Foodways in Brothel Households of New Orleans, 1897-1917

A Storyville prostitute posing with a puppy, c. 1912. E.J. Belloq, via Retronaut.co. Click to enlarge.

Lately, I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts on the direction of my dissertation research, since I’ll be back in New Orleans very soon.  On my previous trip, I decided to focus on the historic Storyville prostitution district, which operated from 1897 to 1917.  While prostitution has been part of the New Orleans social landscape from the city’s earliest days, very little has been written about the everyday lives of the New Orleans prostitutes that would allow us to connect with them as human beings.  Instead of as a community of people, their identities are often equated solely with their profession.  This approach in both academic and popular literature is problematic because it is telling a one-sided story, that of the male consumer.  I want to focus on the prostitutes themselves as working class businesswomen and homemakers that interacted with a multitude of people, not just clients.

First and foremost, women in working as prostitutes or madams were trying to provide domestic comforts for themselves and their families.  Their businesses also offered many domestic comforts for purchase: sex, obviously, but also food, companionship, lodging and entertainment.  Restriction and regulation of prostitution, beginning in the mid-19th century, affected the business practices of the women involved and contributed to the dehumanization of the prostitutes by creating explicitly sexualized spaces characterized by male consumers, a concept that has stuck over the years.  Regulation also excluded customers through racial segregation, caused the prostitutes to lose property when they were forced to move, and further criminalized the profession.  Storyville was the culmination of years of weak attempts at regulation and contained prostitution to a small area just outside the French Quarter.

Map showing the placement of Storyville, the French Quarter, and Congo Square. Image via Storyvilledistrictnola.com, n.d. Click to enlarge.

My research will study Storyville as simultaneously a place of business and a place of domestic activities, since many of the women resided in the houses found within the district, especially in the mid- to high-income brothels.  Specifically, I will be looking at public and private foodways and how the women who worked in Storyville provided for themselves, families, children, and clients.  Foodways—defined as the set of behaviors pertaining to availability, choice, preparation, consumption, and presentation of food—can be investigated by examining animal and plant remains, looking at food practices in historical documents (i.e. cookbooks), and comparison to related archaeological sites.  I expect preliminary research to yield information on the diet of Storyville residents and guests, as well as popular dishes that may have been served at these establishments.

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