The Power of Sex and Money: Storyville

Storyville was a well-known, semi-legal vice district in New Orleans from 1897 to 1917. Prostitution, gambling, and live jazz fueled the streets, bringing visitors from all over the world to experience what was growing into one of the city’s largest tourist attractions and money maker. Some scholars of jazz believe that swing started in Storyville, and we know for sure that the original jazz greats made names for themselves in the brothels along Basin Street.

Storyville got its name from Sidney Story, who wrote the legislation that “legalized” the district, based off of the vice restrictions used in other port cities infamous for their pleasurable activities. The new legislation bound all prostitution to the area between North Robertson, Iberville, Basin and St. Louis streets just outside the French Quarter. Some locals believed that “lewd women” were getting out of control, and tarnishing the image of the fancy little shops along Royal Street, so the legislation was met with approval from many business owners, some of which went on to open businesses in the district.
Tom Anderson, nicknamed the “mayor” of Storyville, published what was known as Blue Books, which were sought after by visitors for their scandalous information. A Blue Book could be purchased for 25 cents. Blue Books were created for tourists and those unfamiliar with this area of New Orleans and contained, in alphabetical order, the names of all the prostitutes of Storyville. It also included, in a separate section, the addresses of these prostitutes and separated them based on race. Blue Books could be purchased throughout the District in various barbershops, saloons, and railroad stations. Primarily they were sold on the corner of Basin Street and Canal Street.White man can find black prostitute. and black men can find white prostitutes. Remember this was when Plessy v. Ferguson became the law. Storyville is  rare spot in the United States that allow white and black coexist together for a time while rest of the country is divide on race.

Lula White, probably the most well-known madam in Storyville, operated a luxurious brothel called Mahogany Hall, which employed prostitutes that were considered Octoroon, meaning one eighth African American. Quadroons, which meant one quarter African American, were also popular with male clients and were considered an exotic temptation unique to New Orleans. Mahogany Hall, like many of the other brothels in the district, was full of lavish mirrors and expensive, fine wines and liquors. Other brothels on the outskirts catered to those with less money, beer joints where fights broke out and pleasures of the working man could be had.
Money was flowing in Storyville. Madams and Brothel owners became very wealthy and hire musicians to play to brothels and clubs. Many famous jazz musicians made a name for themselves in Storyville, including King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Here they were given more freedom to play how they wished compared to hotels in the French Quarter, many of which would not even allow jazz music in their establishments. After the district closed, many jazz musicians left for Chicago or New York where their reputations flourished.

E.J. Bellocq, an unknown photographer at the time, eternalized the women of Storyville in his photographs. Bellocq was friends with many of the women who worked in Storyville, and snapped photos of them posing in their rooms. The photos are now priceless, sought after pieces and are some of the only photographs from the era. The faces of some of the women have been crossed out, the reason for which is a mystery debated to this day. Bellocq died in 1949 and is buried in St. Louis Cemetery Number 3.

Storyville closed in October of 1917 after the beginning of World War One, after it was ordered that no prostitution be within five miles of an American military base. You see this was a time before the invention of penicillin and other antibiotics. Sexually transmitted diseases were becoming a major problem across the United States, and after a few soldiers were actually killed in the district shortly after their arrival, it was forced to shut down. Prostitution quickly became illegal again that same year, but sex work still existed in the area regardless of increased police presence. Most of the buildings were demolished during the Great Depression for public housing, now only three known buildings remain: Lulu White’s Saloon, Joe Victor’s Saloon, and Tark “Terry” Musa’s store, formerly known as the Early Saloon. The district may be long gone, but the effects it had on tourism in New Orleans were long lasting.

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