One of my ongoing research interests is the history of vice and reform in Atlanta before 1920. The subject can provide a window into the underworld of any city or town. This is a short tutorial for anyone interested in finding out about the historic red-light district (or districts) in their own town.
Part 1: City Directories
The first place to look for prostitution is in a city directory. Listings for madams were common until the 19-teens. Use directories to find a street with multiple women with the description “Mad.” or “Madam” by their name.
For example, here are two images from the 1898 Savannah city directory. One is for East Oglethorpe Avenue: the other is for Houston Street at the intersection of Oglethorpe.
East Oglethorpe Avenue:
As you can see, Madams are identified in the street index. In some cases, working girls can be found in the alphabetical listing as residents of the houses. However, because the girls are mostly transient, it is generally the madams that get listed in the directory.
Instead of spending the time to browse through the city directories, it is much easier to find these women using an online search. Plug in “mad” or “madam” (without the quotes) and see what results you get.
Both Ancestry.com and Footnote.com have scanned city directories. The geographic and yearly coverage of both services is very different. Look for the “U.S. City Directories” collection on Ancestry or “City Directory” on Footnote.
Both services use Optical Character Recognition to index the images. While it is not 100% accurate, it is close enough for the purpose of performing this search.
Try it on your own city.
Part 2 will demonstrate how brothels were identified on Sanborn fire insurance maps.