The "Working Girls" of Scranton

I need to open this with an apologia from your dramaturg.

What I have here is based on a vice report conducted in 1915, discussing the state of prostitution in Lancaster, Pennsylvania at that time. Other information about prostitution in Pennsylvania has unfortunately been notoriously difficult to track down; I did find one book that covered prostitution in Colorado, with half of the final chapter devoted to its downturn in 1930, and I found a lot of economic, human rights, and women's studies papers about prostitution today; but when it comes to prostitution in Scranton in the early 1930's in specific, there just ain't much.

However – there are some scholars who would argue that this difficulty is not because prostitution wasn’t going on; on the contrary, they say it may be because it was so common as to escape notice. This Lancaster vice report exists because town fathers in Lancaster got a lot of pressure to clean things up – Scranton, however, may simply have been comfortable enough to turn a blind eye to things.

We do know that houses of prostitution existed in Scranton during the late 20’s and early 30’s – nearly about a hundred houses were active during this era. So this information, while not quite the right time or the right city, is at least in a similar city and within recent memory of the show’s period. In other words: take this all with a grain of salt.

There were degrees of prostitution; at the higher end were the brothels, and the streetwalkers were at the bottom of the totem pole. At the brothels, the women gathered with the patrons in the parlor, and when a gentleman found a favorite, the couple would slip away to one of the bedrooms on the premises. Usually there were about four or five women per house, and would meet patrons in the parlor in various states of undress – robes, peignoirs, kimonos, satin and silk. Some houses specialized in providing an upper-class experience, furnishing the parlor and the rooms with the most up-to-date décor and instilling good manners and refinement amongst the women. Some brothels specialized even more and discreetly implied that a patron with unusual tastes, shall we say stood a chance of being accommodated; they didn’t spell out what they would do, but one madame in Lancaster did confess to offering younger teenaged girls, as well as “two couples in one bed and circus business like that.”

Even though the women were “well-bred,” they were often still pretty open about what was happening at the house, with individual women soliciting throughout the city. Other “marketing” came via recommendations from hotel clerks or messengers; visitors to the city would discreetly ask about local “sporting houses”, as brothels were sometimes known, and would be directed to one or the other house. Some madams made deals with the clerks at various hotels to give their own brothels an exclusive recommendation.

The better-class houses also brought doctors in once a year to give everyone a physical, and also provided abortions when necessary. The less-well-off houses didn’t always provide medical care for the workers, and were a little seedier in terms of décor and in terms of the appearance, and sometimes the hygiene, of the girls. Rather than attracting clients discreetly through word of mouth and meeting them in a parlor behind closed doors, the cheaper houses attracted customers by sending their girls to loll in the doorway and on the sidewalk, dressed in kimonos, and chat up passersby.

Then there were the girls who weren’t connected to a brothel. Some prostitutes were streetwalkers, soliticing men in railroad stations, theaters, or bars and dance halls. If they met a john, sometimes they would be able to take him to a hotel or a “bed house,” establishments which were also owned by madams who took a share of the price. Others settled for cheap rooms in hotels found close to the local bars. In the 1920’s, when automobile ownership was skyrocketing, still other prostitutes did away with the expense of hotels altogether, conducting their business right in their clients’ own cars.

Customers came from all walks of life, from captains of industry to traveling salesmen. Railroad workers were especially frequent customers as they often had down time in Scranton while on a job, and with only a certain amount of down time they wanted to whoop it up a bit. College students – perhaps unsurprisingly – were also frequent clients. In Lancaster, some madams reported bringing in extra girls during special events, “corn-fed girls” from the surrounding rural communities.

The girls who worked in the brothels paid a portion of their pay taken to cover their room and board, and medical expenses. In the teens, brothels also sometimes sold alcohol for an extra profit (however, one brothel actually billed itself as a “Temperance” establishment, in an effort to attract a higher-class clientele). In the brothels, sometimes a woman received ten “visitors” per night. It’s difficult to say how many the streetwalkers saw.

In Scranton in the 30’s, madams continued to escape the law by paying off the authorities or buying “protection” from the Mafia, and thus escaped noticed. Things were similar in our 1915 vice report; some investigators found officers hanging around in the parlors, chatting with the girls and sometimes eating meals with them. Some even stayed around long enough to avail themselves of the girls’ services once their shifts ended. Often police and authorities turned a blind eye because the madams tried to keep order in the houses, and because big-name businessmen frequented them. Other houses were kept protected by public officials, keeping them open because they knew they would lose entire voting constituencies if they cracked down.

The vice report referenced above lead to a big crackdown on prostitution in Lancaster in 1916, and many of the Lancaster brothels were closed. But other communities, including Scranton, still had a lively red-light district, and the increase in car ownership may have simply lead to folks from Lancaster joining the “out of towners” who stopped in. Other big customers in the Scranton brothels included Big Band musicians – often musicians liked getting gigs in Scranton, because they could use Scranton as a home base for a regional series of concerts; they’d get a hotel room in Scranton for ten days and book a series of other performances in surrounding towns. That way they’d be able to come back to Scranton each night, where the red light district was waiting, and enjoy female companionship each night.


jw said...

very interesting. I dont drink so i cant ask u to hav one with me but do u want to go out?

Anonymous said...

I has a great Aunt named Lydia McVicar who at one time had a brothel in Scranton Pa. I'm guessing in the 1920's or before.
I do know that it was across the street from the Times Tribune Paper and the name of the hotel she and her husband managed was The Eastman Hotel
She married 4 times so I don't know what her husbands name was that owned the hotel with her.
Have you ever heard of that hotel?

Sandy Moran