Excavation in Boston offers insight into 19th century brothel

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

BOSTON - A Boston privy uncovered after more than a century has yielded many details about the history of prostitution.

The artifacts are giving archeologists an unprecedented look at how the world’s oldest profession was practiced by improper Bostonians of the 19th century.

From toothbrushes to jewelry to cosmetics, and parts of 19 syringes used for hygiene, the treasure trove plucked from a now-buried site near Haymarket is evidence of a thriving, racy economy that the city’s prim Victorian image never acknowledges.

“It’s certainly not what historians and people in charge of the Duck Tours want to be part of what Boston was all about,” Boston.com quoted ary Beaudry, a Boston University archeology professor, as saying.

“We haven’t had a good idea about what it was like to be involved in that trade.”

But the 3,000 items found during a 1993 archeological survey linked to the Big Dig, behind long-vanished rowhouses on Endicott Street, show the trappings of a busy brothel aimed at middle-class customers.

The findings, the most of their kind ever discovered in Boston, have not been previously publicized outside academic and archeological circles.

Research into housing records has shown that the property at 27 and 29 Endicott St. probably was used as a brothel for much of the time between 1852 and 1883.

In a city where 5,000 prostitutes are estimated to have worked in the last half of the 19th century, the property had plenty of company. Beaudry estimated that the North End, Boston’s red-light district of the time, contained 30 to 40 brothels within its tight, congested confines.

And in the South End, she said, the streets echoed with the sounds of hundreds of “nightbirds,” streetwalkers who called to passing men from doorways. In 1851, authorities reported that 227 houses of prostitution were operating in Boston.

Many of the prostitutes were farm girls or immigrants, usually under 25 years old, who had moved to Boston in search of jobs. Their hierarchy ranged from work in upscale parlor houses that offered dining, drinking, and dancing; to lower-level establishments such as the Endicott Street brothel; to the “cribs,” or basement rooms, where hard, often-diseased women would meet with sailors, poor men, and petty criminals.

The privy there, an outhouse where household goods were routinely discarded, was uncovered during excavations at the colonial Mill Pond, a cove that was filled during the early 1800s for development. The state permit for the excavation limited the dig to artifacts older than 1830, but the proximity of the privy prompted a team of curious archeologists, unpaid and on their own time, to work into the night and under the lights at the site.(ANI)

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