This morning in lecture I spent some time talking about Horatio Alger’s 1868 novel Ragged Dick as belonging, in part, to the genre of the urban tourbook, offering armchair tourists an introduction to several of the city’s important civic landmarks and public spaces. Talking a little more generally about NYC guidebooks in the 19th century, I contrasted Alger’s approach — in which Dick scrupulously avoids taking his readers to the seedier neighborhoods he no doubt knew well — with books that offered to take readers into the depth of the city’s depravity, either in poverty-stricken neighborhoods where sin ran unchecked or behind the closed doors of the licentious upper-crust, on Bond Street and elsewhere.
As I usually do in this lecture, I showed a slide with this title page and frontispiece from an 1839 “moral reform directory”:
I’ve long used this image in lecture, but only recently came across a really fine discussion of the text itself. This morning (blame it on the hour!) I mixed up a few of the details, conflating this book with a publication it’s no doubt satirizing, a reform serial by the name of McDowall’s Journal.
As Donna Dennis recounts in Licentious Gotham, which I finally finished reading, McDowall’s Journal was published by a young Princeton Theological Seminary grad named John McDowall, who with the backing of New York’s Female Benevolent Society founded the publication to expose what he saw as a burgeoning sex trade and erotic publishing industry in the city. (He claimed that New York had 10,000 active prostitutes, which would have made one in ten New York females a sex worker.) McDowall ended up running afoul of civic authorities, who claimed that in exposing the details of the city’s seamy side he was merely peddling smut himself. It may have been the case that his threat to expose the names of prominent johns also made them nervous. In any case, he unwittingly set the model for a popular 19c stereotype: the moral reformer who takes up his cause in order to satisfy his own prurient interests. Following McDowall’s indictment by a grand jury for publishing material “calculated to promote lewdness,” the doors were opened to public discussion of sexual scandal and to popular literature that played to erotic interests.
Dennis follows her account of McDowall’s Journal with a discussion of Prostitution Exposed. If you can’t make out the details in the small print, the full title reads: PROSTITUTION EXPOSED; or, a MORAL REFORM DIRECTORY, Laying Bare the Lives, Histories, Residences, Seductions, &c. of the most celebrated COURTEZANS AND LADIES OF PLEASURE of the city of New-York, Together with a Description of the Crime and Its Effects, as also of the Houses of Prostitution and the Keepers, HOUSES OF ASSIGNATION, Their Charges and Conveniences, and other particulars interesting to the public.
Ostensibly intended to direct readers away from such “houses of assignation,” such “moral reform directories” nevertheless provided lists of names, addresses, prices, physical descriptions, and typical clientele and so doubled as directories for the trade itself.
Dennis sees Prostitution Exposed as intended in part to satirize the efforts of possibly prurient do-gooders like McDowall. She also notes the political implications of the double-entendre in the author’s pseudonym: “A Butt Ender.”
The slang clearly referred to a defiantly boisterous, unruly faction of egalitarian, prolabor Democrats in the 1830s (generally knows as Locofocos) that was closely linked to emerging machine politics. The Butt Enders probably took their name from the workingmen’s style of constantly chomping on the “butt end” of a “segar,” as popularized by the character of Mose, the famous Bowery B’hoy.
Mose, the moral reformer! A new line for his c.v. And to whom is this moral reform directory dedicated? To the “Ladies Reform Association for the Suppression of Onanism.” Nothing like a prostitute to keep the kids from indulging in the solitary vice. As Dennis notes, Prostitution Exposed is the “earliest surviving book dealing with material of a plainly libidinous nature to be both written and published in the city.”