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December 10, 2018

This 170-year-old listicle details the best and worst Philadelphia brothels

Center City and Society Hill was full of them

Odd News History
042516_SocietyHill_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The 300 block of South 2nd Street in Society Hill.

How did 19th-century dudes find the brothel of their choice in a world before Yelp and Incognito Mode?

In Philadelphia, they may have used this handy booklet detailing the city's "gay houses and ladies of pleasure," a guide printed in 1849 and now part of The Library Company of Philadelphia.

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For example, on Pine Street near 12th, one could find an "elegant house" where a Mrs. O'Neil lived, described as "a splendid woman, and in point of accomplishments and education she was indeed a Queen."

Mrs. O'Neil sounds preferable over Sarah Ross, on "Passyunk Road, below German," which "is one of the worst conducted houses in the city," perhaps unliked because "the girls, though few in number, are ugly, drunken, and vulgar."

Similar reviews, in addition to several extremely racist passages, paint a picture of the city almost 170 years ago, when a brothel seemed as common as a Starbucks. The guide also highlights many historic buildings, easy to find today, that once played host to the world's oldest profession.

The space at 315 Pine St., for example, was once home to Miss Jones, with the review, "Those who have visited this house speak very highly of its internal arrangements."

That lack of detail would not exactly be fit to print in today's listicles.

The artifact was printed at a time when parlor house brothels in the U.S. were at their most relevant; more than 200 existed in lower Manhattan by mid-1800s alone (subsequently exposing about 75 percent of men in New York with some kind of sexually transmitted disease). It was not until the early 1900s that reform around prostitution, specifically against sex slavery in the U.S., began to take shape.

Take a look through the 1849 guide here.

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