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City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 Paperback – March 17, 1994


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (March 17, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393311082
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393311082
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #473,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This scholarly yet ribald history of New York City's "whorearchy" (as early wags termed the ladies of the night) also sheds light on present mores. Gilfoyle, who teaches at Chicago's Loyola University, has produced a Baedeker of NYC's early brothels, concert saloons and bawdy assignation houses. He shows how "unprecedented demographic growth, residential transience, deplorably low female wages, new real estate patterns and a sporting-male ideology and subculture undermined older patterns of sexual behavior after 1820." The details--erotic or shocking, depending on one's point of view--are here. Virgin prostitutes commanded the most money; 16-year-olds were over the hill. Quotes from such 19th-century periodicals as Rake and Whip prove that the Playboy philosophy existed long before Hugh Hefner. Yesteryear's prostitutes, the author demonstrates, were equivalent to today's homeless people--and plenty of New York men said yes to the "gay girls" who swarmed over the streets. Although he maintains an objective tone, Gilfoyle evinces a muted libertine enthusiasm for the demi-monde. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

Prostitution in New York City flourished throughout the 19th century, offering high profits to landlords and fueled by immigration, low female wages, political corruption, and the sexual mores of the age. Gilfoyle's study, based on his 1987 Ph.D. dissertation, analyzes New York prostitution's growth and ultimate decline, its operation, its opposition, and (perhaps rather too minutely) its geographical distribution. He points to the political system that supported red light districts and to the overlap of commercialized sex with socially respectable entertainment. Though occasionally repetitious, his work is solidly researched, clearly organized, and a useful contribution to research collections. The manuscript won the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians.
- Nancy C. Cridland, Indiana Univ. Libs., Bloomington
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Kimberly S. Stanley on February 20, 2001
Format: Paperback
This book was fascinating. I suppose I am not that well educated, because I had no idea how prevalent and how public prostitution was in the nineteenth century.
This book intricately weaves capitalism, social custom, and sex into a compelling narrative of nineteenth century New York City. The author doesn't just say that prostitution was prevalent, he cites newspapers, letters, public records, art, novels, circulars and other publications from the 1900s, which leave the reader in no doubt that prostitution was one of the leading industries of NYC at that time. The image of packs of teenage prostitutes roaming Broadway and the Bowery, (some as young as 10 or 12), will stay with me forever.
The writer goes on to illustrate how the lack of career opportunities for women and the exorbitant rents of Manhattan drove many women into the sex business. For most of these women, there were few choices: live in extreme poverty or turn a few tricks and have decent lodgings, food and clothing. Most of these women didn't think of themselves as "fallen". They were doing what was necessary to survive. They went willingly into prostitution so that their lives could be better. Ironically, although it was business that victimized and objectified women, prostitution gave many of them entrepreneurial opportunities. The sex business made some women rich.
It is interesting to note that the very society that reviled these women directly benefited from the real estate boom that the sex business made possible. Poor people couldn't have afforded the high rents, but prostitutes were able to. Once landlords realized how much more prostitutes could pay, they were happy to have them instead of "decent people".
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By mojo_navigator on June 25, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I will start with the negative comments regarding this book and say that the prose does tend to be somewhat dry. This does not make for the easiest of readings and additionally, I often found Gilfoyle's tendency to state a point and then simply list examples of individuals to back his claim tedious and clumsy.

Also, the focus is somewhat meandering. Despite the title, City Of Eros doesn't necessarily stick to it's topic of prostitution but ends up venturing into the areas of pornography and literature. There is one utterly pointless chapter entitled 'A Gay Literature' which deals exculsively with the role of the prostitute in literature which I felt was wholly unnecessary and diverting.

But this is where the criticisms end. In the main, City of Eros is a splendidly researched piece that at it's best moments, truly conjures up the spirit, atmosphere and grunge of 19th Century New York. The slums of Five Points is truly brought to life as is the general experience of being a prostitute/madam/pimp/customer in those times. The sense that one comes away with is that of a city riddled with overt prostitution - it was everywhere, in plain view and considered to be an integral and accepted part of New York society. It's also interesting to note how little has changed regarding the media's hysterical portrayal of prostitution. The truth is that, then as now, coercion was rarely employed. Most women who engaged in this kind of activity did so for short periods of time in between employment or even to supplement the low incomes earned as seamstresses and servants.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Ricky Hunter on November 9, 2000
Format: Paperback
Timothy J. Gilfoyle's City of Eros looks at New York City in its "century of prostitution", roughly from 1820 to 1920. He gives much more than a narrative history (although certainly many personalities and stories do shine through) as he looks at the broader picture and includes a taste of nineteenth sociology, a dash of its politics, and a smidgen of its literature and culture as it pertains to sex. Through the entire book, the most strongly drawn character becomes New York City itself as the reader is almost invited to see a city that is teeming with commercial sex throughout the entire island of Manhattan. The commercialization of sex, despite the efforts of vice puritans, changes more because the city changes. It was interesting to see the commercialization of sex tied in with other forms of commerical enterprise. A fitting companion to this book would be The Murder of Helen Jewett by Patricia Cline Cohen. Read Timothy Gilfoyle's book for the broader picture and Patricia Cohen's for some of the finer, more personal details. A wonderful read with much information.
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Format: Paperback
Sex. At one time or another it's on everybody's mind. For some people, sex is more than a thought, it's a business. And what a business it was in New York from the late 18th through the early 20th Century.

Timothy Gilfoyle has done an impressive job of researching all aspects of the business of prostitution.(Roughly one-third of the pages are notes, sources, references and index.)

Gilfoyle covers the saga of how the sex industry grew with New York; the changing nature of the perception of prostitutes by New Yorkers; the economic structure of the sex business in New York; how reformers tried and failed to put an end to it; the roles of race, class and immigration; the rise of the pimp and how modern times diminished the role of prostitution. (These capsule descriptions are from the dustjacket of the hard cover edition which is remarkable in itself as an accurate summary of a book.)

Gilfoyle is an extraordinary researcher. Better yet, he is also a talented author. Unlike far too many academics who cannot construct a simple sentence, Guilfoyle writes clearly and concisely, turning his veritable mountain of evidence into a compelling narrative of a fascinating subject.

How did prostitutes see themselves? Did they perceive themselves as the "fallen women" of folklore? Or was prostitution actually a liberating occupation that gave women the opportunity to create their own wealth? Were they "white slaves"? Gilfoyle expores this subject and it is fascinating to see how the business changed from decade to decade.

Who benefited from prostitution? Lots of people. Gilfoyle does remarkably well here showing that prostitution benefited many people in many ways.
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