for entertainment districts where vice thrived that by the early twentieth century “every city has its tenderloin” became a US aphorism.44

Yet tenderloin was a transitional term that would lapse into obsolescence by the second decade of the twentieth century without ever gaining the kind of widespread international usage that red-light district would eventually come to enjoy. The same qualities that popularized the term—its ability to capture the chaotic mixes of people in early vice districts—Gilded Age America—also limited its generalizability and long-term usefulness as wealthier urban residents began to leave urban cores for the streetcar suburbs that emerged in the 1880s.45 The growing spatial separation between residential and commercial districts and wealthy and poor areas spelled the end of many of the “promiscuous” neighborhoods that tenderloin purported to describe.

Meanwhile, in many established cities, urban reformers’ fixation on political corruption and concerns about the harmful effects of vice prompted them to intensify their efforts to contain brothels, saloons, and gambling halls to commercial areas. As industrialization and urbanization sparked fears about municipal corruption and the fate of young men and women in the city, prostitution became a central political fixation of Progressive reformers. The perceived need to protect urban youth and tame the disorderly city prompted these reformers to double down on the project of creating a “moral geography” through the zoning of urban space.46 Whereas the early years of that project had involved cordoning off certain residential areas from vice, Progressives increasingly proposed that vice be corralled into the areas around commercial districts, where its presence might be tolerated despite its distastefulness and dubious legal standing. By constraining the geography of vice, reformers believed they could cut off the bulk of police and low-level urban politicians from sources of graft, thus striking against the financial base of urban political machines. At the same time, they could prevent unwary innocents from being corrupted or sickened by illicit businesses, which were to be clustered in zones that were legible and therefore avoidable.47

Unsurprisingly, the period when red-light district became popularized as a term—between 1890 and 1920—was precisely the period when vice districting was experiencing its heyday in the United States. US cities launched several experiments with segregating prostitution, most notably New Orleans’s Storyville. Storyville was created in 1897 after the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance declaring that all houses of ill fame had to move to a designated area near the French Quarter between Customhouse, Basin, Robertson, and St. Louis Streets. It eventually housed numerous brothels and upwards of two thousand women involved in prostitution.48 Although few cities followed New Orleans’s footsteps in creating a vice district by formal ordinance, many embraced extralegal strategies of containment.49 In Chicago, city officials gave police published instructions as to precisely where vice was to be tolerated in neighborhoods on the North, West, and South Sides.50 In San Francisco, the Police Department and Board of Health declared in 1911 that prostitutes had to contain themselves to certain specified streets. Police in New York tolerated vice within the Tenderloin, and authorities in smaller towns like Kansas City localized vice to the central business district.51

The rise of “segregated” districts proved to be only the early stage of a long national struggle over the place of vice in city life, and it would see red-light district catapulted into the US vernacular. As city officials, municipal and state vice commissions, members of the press, and activists against the social evil produced hundreds of thousands of pages of writing about urban prostitution, they turned to red-light district as a favored moniker for the outcome of Progressive zoning. Within two decades of the term’s first emergence in print in 1893, it became ubiquitous in written materials ranging from sensational polemics against white slavery to staid legal documents.

Red-light district’s popularity owed in part to the fact that it could convey new zones of vice in a manner suitable to widespread adoption and dissemination in print. Whereas tenderloin was originally rooted in the social characteristics of a specific neighborhood in New York, red-light district referenced a visual signal familiar to people across the country. Armed with this catchword, reformers and officials across the nation engaged each other in sustained dialogues on prostitution. Red-light district was also sufficiently evocative without being too specific about the actual happenings in the neighborhoods it described. People in the United States were living through the linguistic consequences of what H. L. Mencken would later call “that old reign of terror, Comstockery.” The obscenity laws that Anthony Comstock had lobbied for in the 1870s made frank discussions of sexual matters legally risky and, according to Mencken, “greatly stimulated the search for euphemisms” when it came to sexual subjects. Mencken characterized red-light district as among the “ludicrous gossamers of speech” invented to cater to prudery.52

Red-light district also met the cultural and political demands of a particular turn-of-the-century moment. Red-light district erased many of the social complexities that tenderloin had implicitly captured with its acknowledgement of early vice districts’ extremes of wealth and poverty and mixes of highbrow entertainments and lowbrow amusements. It homogenized neighborhoods, even when homogeneity proved elusive in practice. Despite Progressives’ best efforts at zoning, they did not actually succeed in creating a clear delineation between residential/commercial and respectable/disreputable districts. So-called red-light districts usually continued to include some reputable businesses and to house marginalized city residents, especially Black Americans and Chinese, Italian, and Greek immigrants.53 And yet, the notion of the red light casting its lurid glow over an entire neighborhood rhetorically erased this multifaceted reality. It positioned everything and everyone in these neighborhoods in the same disreputable light. In this way, it seemingly confirmed both the logic of zoning—the idea that it was possible to affix a singular character to a neighborhood—and the success of early Progressives’ efforts at containing vice.

Ironically, some of the same characteristics that made red-light district appealing to Progressives seeking to contain vice also worked in the term’s favor as the political tides turned against segregation by the eve of World War I. Panic over white slavery, critiques of the sexual double standard, and a general sense that red-light districts had only succeeded in uniting vice into a dangerously monopolistic industry all combined to incite a wave of antivice campaigning in the 1910s.54 Use of the term red-light district in print peaked in this period as reformers and municipal officials launched investigations of vice that produced detailed accounts of the supposed happenings in red-light districts. Interestingly, vice commissions and urban reformers who referred to red-light districts in this context significantly revised the connotations of the term. Whereas the imagery of the red light partially served as reassurance that innocents would be warned away from immorality, later Progressive accounts characterized it both as a temptation to adventure seekers and a distraction from the failures of segregationist promises to contain vice. The 1920 pamphlet that began this essay, The Case against the Red Light District, complained that even though prostitutes still plied their trades in all neighborhoods of American cities “no one pays much attention to them, because the red light district holds the center of the stage and blinds all eyes.”55 Because the red light imaginatively homogenized diverse neighborhoods under a pall of disreputability, it also lent credence to reformers’ assertions that all vice was essentially one unified and exploitative industry to be crushed.56

As red-light district pervaded US writings about prostitution, the term eventually made the jump to anglophone audiences overseas through the press and transatlantic networks of antivice activism. In the early twentieth century red-light district occasionally appeared in British newspapers’ reprintings of articles from New York City, mostly concerning Tammany Hall. It was also carried over by evangelical preachers and members of charitable organizations like the Salvation Army, who picked up the phrase as they slummed in New York and Chicago.57 American white slavery and reformist tracts that circulated overseas often employed red-light district, which meant that many British audiences were familiar with the term by World War I.58

Throughout the interwar period, however, the British public remained hesitant to incorporate it into their own speech without parceling it off in quotation marks or characterizing it as US slang. Indeed, when the European division of the Columbia Broadcasting Company described London’s Soho as a “red-light district” in a 1935 radio broadcast, it drew complaints. The director of the division had to clarify that “the words ‘red light district’ were used to give American—and particularly New York—listeners a quick description by way of a convenient parallel which, like most international parallels, may not be exactly true, but nevertheless serve the purpose.”59 Later on, in the twentieth century, after time had distanced the term from the circumstances of its origin, anglophone journalists, policy makers, and scholars outside the United States would successfully adopt it as a general descriptor of neighborhoods known for prostitution in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. That so many of these districts, most famously Amsterdam’s De Wallen, took to marking themselves with red lights helped to recast the term as a relatively neutral description rooted in a transnationally recognizable practice of display.

The Persistence of “Red-Light District”

The gradual divorce of red-light district from the circumstances of its formation has been key to its longevity, popularity, and widespread applicability. The term emerged out of US rail towns and Progressive Era vice zoning, but it has transcended its historical connotations. When historians, scholars, and other writers speak of red-light districts now, they do not necessarily mean (as Progressives often did) the spaces that result from an organized or conscious regulatory project of concentrating brothels and other vice establishments. Instead, they use the term as a catchier, less wordy way of saying “places where commercial sex of all kinds is concentrated, for whatever reason.” The generic nature of the phrase makes it useful in drawing comparisons across time, space, and political context. To describe a space as a red-light district now is to imply little about either the circumstances of its formation or the nature of labor performed there. A red-light district can be a place where brothels and sex shops predominate or one where streetwalkers are known to solicit publicly. It can be a part of the city set aside for prostitution by law, ordinance, or less formalized policing practices or a nebulous zone that forms out of some combination of custom and the forces of supply and demand. It can be a place where licensed sex workers labor in a legal trade or one where prostitution remains criminalized but tacitly if inconsistently tolerated. The lability of the term contrasts with alternative names for sex districts that fix them within a particular relationship to state or police power, including toleration zones (from Spanish) or reserved quarters (from French).

The flexibility of red-light district has made it a welcome part of the scholarly lexicon, especially as a growing number of geographers and urban historians have turned their attention to transnational studies of commercial sex and its relationship to space. Uniting apparently disparate and divergent spaces of sexual commerce under the analytical category red-light district has allowed scholars to make comparisons that might not otherwise be forthcoming. Phil Hubbard and Mary Whowell, for example, conducted a transnational survey of the geography of so-called red-light districts in Western European cities at the turn of the twenty-first century. Their work, which built on older scholarship by Ashworth, White, and Winchester, highlighted the central role that custom, law, policing, surveillance, and coercion play in shaping the geographies of sex districts. At the same time, this scholarship also acknowledged that even in cities with vastly different legal approaches and regulatory schema around prostitution, red-light districts showed similar patterns of development. These included the rise of highly commercialized sex businesses ranging from strip clubs or tourist-oriented sex shops near central business and entertainment districts to new zones of transactional sex that materialized when streetwalkers relocated to the suburban margins.60 In this way, red-light district enabled valuable studies that identified spatial patterns across regulatory approaches to commercial sex.

Nevertheless, as I have argued here, red-light district did emerge out of a particular set of political circumstances, appearances to the contrary. It does have a history, and one that is in many ways bound to the technological, cultural, and reformist impulses of the late nineteenth century. The seeming flexibility that comes from unmooring red-light district from its historical roots can render the term so slippery that it resists rather than enables analysis. The generic use of red-light district to describe spaces of commercialized sex in every era and locality can serve to minimize real differences in the ways that sex districts have been spatially constructed across time and place, as well as to obscure the relationship between those districts and their broader sociopolitical contexts. Should historians call clusters of brothels in the 1830s “red-light districts,” setting aside that the term did not yet exist in that period and that such spaces differed in important ways from those Americans would later call red-light districts? This would fail to acknowledge important shifts in the means and intensity with which municipal authorities approached the regulation of prostitution over time. What of applying the label to clusters of brothels in Paris in the early to mid-1800s? Such clusters certainly existed, and some apparently even used red lights to mark the nature of their business. Still, the most fundamental unit of prostitution’s spatial regulation in metropolitan France was usually not the neighborhood, as it would be later in the United States, but the brothel. Red-light district can gloss over this significant difference in approaches between the two nations. It also obscures France’s own approach to regulation in its colonies, where brothels were often contained in a quartier réservé.61

Historians’ tendency to apply red-light district across time, especially to early ancient or early modern cities, can also obscure the term’s links to nineteenth-century technological developments and the liberal drive toward the rationalization of urban space. The red light’s emergence as an emblem of prostitution implicitly linked it to modernity—to the railroad’s collapse of time and space, to the advertising practices that developed out of new cultures of commodification, and to the unevenness of the nighttime lightscape in the gaslight era that gave way to the visual spectacle of urban spaces illuminated by electricity. To ignore the red light’s grounding in a specific technological and cultural moment is to risk reinforcing the problematic tendency to understand prostitution as static and timeless—the “oldest profession.” It is important to recognize that the visual trappings of sex work and the commodification of sex itself changed with the development of the modern capitalist city.

Finally, there is the matter of moral symbolism. Many scholars who speak or write about red-light districts (and I include myself here) have treated that term as a relatively neutral descriptive shorthand. However, an examination of the historical origins of the term reveals it to be anything but neutral. Red lights became the symbols of brothels in the United States not simply because brothels used them to advertise but because red lights captured and transmitted multiple layers of meaning attached to vice and to sexual commerce.62 Red lights, with their ability to represent sensual allure and caution in the face of hazard, were the perfect visual embodiment of the ambivalence attached to prostitution. They were not neutral symbols but chaotic ones full of competing meanings that shifted their primacy over time.

The layers of meaning attached to red lights and their fundamental ambivalence were a major part of why they were adopted as imagery for an urban project that was itself rooted in ambivalence: the creation of red-light districts where prostitution could be simultaneously preserved as a social necessity and shoved aside as a dangerous nuisance. The making of red-light districts was a spatial undertaking that saw certain neighborhoods given over to “vice,” but it was also, and importantly, an ideological and imaginative project designed to reinforce the marginalization of certain people (especially the poor and racial or ethnically other) and certain types of commerce. Hubbard observed that “the discursive identification and visualization of specific spaces as red-light districts appears a crucial means by which the deviance of prostitutes and, to a lesser extent, their clients is constructed.”63 A red-light district, in other words, is a neighborhood, but it is also a mode of conceptualizing, labeling, and assigning moral value to that space and its denizens. When scholars analyze when and why historical actors came to understand certain areas as “red-light districts,” we are doing the work of cultural analysis and cultural history. When we label as “red-light districts” spaces that were not regarded as such by contemporaries, we risk imposing what is an implicitly moralized category on their subjects. This can result in scholars authoring and reinforcing the very forms of marginalization that they seek to denaturalize and critique. We owe it to our subjects to do better, and for this reason among many others, red-light district is worth troubling.

Notes

1.

Wikipedia, “Red-Light District.”

2.

Cincinnati Enquirer, “Stained with Blood.” 

5.

Detroit Free Press, “Grand Jury Indictments”; Sydney Morning Herald, “Outrages in America.” 

6.

See, for example, Oklahoma City Times, “Oklahoma Exchange”; Purcell Register, “New England Chop House”; and Raleigh News, “Saloon and Restaurant.” 

11.

Ringdal, Love for Sale, 56; Pastoureau, Red, 83–84; “Attractions of the Capital,” 180.

12.

Elliot and Pazda, “Dressed for Sex”; Elliot and Niesta, “Romantic Red.” 

13.

Hur, Prayer and Play in Late Tokugawa Japan, 105; Norman, “‘Plain of Reeds,’” 22. Brothels in Paris were required to mark themselves ostentatiously, and some opted for painting foyers red or displaying red lights. Carol, “Caring and Healing,” 276; Corbin, Women for Hire, 79; Ringdal, Love for Sale, 195; Balzac, Devil’s Daughter, 117.

14.

See, for example, Ordinances of the City of Columbus Ohio, 95.

15.

Rev. Thomas Green, who observed the use of red lights in Chicago brothels, referred to places of ill-repute as “man-traps” (Man-Traps of the City). Man-trap continues to be recorded in dictionaries as meaning either a falling hazard or a “loose” woman. On brothels as “social pits” into which men fell, see Dacus and Buel, Tour of St. Louis, 445.

17.

Western Independent, [no headline].

20.

For supplementary ArcGIS mapping, see my web page “Red Lights and the Rails,” May 27, 2023, https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/9fd1a4bf0fb5425fb40d53fe3d223c8a.

21.

Tri-Weekly Herald, “Frontier News”; Daily Fort Worth Standard, “Tired of Life”; interview with Mrs. Octavia Bennett, June 6, 1952, Fort Worth, Texas, cited in Selcer, Hell’s Half Acre, 282.

23.

Omaha Daily Bee, “A Dance House Row”; Cawker City Public Record, [no headline]; Leavenworth Times, “Pistols Again”; Daily Commonwealth, “City and Other Items.” 

24.

Oklahoma Daily Capital, “Personal”; Freeman, Midnight and Noonday, 285; Caldwell Advance, “Communicated”; Hanover Democrat and Enterprise, “Red Light (Near the Depot)”; Kansas City Times, “Cast of Thought”; Waterville Telegraph, “Kansas News”; Lawrence Daily Gazette, “Police Court.” 

25.

See, for example, Charlotte Observer, “Talmage in Leadville”; Head-Light, “Heavy Stakes”; Sacramento Bee, “Galt’s Sensation”; and Daily Courier, “Red Light Saloon.” 

26.

El Paso Times, “The Dives.” 

27.

Nascher, Wretches of Povertyville, 89. Nascher attributed this practice of displaying red lights to an imitation of the Parisian practice.

28.

New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Twenty-Fourth Annual Report, 62.

30.

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “Close of a Bad Career.” 

31.

See, for example, Courier-Journal, “A Noble Charity”; St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “Redbone Bloodhounds”; and Sandusky Register, “Salvation Army Restricted.” 

39.

Dacus and Buel, Tour of St. Louis, 406–7.

43.

Junction City Republican, “Flames Sweep Lead, S.D.”; Bismarck Tribune, “Book Details Mining Town Prostitution”; Journal and Tribute, “Cincinnati Mystery”; Hand, “George Street”; Oakland Tribune, “At Two A.M.”; San Francisco Call, “Runyon’s Diamonds.” 

44.

See, for example, Morning Post, “Old ‘Tenderloin’ Station Awaiting Its Doom.” 

55.

US Public Health Service, The Case against the Red Light District, 5.

57.

See, for example, Liverpool Daily Post, “To-day’s Presidential Election in the United States”; North-Eastern Daily Gazette, “Good Evening!”; Weekly Dispatch, “Slum Crusade”; Hull Daily News, “The Free Church Parliament”; and Cornishman, “Gipsy Smith in Chicago.” 

61.

Quartiers réservés did exist in France but they were less common. See Corbin, Women for Hire, 54–60; Sandy, Women and Sex Work in Cambodia; and Staszak, “Planning Prostitution in Colonial Morocco.” 

63.

Hubbard, “Sexuality, Immorality and the City,” 61.

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