One March evening in 1846, Sydney Southworth paid a visit to Boston’s National Theatre. Southworth was a radical reformer and a member of the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, an experimental utopian commune connected with the abolitionist movement. Boston reformers of all varieties (there were many causes that inspired the religious-minded activists of the 1830s and 40s) were rarely avid theatergoers. Theater, after all, was a morally bankrupt form of amusement that drew men and women away from the pursuits of industry, discipline, and self-betterment, leading them down a path of sensual indulgence and profligacy. Southworth wasn’t there for mere sensual indulgence. As he explained in his letter to the Friend of Virtue, Boston’s moral reform periodical, Southworth was there to investigate the “in-famous...third row,” the part of the theater where men and women “abandoned themselves to the most loathsome of all vice”—that is, the region of the theater set aside for arranging sexual assignations between patrons and clients.
The third row—or third tier, as it was also called—was a long established feature of British and American theaters, but one that was slowly passing away. By the mid-1840s, theaters in the United States were being remodeled to eliminate the third tier and new venues like the Howard Athenaeum were build without them entirely. The Howard, which would open in Boston that fall, was marketed as a genteel venue that could be safely patronized by the middle classes. There would be no beer, no third row brothel, and no working-class rowdies at the Howard. The National was another matter. This is probably what made it a place for Southworth to investigate. As more and more middle-class Americans began attending theater and viewing it as an acceptable form of amusement, the places in which this older culture of vice lingered were more urgently in need of reform. That summer, Boston would revise its licensing codes to try and eliminate prostitution from theaters. Investigations like Southworth’s support the campaign for reform.
But what made prostitution a problem? In what ways was it bad? Southworth shared with moral reformers an understanding of prostitution as a crime in which men and women gave free reign to the baser passions of their nature. To be virtuous and moral was to rise above those passions. For many reformers, this involved a range of lifestyle choices, including avoiding sugar and meat, novels and plays, and of course, bad company—that is, unless you were working to rescue and reform the fallen.
Southworth, ever the consummate reformer, had been in the company of the “vilest of men.” Yet even they were “civil and decent, when placed in juxtaposition with those women.” Southworth was shocked by what he saw at the National. In fact, the behavior of Boston’s prostitutes violated his notions of acceptable feminine behavior far more than the nature of their profession. Southworth shuddered for the “young men who are enticed to such a hell,” but he believed it was possible to “rise out” of this “slough” of “degradation.” This might require “heroic self-reliance,” but it was possible. The women were another matter. He illustrated this by talking about their language. “I could not have imagined that feminine lips could give utterance to such horrible filthy thoughts,” Southworth explained, but would not give a more “precise” report: “To be known it must be seen.”
Women in 1840s America were idealized, elevated in the context of what historians have called a “cult of domesticity.” Americans believed that women were by nature the more moral and refined sex. Likewise, female virtue was an all-or-nothing game. As all women knew, and religious reformers of all varieties were careful to remind young girls, one false step from the path of virtue and a woman would rapidly succumb to a life of infamy. This coded language spoke with ominous clarity: have sex and you will wind up on the streets. Or as Southworth explained, woman’s higher nature made her far more vulnerable and susceptible than man:
In short, for Southworth, prostitutes were far worse than their dissolute customers and might even be beyond the hope of redemption. These were women “so transformed by vice” that nothing remained except “dross, lees, [and] refuse.” While some moral reformers called out sexual double standards, the crime and tragedy of prostitution was, for all reformers, calculated against the idealized notions of femininity. Prostitution was more alarming for turning women into “creatures” that seemed, to genteel observers like Southworth, to be unrecognizable as women.