What was life like for sex workers in the 18th and 19th centuries? For thousands of women, it was the only way to survive. But sex worker history contains some surprising facts, such as the reality that most of them actually lived with their boyfriends, and many had entire hygiene rituals, which even involved brushing their teeth (a rarity for the time). Notably, in this period, the word "prostitute" functioned differently than it does in contemporary language. At the time, the word might have referred to a sex worker or an unmarried woman living with a partner. As a result, sources from the period that use the term may or may not be referring to the modern concept.
Today, sex workers use code to communicate, and the same was true in the 18th and 19th centuries, like when men asked for "private theatricals" instead of propositioning actresses. And, unlike today, many high-end professionals wanted their names in prostitute directories, which listed their address, price list, and "bedroom specialties."
These individuals also cultivated meaningful friendships with their neighbors, saved up money to buy coffee shops, and worked day jobs as seamstresses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, plying the world's oldest profession was fairly common - 1 in 5 women in 18th-century London was a lady of the night - yet still dangerous, as these women feared the persistent threats of a vicious client or a jail cell.
Surprisingly, many sex workers in this era started the day by brushing their teeth. Although the practice was uncommon at the time, artifacts show that these women owned toothbrushes and tooth powder, the 19th-century version of toothpaste. In addition to toothbrushes, these professionals relied on hair combs and other tools to cultivate the right appearance. The industry was more visible than ever in the 1700s and 1800s, which meant that working women were compelled to present a manicured and attractive appearance.
These women knew that they would attract more clients by exuding good health and hygiene. Unlike many people at the time, they knew the value of a pretty smile.
After brushing their teeth, ladies of the night continued their morning routine by treating their diseases - including sexually transmitted ones. Research into the artifacts in a 19th-century cathouse uncovered one of the treatments: copaiba oil, used to combat stomach cancer, ulcers, and venereal diseases. These women also used vaginal syringes for cleanliness and disease prevention. Using substances such as mercury, arsenic, or vinegar, and the syringes were used to treat venereal diseases and induce abortions.
Since practitioners of the world's oldest profession either could not afford to see a doctor or were too embarrassed to seek one out, they often unknowingly poisoned themselves with toxins like mercury or arsenic. Between the dangers of disease and the toxins in the medicines used to cure them, surviving in the 18th and 19th centuries was difficult regardless of your vocation.
Many women in the industry in the 18th and 19th centuries weren't single - they often lived with boyfriends but were unmarried. In 1791, a London police magistrate claimed there were 50,000 "prostitutes" in London, but at least half of these women lived with a partner, and many likely had children as well. And, of course, not all of the women included in the count fit the modern understanding of the term. At the time, the word could be used to refer to both ladies of the night and women who lived with partners out of wedlock, so exact numbers are impossible to know. Many women walked the streets in their own neighborhoods, while others worked in red-light districts. Some practiced their trade at the dockyards of London or near Waterloo Station, which was known for "half-naked" women.
So, before you head out for your day of work, don't forget to kiss your partner goodbye.
In London, 18th-century sex workers wanted their names in Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies. The book, a directory of prostitutes, came out annually from 1757 to 1795. Each woman's listing included her address, price, and "bedroom specialties." Because Harris's List appealed to well-off gentlemen, women in the industry wanted to appear in its pages. After all, it was one of the era's best forms of advertisement.
One edition described Charlotte Hayes, a well-known lady of the night, this way:
Her eyes are grey, her hair is brown, and countenance as open as her heart; for, notwithstanding the varieties she has seen in life, she has not learned to deceive... Charlotte was born of English parents at Genoa, and brought to England very young. She is said never to have loved any man in her life but to be very extravagant.
If your name isn't in the book, try to track down the rakish poet suspected of authoring Harris's List, and see what you can do to convince him that you should be in his next edition.