A hundred years ago, the City of New Orleans decided to put an end to a legal red light district that had provided two decades of musical and sexual entertainment.
It was a famous entertainment district with some of the best musicians of the day. And it was also a red light district where prostitution was legal.
“And it was thought of at the time as the best way to regulate prostitution is to keep it in one area rather than try make it illegal, which disperses it across the city and it becomes more difficult,” said historian Eric Seiferth with the collection.
The neighborhood where selling sex was legal was nicknamed Storyville after City Alderman Sidney Story, who proposed the district.
“From small-room buildings where women were working in what they called cribs, to large mansions that were the high-end brothels,” Seiferth said.
The legal red light district began on Basin Street. It’s where wealthier gentlemen would find the more elegant, higher-class brothels. Those houses of prostitution were advertised in a series of “blue books.”
“They’re actually selling an idea of a fun time in elite surroundings with interesting and talented and refined entertainers,” said Pamela Arceneaux.
Arceneaux, a librarian at the Historic New Orleans Collection, has published guidebooks to sin on the blue books of Storyville.
“The books themselves are very coy, but they are talking about commercial sex,” Arceneaux said. “Things like, ‘A visit will teach more than the pen can describe, a pleasant time for the boys, everyone must be of some importance, else he cannot gain admittance.’”
And the brothels featured the music of early jazz greats like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Manuel “Fess” Minetta, who was interviewed about his experiences in Storyville.
“In the district you played from 8 to 4. That was paying a dollar a night,” Minetta said. “And I raised the price. I got a dollar and a quarter a night in a tuxedo, you know?”
And at Mahogany Hall, Rosalind Johnson played “When the Pale Moon Shines” as the madam, Lulu White, descended the grand staircase at midnight.
“And you had to wear evening clothes until 12 o’clock on Basin Street,” Johnson said.
Storyville lasted for 20 years from 1897 until it was shut down in 1917 as the United States was entering World War I.
“New Orleans had a number of camps during the First World War, and you could not have a vice district within 5 miles of a military installation,” Seiferth said.
In the 1930s, nearly all of Storyville’s buildings were replaced by the Iberville housing development - only a couple of structures remain. But some of that legacy survives as a place where you can still hear live jazz and even misbehave a little in the city that care forgot.
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