Were There Sex Shops in the Time of George Washington?

No, but there were plenty of brothels.

A sex shop

The opening of a sex shop in the historic district of Alexandria, Va., has generated outrage among local residents, who claim such a business sullies an area once frequented by the Founding Fathers. Were there sex shops in George Washington’s day?

No. There is little record of sex toys, let alone a sex toy industry, from America’s Colonial era. To the extent that Colonials used sex props, they would have made them on their own. (In one of the few references to sex and inanimate objects from the time, a 17th-century New York court described a prostitute flamboyantly measuring her clients’ penises using a broomstick.) Nevertheless, there were plenty of brothels in the Colonial era, especially in port cities like Alexandria.

American prostitution was rare and clandestine and practiced mostly on a casual basis through the mid-18th century. Occasionally, tavern owners were prosecuted for operating “disorderly houses,” but such cases were rare, and the penalty was a small fine or a few lashes—a slap on the wrist by Colonial standards. In the early 1700s, Boston minister Cotton Mather attempted to form a group to oppose brothels but met widespread public indifference due to the relative invisibility of the problem in America.

Sex workers multiplied dramatically by the mid-1700s. American cities began to grow along with maritime trade. That brought increasing numbers of sailors, and brothels opened to suit them. When George Washington was a young man, brothels could be found in port cities like New York; Philadelphia; Charleston, S.C.; and Newport, R.I. * In 1753, Bostonian Hannah Dilley pled guilty to permitting men “to resort to her husband’s house, and carnally to lie with whores.” (Dilley was sentenced to stand on a stool “at least five feet in height” outside the courthouse, holding a sign describing her offense.) Prostitution was ubiquitous in Philadelphia’s “Hell Town,” the prototype for the red light districts that would spread across America in the next century. Benjamin Franklin himself admitted to hiring his share of strumpets, as he called them. While we do not know whether Alexandria had its own bawdy house when Washington passed through, it was a growing port city with a large transient population.

Colonial-era brothels did not hang out shingles or post flyers, but a would-be patron could learn about their services in a tavern or from his shipmates. Despite Mather’s early efforts, there was no systematic attempt to close the urban brothels. Men were almost never prosecuted for soliciting a prostitute, and the prostitutes themselves were only occasionally brought before a judge. When government officials did order a raid, the police didn’t always cooperate. Many police officers protected the brothels in exchange for money, food, or other payments. Working-class neighbors, irritated by official inaction, would periodically riot and burn down a brothel.

George Washington encountered commercial sex in another setting, as general of the Continental Army. During the Revolutionary War, packs of women known as “camp followers” assisted the troops with wound care, cooking, laundry, and other services, sometimes including prostitution. Soldiers also slipped out of camp and visited New York’s brothels, which they called the “Holy Ground.” Venereal disease became so common that the army began deducting pay from afflicted soldiers as punishment.

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Explainer thanks John D’Emilio of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Correction, March 3, 2009: Because of an editing error, the original version identified Charleston as being in Virginia. (Return to the corrected sentence.)