Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Who We Were, Where We've Been

article number 578
article date 08-02-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
American City Woman Part 2: Growing Cities - Social, Style and Household Changes, Late 1800’s
by Arthur Schlesinger


If woman’s chief sphere were the home, complaint was general that she had failed badly in one department of her duties, that of training her children. European visitors invariably described them as “pert and disrespectful, one Frenchman maintaining that a composite photograph of American youth would reveal “le plus terrible de tous les enfants terribles.”

Even American writers admitted that filial irreverence was “the greatest blemish that exists on the childhood of this country today,” and one suggested that “the present problem of the children is the painless extinction of their elders.”

Nevertheless the gradual disappearance of corporal punishment from the home was regarded even by such critics as a sign of increasing civilization. Whether the slump in manners was due to parental indulgence, or to a desire to give children a freer and more self-reliant start in life, the experts were not agreed, though doubtless both elements entered into the situation.

One thoughtful European was obliged to confess that “the fruit does not by any means correspond to the seed. The unendurable child does not necessarily become an intolerable man.”

Perhaps no factor affected child life more than the growth of cities. In the rural districts boys and girls continued to live in the customary manner, close to nature’s bosom; but not so in the urban centers.

An investigation conducted in 1880 by G. Stanley Hall, then a lecturer in psychology at Harvard, showed that over half the children entering Boston’s primary schools had never seen a plow or spade, a robin, squirrel, snail or sheep; they had never observed peaches on a tree or growing grain and could not distinguish an oak tree from a willow or poplar.

In place of these traditional experiences of American childhood the city youth must arrange his play with reference to paved streets, telegraph poles and iron lamp-posts. Instead of collecting birds’ eggs he collected the small picture cards of burlesque queens and prize fighters, which came in cigarette packages. His greatest thrills centered in the clang and clatter of the passing patrol wagon, fire engine or ambulance.


While the swift panorama of the streets more or less colored the manners and outlook of all city children, it was, of course, the center of existence for the waifs of the tenement districts.

With such homes particularly in mind, many cities in the 1880’s followed New York’s earlier example by forming societies for the prevention of cruelty to children. It was due to the activity of such bodies, for instance, that the vicious practice of selling Italian children into the slavery of padroni, who compelled them to become beggars or strolling musicians, was stamped out or driven under cover.

Less successful were humanitarians in coping with the growing evil of child labor in factories and sweatshops. Though the census undoubtedly understated the facts, the number of boys and girls from ten to fifteen years old engaged in gainful work was recorded as having increased from a million in 1880 to a million and three quarters in 1900. They were employed mostly in the textile industry, and in the new Southern mill towns often began work as young as seven or eight.

In Northern cities children also thronged the streets as newsboys and, with their mothers, formed the mainstay of the sweating trades. In Chicago large numbers of them toiled as meat packers in the stockyards.

State legislation, somewhat more restrictive than in the previous generation, ordinarily forbade child labor under the ages of twelve or fourteen; but even such laws were lacking in most Southern states and in few parts of the Union were they effectively enforced.

In an effort to recover for childhood a part of its natural heritage of outdoor recreation, a Boston society in 1885 tried the experiment of providing sand gardens for youngsters. The success of the undertaking led to an ampler provision of public playgrounds there and to imitation on the part of other municipalities. By the end of 1898, however, the movement had spread to but thirteen cities, mostly in the East.


As a special provision for poor and invalid children, the Reverend Willard Parsons of Sherman, Pennsylvania, devised the scheme of “country week” in 1877 to secure a blessed respite of blue sky and pure air during the stifling hot season—a plan quickly taken up by charitable organizations in leading cities and assisted by the “fresh-air funds” of enterprising newspapers.

For sons of the well-to-do, summer camps began to be established where city-bred boys were taught the ways of the woods under skilled instruction. The success of the first camp, at Squam Lake, New Hampshire, in 1881, caused others to be set up in New England, New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere until by the close of the period nearly a score were in operation.

If this generation did little more than glimpse the problem of conserving childhood under the new conditions of American life, at least it laid foundations upon which its successors were to build more soundly.


One pleasure the city could give young America which the country could not rival. This consisted in the variety and savoriness of the comestibles at hand.

Nor was the child specialist yet come to judgment, intent on turning into Dead Sea fruit the dainties most appetizing to juvenile palates.

On the Northern farm the long winter usually meant an uninterrupted routine of heavy foods without fresh fruit or green vegetables, followed by a general “spring sickness” which sent the people helter-skelter to the village druggist for tonics and “molasses ‘n’ sulphur.”

The city, on the other hand, with its concentration of wealth and population, supplied a market for the ready sale of myriad food products brought from all parts of the world by means of ever swifter transportation and improved methods of refrigeration.

Moreover, the sedentary habits of many urban dwellers, calling for a diet less burdened with meat, made them eager to diversify their fare and caused them to rely more on vegetables, salads, fish and fruit.

In the mid-century fresh fish had been available only to persons living near bodies of water; but in the eighties and nineties fish, caught in the Northern Pacific and transported several thousand miles, was daily supplied fresh to the markets of the Middle West and the Atlantic Coast.

Most tropical fruits—oranges, lemons, red-skinned bananas—were as abundant and cheap in the city as domestic fruits, sometimes cheaper, and their consumption increased greatly throughout the period. After the attractive exhibit of grapefruit at the Chicago World’s Fair epicures began tentatively to add that dish to their breakfast menu.

Steadily the factory invaded the precincts of the city kitchen, lightening the drudgery of the home and enriching the family dietary. Quaker Oats, Wheatena and other package cereals began to take the place of cornmeal mush and similar concoctions at the breakfast table.

The prejudice against baker’s bread as the mark of a lazy housewife waned in face of the greater convenience of commercially prepared loaves, though even town women usually continued to make their own cakes and cookies.

Factory-canned foods also came, for the first time, to occupy an important place in the housewife’s activities, After 1878 canning factories multiplied in the East and the Middle West while improved machinery cheapened the cost and increased the variety of the foods packed. By the mid-nineties the principal canned goods, in the order of their importance, were tomatoes, corn, milk, oysters, corned beef, salmon, sardines, peaches, peas and beans.


“Housekeeping is getting to be ready made, as well as clothing,” rejoiced one woman, who predicted that “Even the cook book may yet be obsolete, for every can of prepared food has a label with directions how to cook.”

At the same time synthetic food products made their appearance. The rapid spread of the use of oleomargarine in place of butter threatened a serious rift in the ranks of the Farmers’ Alliance movement in the 1880’s, with the dairy farmers opposing the cattle raisers and the Southern cottonseed crushers.

Not content with the restrictive measures adopted by nearly twenty states, the dairy interests induced Congress in 1886 to pass a law taxing oleo and regulating its sale. Though the antagonism to oleo was based on economic rather than sanitary grounds, the increasing part played by outside agencies in preparing food for the home made governmental supervision important as a health measure.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Slaughter House cases (1873) breathed new life into the efforts of states and municipalities to regulate the slaughtering of meat. Thanks to agitation by medical and health associations, pure-food laws were passed in 1881 by New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois, and before the end of 1895 twenty-three other states had followed their lead.

Milk came in for special attention because of its relation to infant mortality. Not only did the principal cities provide for systematic inspection of their sources of supply, but by 1900 twenty-nine states had pure-milk laws on their statute books. Aside from milk inspection, such laws were usually not well enforced, though Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Connecticut stand out as shining exceptions.

American cooking was not favorably regarded by foreign travelers though their opinion may have been influenced by national prejudices. The worst conditions prevailed in the country where the frying pan remained the mainstay of all cooking.

But even in the cities the ordinary American family cared more about the quantity than the quality of the food set before them. In such centers, however, inherited frontier culinary habits were becoming modified by contact with foreign peoples. Italian spaghetti and olives, Hungarian goulash and Chinese chop suey (unknown in China) were gastronomic contributions of the newer immigrant stocks as surely as the white potato and sauerkraut had been of earlier ones.

More important was the attention which Americans began to give to the subtleties of seasoning. In the five years following the removal of the tariff on unground spices in 1883 the amount of pepper, pimento, cloves and nutmegs imported into America doubled.

That cooking was a subject worthy of scientific study was recognized when the New York Cooking School was opened in 1874 and the Boston Cooking School three years later. The former had twelve hundred students enrolled in the winter of 1877-1878. Other schools were established in Philadelphia, Washington and elsewhere and courses were even introduced into the high schools.

At the same time dietary studies were undertaken by official and private agencies and the printing press groaned with the production of new and improved manuals and cookbooks.

Nor did the pleasures of between-meal eating escape attention, especially on the part of commercial caterers to the popular palate.

The simple candies of yore—peppermint sticks, gum drops, candy hearts inscribed with sentimental mottoes—were supplemented by boxed confections such as Gunther’s (Chicago) and Lowney’s (Boston).

Chewing gum won an army of addicts, notably among children and the vulgar classes.

Ginger beer, pop and other “soft” drinks acquired a new popularity, partly as a result of discoveries which made the artificial production of ice a commercial success.*

* Ice-making plants first appeared in the South in the 1870’s and, after the failure of the natural-ice crop in the two mild winters of 1888-1890, spread rapidly through the North.
Soda fountains, introduced by the previous generation, grew rapidly in number until, at the close of the period, perhaps sixty thousand were in use. Constructed imposingly of marble, onyx and various decorative metals, some of them cost as much as ten thousand dollars.


Few courtships lacked the odorous adjunct of the soda fountain. The young lady and her escort, having made their choice of syrups, waited in palpitant ecstasy while the attendant pulled the faucet first this way for the broad, silvery, foaming stream of soda and then that for the sharp hissing spurt which crowned the glass with iridescent bubbles.


As the cost of manufactured tobacco steadily declined and its quality improved, the tobacco habit affected an ever greater proportion of people. Red-blooded men smoked cigars and pipes and chewed tobacco, the latter habit being shared by men otherwise so dissimilar as James Whitcomb Riley, President Cleveland and the eminent zoologist, Professor W. K. Brooks of Johns Hopkins.

The new-fangled cigarette, on the other hand, bore the taint of the dude, the sissy and the underworld. Notwithstanding this stigma and the belief that the “insane asylums . . . are being constantly recruited from excessive smokers of the cigarette,” its use grew nearly nine times as fast as that of the cigar during the period. Perhaps as a quick nervous smoke it accorded better with the increasing tension of urban life.

In the world of fashion smoking in any form was frowned upon as a reprehensible masculine habit not to be practised in the presence of the other sex. It was even “bad form for a gentleman to smoke on streets . . . at the hours at which he will be likely to meet many ladies.”

At the dinner parties of the 1890’s, however, an increasing number of hostesses permitted their male guests to smoke, though any woman who ventured to join them would at once have placed herself beyond the pale.


The Home

The interior of the home showed signs of emerging from the reign of terror which had afflicted it in the preceding generation. In the early 1880’s the typical middle-class abode was still likely to be a museum of aesthetic horrors, the choicest rooms cluttered up with easels, bamboo stands, gilded rams’ horns, hand-painted rolling pins, and inverted glass domes sheltering wax flowers and china statuettes.

To complete the chaos, Japanese lanterns often hung from the ceiling and a painted iron heron stood one-legged amidst cat-tails beside the marble mantel. Such a home, for example, the Marches in Howells’s ‘A Hazard of New Fortunes’ found themselves obliged to take after six weary chapters of house hunting in New York.

But better things portended. While Mrs. John A. Logan, writing from Washington in the decorous traditions of senatorial conservatism, continued to hymn the advantages of turning cupid-decorated tambourines into photograph frames, another widely read authority, the sister of President Cleveland, was announcing that “every room in the house should be arranged for occupancy, having nothing too good for use,” and no room should be overcrowded.

American taste was steadily improving as Americans traveled more widely, as art museums and art schools multiplied, and as women’s magazines like the ‘Ladies’ Home Journal,’ founded in 1883, and ‘Good Housekeeping,’ dating from 1885, devoted increasing space to sanity in household decoration.

The Philadelphia Centennial in 1876 gave an important stimulus to better standards of home furnishing, particularly in the East, equaled only by the influence of the far superior exhibits of the World’s Fair of 1893 on the minds of countless thousands of Middle ‘Westerners.’

At the same time the aesthetic doctrines of the Englishmen Charles L. Eastlake and William Morris swept like a fresh breeze through American drawing rooms, helping to clean out much of the debris; and the efforts—not always successful—of manufacturers in Grand Rapids, Chicago and New York to duplicate the superior furniture at lower cost brought better-designed pieces into the homes of the masses.

Undoubtedly, too, the servant problem—”the great unsolved American Question,” according to one domestic authority—had a wholesome effect on the situation. Whether, as some maintained, the arrogant mistress was the problem rather than the impertinent maid, servants were hard to get and harder to keep despite the enormous immigration of these years.

Accordingly, common sense dictated greater simplicity in furnishings and the adoption of labor-saving devices to lighten housework. The introduction of courses in domestic science in high schools and universities helped also to raise housekeeping from a traditional folk exercise to somewhat the dignity of a profession.

Whatever the causes, the results were so marked that Judge Robert Grant described the typical American home of the mid-nineties as “intended for every-day use by rational beings.”’ He was referring, of course, primarily to city abodes because in smaller towns and in the country the older customs still held sway.

The changes can be followed in greater detail. Nothing was more revolutionary, perhaps, than the wide spread abolition of the parlor, a ceremonial room which, darkened with drawn shades and closed doors, had hitherto served as a sort of mortuary chapel for the reception of guests.


As the normal life of the family reached into all parts of the house other improvements were inaugurated. More and larger windows made the home cheerier as did also the replacement of dark gloomy wall paper with pale tints and simple chintz designs, and the substitution of lighter furniture for ponderous mahogany and black walnut.

Upholstery of glossy black horse hair once the pride of every middle-class household though always a mortification to the flesh, gave way rapidly to rep coverings or even to cretonne and plush.

In many homes metal bedsteads, for better or worse, replaced the old top-heavy wooden ones with their elaborate carved headboards reaching almost to the ceiling.

Carpets continued to stretch from wall to wall in the average house, but as the rough board floors were succeeded by evenly joined, polished ones, rugs became increasingly popular, commending themselves by reason of greater cleanliness and the possibility of more artistic effects.

At the same time better arrangements for plumbing and heating enhanced both comfort and safety.

The primitive plumbing of the 1870’s, by conveying noxious odors into the rooms, was often a threat to the family health, but with the introduction of improved methods and appliances, adopted under the prod of state and municipal inspection laws, a great change resulted in domestic sanitary equipment in the 1880’s.

Plumbing could no longer be installed in a first-class dwelling for about two hundred and fifty dollars, as in Civil War times, but was more apt to cost from two to four thousand dollars. Nowhere was the change more welcome than in the bathroom, which at the beginning of the period was usually small and gloomy, its atmosphere tainted with sewer gas.

As plumbing fixtures became more tasteful and the bath tub shed its zinc lining for white enamel or porcelain, the mistress of the house began to take a special delight in keeping this room spotless and airy.


Less alteration occurred in methods of heating. The base burner, with funereal urns on top and mica windows showing the blaze within, continued to be the chief resort of most homes; and any woman considered herself fortunate who owned a Crown Jewel, a Hub or an Art Garland.

Yet well-to-do families usually aspired to a hot-air furnace and, as the price of steam-heating and hot-water systems fell with the expiration of the basic patents, there was a notable expansion in the use of such furnaces as well.

In the kitchen the housewife learned to rely Increasingly upon a wide assortment of new conveniences, such as the steam cooker, double boiler, Dover egg beater, gas toaster, asbestos stove mat, triple saucepans and cake tins with removable bottoms.

More important perhaps was the introduction of aluminum ware shortly after 1890 in place of the iron or tin or granite variety. New metallurgical processes had made the metal almost as cheap as tin, and it won quick favor by reason of its lightness, durability and freedom from poisonous alloys.

Improved makes of washing machines also appeared and, thanks to the genius of Mrs. Potts, a practicable flatiron with a detachable handle was added to the equipment of the laundry. Even greater relief was promised by the enlarging patronage of commercial laundries by private families.

One form of drudgery, however, resisted all efforts at abatement: the washing of dishes.



Feminism, with considerably less success, sought to play a role in the reform of women’s clothing. In this domain Paris ruled supreme, and the law and the prophets required that the human figure be used to display clothes, not clothes the figure.

Most American women in the late 1870’s, tightly imprisoned in wasp-like waists, reveled in flounces and frills, their long, trailing skirts, drawn in at the bottom, making a quick gait impossible. The “street-cleaning-department style” it was called by a writer in ‘Harper’s Bazar.’

Underneath they were stuffed out with layers of garments known collectively as “unmentionables.”

Young women dressed like their elders and, by a natural law of descent, even the children were clad to look like premature grownups.

About 1880 began the vogue of the pannier, an overskirt draped up at the hips or back by means of a bustle.

With each season pannier draperies grew more “bouffant,” dress extenders or cushion bustles with steel springs being used to produce the desired effect.

A walking costume, described in the ‘Cosmopolitan’ for October, 1887, called for fifteen and a half yards of material twenty-two inches wide; a stylish frock for eighteen and a half yards.

But at the close of the decade the pannier was on the decline, while the skirt was worn wider at the bottom and the sleeves, hitherto tight, had become high and full.* The new mode reached its climax in 1896 in the leg-o’-mutton sleeve, puffed out balloonlike from a tight band below the elbow and projecting beyond the shoulder.

* Modish skirts in 1890 were from four and a half to five yards wide at the bottom.

Recurrent protests against the tyranny of fashion were based partly upon considerations of cost, but much more on the presumed unhealthful effects of long, heavy skirts, tight, high-heeled shoes and, worst of all, the breath-taking, steel-reinforced corsets.*

* Dr. R. L. Dickinson of Brooklyn estimated the pressure exerted by Corsets as varying, in given cases, from 21 to 88 pounds.


“Woman by her injurious style of dress,” asserted one physician, “is doing as much to destroy the race as is man by alcoholism.” “Niggardly waists and niggardly brains go together,” agreed Miss Frances Willard.

In the 1870’s the New England Women’s Club, led by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, had raised the banner of revolt, declaring war in particular against the corset, and had even opened a shop for the sale of “dress-reform garments.” Though a limited number of women, presumably in the vicinity of Boston, adopted the new “health waists,” evidence is overwhelming that, in general, the corset continued to hold its own.

Yet each year, by emphasizing anew the cramping effects of the prevailing styles upon the enlarging activities of women, prepared the way for a new rebellion.

In 1891 the National Council of Women of the United States, meeting in Washington, gave the matter of rational attire particular consideration. Its committee reported the following year in favor of a model based upon the “Syrian costume adopted by the English Society for Rational Dress, the short-skirted gown with leggins, and the new gymnastic suit.”

While no change so radical could hope for adoption, a wider vogue of “mannish styles” such as tailored suits and shirt waists, an increasing use of discreetly shorter skirts for business and even, in some cases, the wearing of divided skirts for bicycling gave promise of a better day.

By none were the caprices of fashion more hypnotically followed than by the leaders of society. But this generation remained more or less puzzled as to who were the leaders and just what was Society.


Social Climbers

Culture, wealth, family—no single criterion was conclusive.

In Boston, it was said, the question was, “How much do you know?”; in New York, “How much are you worth?”; in Philadelphia, “Who was your grandfather?”

In Chicago, social life remained “more fluid and undetermined than in Eastern large cities,” with the newly rich aspiring to inherit the kingdom. San Francisco was noted for its “terribly fast so-called society set, engrossed by the emptiest and most trivial pleasures.

Yet even in Boston and Philadelphia the forward thrust of postwar millionaires, merchant princes and railway barons was upsetting established values and introducing the gold standard.

Throughout the country in fact, even in the urban parts of the South, social gradations were rapidly taking the form expressed by the Englishman who said that “all humanity is divided into pounds, shillings and pence.”

The aspirations of social climbers were reflected in the appearance of a plethora of etiquette books, bearing such titles as ‘The Social Etiquette of New York’ (1878), The P. G., or, ‘Perfect Gentleman’ (1887) and ‘Success in Society’ (1888).

How should socially inexperienced but well-to-do nobodies manipulate a fork, wear a dress coat, know when and on whom to leave cards? How could they attain that lofty distinction of manner which would permit them to be ill-bred in a well-bred way? Invited to dine at the Coreys’ on the water side of Beacon Street, the ladies of Silas Lapham’s household consulted not one but several etiquette books to prepare for the great occasion.

The social game usually was played by the deft hands of women who often developed a skill of strategy and execution which exceeded that of their husbands on the Rialto.

Palatial mansions and livened retinues helped obscure the rise from humble origins.

Liberal patronage of fashionable charities might provide the magic key.

A busy guild of genealogists stood ready to furnish “ancestors.” Even Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy for a time paraded a coat of arms until her right to it was protested by the representative of the family in Scotland.


If such measures failed, there was always the possibility of a brilliant international marriage.

To upholders of a more genteel tradition, American society seemed to smack too much of the marriage mart.

“The parents launch their offspring as well as possible and display their wares to the greatest advantage, but the business of the market is carried on chiefly by the young girls themselves, instead of by their mothers as in England and Europe.”

“Care should be taken in presenting foreigners to young ladies,” cautioned one authority on etiquette, for “sometimes titles are dubious.”

Yet a surprising number of the sensationally rich families which came to the fore in the 1870’s and 1880’s succeeded in annexing a genuine foreign title by marriage.

It was estimated toward the end of the century that over two hundred million dollars had by this means been exported to replenish the coffers of impoverished European nobility. The year 1895 was especially glamorous in New York social annals by reason of three such alliances: the Paget-Whitney, the Castellane-Gould and the Marlborough-Vanderbilt.

When it was learned that the Duke of Marlborough and his new American duchess would attend the horse show, a frantic mob early choked the entrances, eager to render that uproarious acclaim which only a democracy can accord the hereditary distinctions of effete monarchy.

In every great city the citadels of exclusiveness were being assailed by the gold rush. The Vanderbilt fancy dress ball of March 26, 1883, the most sumptuous entertainment that had yet been given in America, marked the entry into New York society of the William K. Vanderbilts, whose grand-uncle, the “Commodore,” had begun his career as a ferryboat master.

Yet society, in the high and holy sense of the word, could not survive if the wife of every successful captain of industry should gain a place within the sacred portals. In order to maintain a judicious blend of patrician and parvenu, Ward McAllister, self-styled “Autocrat of the Drawing Rooms,” organized in 1872 the Patriarchs, a group of twenty-five socially impeccable men who assumed the function of censoring the guest lists at select gatherings.

A chance remark of McAllister in 1890 that about four hundred people in New York comprised the inner circle gave coinage to an expression which became synonymous the country over for the smart set. Every considerable city soon had its “Four Hundred,” and local newspapers vied with their New York contemporaries in giving prominence to society news.


As a matter of fact, the moneyed element was definitely setting the tone of New York society by the 1890’s.

A ten-thousand-dollar dinner for seventy-two guests at Delmonico’s no longer excited comment; pretentious winter residences in the city must be supplemented by luxurious summer homes at Newport, Bar Harbor, Lenox or Tuxedo; the courtly Knickerbocker strain had lost most of its influence.

Even Ward McAllister himself had become a butt of ridicule—”Would Make All-a-stir,” as someone derisively called him.


Even more shocking to most people was the growth of commercialized immorality. Primarily an urban phenomenon, it throve most extensively in the great population centers where unmarried men congregated in largest numbers and out-of-town visitors were numerous.

In New York, for example, vice catered to all tastes and purses—in “palatial bagnios” as well as in widely scattered medium-class houses and places of assignation, not to mention basement dives on the Bowery where, we may well believe, the business was “divested of the gaslight glare and tinsel of the high-toned seraglios.”

As in the seaboard metropolis, “sporting houses” existed in all parts of Chicago, though the traffic was most boldly carried on in the district between Harrison and Polk and between Clark and Dearborn streets. There, as in the red-light districts of other cities, the male passer-by after dark was almost certain to be hailed from curtained windows or accosted on the street by pert sauntering women.

The number of such wretched females cannot be known, but the circumstances which brought them to their life of shame and eventual disease are not difficult to understand. As one brothel keeper in Chicago told W. T. Stead, the English journalist, “Prostitution is an effect, not a careless, voluntary choice on the part of the fallen.”

Some prostitutes were country newcomers to the city, starved for companionship and lacking the wholesome restraining influence of neighborhood opinion. Others were shop-girls or housemaids eager for the pretty clothes and good times which their meager wages denied them.

Many more perhaps were the hapless victims of evil youthful surroundings in the slums, while still others were girls of feeble mentality who in a better-ordered society would have been under institutional care.

In the opinion of Stead’s informant, “the real cause lies not in the girls who fall, but in the social conditions that make the fall easy and the men who tempt to the step.

The situation was made worse by the growth of an organized traffic in “white slaves,” intercity in character, which often involved forcible induction into a life of vice.

Everywhere in the nation the law placed a ban on prostitution; but while municipalities outlawed the evil to prove themselves respectable, they condoned lax enforcement to prove themselves liberal.

In some places the authorities raided the vice resorts every month or so, imposing fines that amounted to an irregular license fee.


Elsewhere the police were apt to be in collusion with the keepers of disorderly houses, levying blackmail on them for their private gain. As we have seen, the Lexow investigation revealed such a system at work in New York, and Stead exposed a similar situation in Chicago.

Though without warrant in law, segregation was permitted or required in many cities; and in a few isolated cases, like that of Cleveland, the experiment was briefly tried of introducing the Continental European system of police registration and medical inspection.

The recurrent upheavals of civic reform generally disclosed the alliance of commercialized vice with corrupt politics and the liquor interests, and brought about a temporary improvement of conditions.

In general, community sentiment upheld the time-honored double standard of morality, which conceived of sexual promiscuity as permissible only for the male. Few reform officials were willing to emulate Police Commissioner Roosevelt in treating the men taken in vice raids precisely as their female companions, so far as the law allowed him to do so.

Serious as was the social evil, there was little spread of licentiousness upward through society; and foreign observers were justified in rating American standards of sexual morality as superior to those of most European countries.

* * *

< Back to Top of Page