Prostitution in 19th Century America
Compiled by Martha Sledge


Laura Hapke, Girls Who Went Wrong.

Maria Carla Sanchez,  Reforming the World, chapter on prostitution, fiction, and moral reform movements.


Louisa May Alcott, Work, the character of Rachel/Letty

Lillie Devereux Blake, Fettered for Life, (1870s), Rhoda probably had an earlier life as a prostitute. 

Ned Buntline, The Mysteries and Miseries of New York

Jennie Collins, Nature's Aristocracy (1870), writes about how unjust economic and social conditions push poor women into prostitution.  See in chapter 3, "The Soldier's Wife" and "Comfort and Plenty in Exchange for Virtue," and in chapter 4, "Wellie's Fate" and "She Is Not Worth Saving" about such women.

Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.  

Rebecca Harding Davis, "The Promise of the Dawn."  Lot is a fascinating character.

Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall, there are prostitutes living on the same street with Ruth Hall.
Fanny Fern, "Sewing Machines," "A Gotham Reverie," and other essays.

Hannah W. Foster, The Coquette. Is the fallen woman of related interest?

George Foster, New York by Gas-Light (prostitutes in every essay!)

Margaret Fuller, "Asylum for Discharged Female Convicts" (essay)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Crux” and a number of her short stories deal with prostitution (and particularly the problem of syphilis).

Sutton Griggs, Overshadowed (1901), doesn't feature a "professional" prostitute, but the character Dolly Smith is a procurer who negotiates between white men and their desired black mistresses. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, Priscilla has often been read as a prostitute.

George Lippard, Quaker City: The Monks of Monk Hall (1845)

Herman Melville, Redburn, Harry Bolton is read as a prostitute.


David Graham Phillip, Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, offers some really complex and interesting depictions of prostitution, both forced (as Susan is kidnapped and awakens to discover that she has been repeatedly raped in a brothel) and prostitution where she is in control.  Phillips' argument about marriage v. prostitution is interesting next to Sister Carrie!

Susanna Rowson, Charlotte Temple.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851), Cassy and Emmeline have become concubines to Legree. 

Walt Whitman, "To a Common Prostitute"

Sarah Winnemucca, Life Among the Piutes, Sarah Winnemucca is accused of and defends herself from charges of prostitution.

In the American Periodical Series database, a search for "prostitutes" limited to poetry turns up scads of "elegies" and other like poems on dying and repentant prostitutes.

19th-c. pulp fiction representations of prostitution: 
George Thompson,  The G'hals of Boston; or, Pen and Pencil Sketches of Celebrated Courtezans (1850)
Argus, Norton; or, The Lights and Shades of a Factory Village (1849) available in Wright Amer. Fiction.
Jasper Colfax,  Over the Brink; or, The Peril of Beauty (1869) available in Wright Amer. Fiction.
Charles W. Alexander, Only a Mill Girl! or, Vinnie Roche's Sad Fate (1879) available in Wright Am. Fiction
Ellen Merton, the Belle of Lowell (1844) avail. in Wright Am. Fict. see pp. 9-10 and others
Matthew H. Smith, Sunshine and Shadow in New York (1868) see chap. "Street-Walkers"

Documentary texts are available in Rosen, The Maimie Papers.


There's the case of Helen Jewett to look at though that would be journalistic.  



Early Works:

Foster’s The Coquette and The Boarding School
Judith Sargent Murray's essays on female education
Rowson’s Charlotte Temple; Mentoria, etc.

Nineteenth-Century Works:

Alcott, Little Women or Little Men (or many other works)
Anna Julia Cooper's A Voice from the South (1892)
Cummings, The Lamplighter
Harper, Iola Leroy
Warner, The Wide, Wide World

Twentieth/Twenty-First Century Works (alphabetized by author name):

Mary Antin, The Promised Land

Ann Bannon's Odd Girl Out. Jenny Putzi writes, “[it’s a] 1957 lesbian pulp novel … I have taught it twice and it always goes really well.”

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home

Lorene Carey, Black Ice (memoir)

Willa Cather's "Old Mrs. Harris." Lisa Radinovsky writes, “[it is] said to be her most autobiographical work of fiction, also comes to mind. Its three generations of women present a striking contrast in terms of educational levels and goals: the grandmother who willingly works and silently suffers out of devotion to her family, the daughter who lets her mother do that while she dresses nicely and enjoys the best things that come into the house, and the granddaughter who strives to prepare herself for a college education, understood only by the well-educated German immigrants next door in their frontier town.”

Grace Cooke's The Power and the Glory: A Novel of Appalachia. (Elizabeth Engelhardt's edition). Sarah Robbins writes, “[it] would be a nice counterpoint/comparison to Yezierska's texts”

Tsitsi Dangaremgba's Nervous Conditions (1989). Miranda Green-Barteet writes, “The author is Zimbabwean, and it is set in Rhodesia during the 1960s at a boarding school. It would address issues of globalization, post-colonial identity, and internationalization. I've paired it with Zitkala-sa's Impressions of an Indian Childhood before, and they work really well together.”

Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour (or the film adaptation)

Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928). Sarah Barry writes “ [it] begins in a "progressive" school in the south; Helga Crane's journey from south to north to Scandinavia could be read as a type of woman's regional and global education in racial/gender/sexual politics, especially in light of the fact that Helga flees the repressive "uplift" ideology of the southern school as her starting point.”

Mary McCarthy, The Group

L. T. Meade, A Sweet Girl Graduate (1923)

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (and series)

Elizabeth Murray’s autobiography Breaking Night. Julia Ehrhardt writes, “Murray is the young woman who went "from homeless to Harvard" but her narrative is much more powerful than the Lifetime movie channel suggests. Murray writes about being truant and then about her experiences in an alternate high school. She does not elaborate much on college.”

Pauli Murray's autobiography

Z.Z. Packer, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere"

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

Sapphire's Push. Julia Ehrhardt writes, “[it] also deals with a group of women who go to an  alternative high school; again, the book is much more elaborate than the movie version of the novel.

Leslie Marmon Silko's Gardens in the Dunes. Caroline Woitdat writes: “Indigo's education with her grandmother in the desert makes a nice comparison to Hattie's experiences with academia, and what they learn traveling the world together adds to the ways this text addresses international/post-colonial issues.”

Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth (1929): Lisa Radinovsky writes “another account of a working-class (but not immigrant) woman struggling to get an education--both in college, and with the help of educated people, including Indian nationalists (from India):  … This more or less autobiographical novel focuses on a protagonist who grew up in midwestern mining camps in the midst of severe poverty, with no hope of improvement for her mother but a determination to strive for betterment herself. The conflict between self and family is emphasized here: to help herself, the daughter must differ from her mother and stop helping her family.”

Edith Wharton's The Reef; Lisa Radinovsky writes: “I recently re-read [it] and remembered writing a paper about education as contamination in that novel, in the broad sense of the word "education": first, there's the governess who was contaminated by her job working with a woman most disapprove of, and then there's the mother who is contaminated by her knowledge of the governess's affair with the mother's fiance--her peace, love, and life are shattered by the knowledge. The question of whether the little girl could be contaminated by the governess's having had an affair in the past is also an issue there. But I'm not sure that's what you're looking for. Perhaps Daughter of Earth would best fit your course objectives, if it's still in print (from Feminist Press, e.g.)? It's a bit long, but a quick read.”

Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers; Arrogant Beggar; or Salome of the Tenements

Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin)’s American Indian Stories. Sarah Barry writes “[it] covers her education from an assimilation primary school to a white-dominant college and a technical post-secondary school for "Indians," at which she taught. There is a Penguin edition with excellent notes and apparatus by Cathy Davidson and teaches well. Autobiographical, but uses mythology, particularly tensions between European fairy tales and Sioux origin stories and spirituality.”


Real Women Have Curves
Mona Lisa Smile
All I Wanna Do

Criticism/Context Resources:

Jaime Osterman Alves, Fictions of Female Education in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge 2009)

Laura Green, Educating Women: Cultural Conflict & Victorian Literature

Shirley Marchalonis. College Girls: A Century in Fiction. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

List of "college girl" novels:
Address e-mail to Donna Campbell,