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06/04/2013 12:31 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2013

Casual Sex and Bawdy Houses in 18th century Philadelphia

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Bawdy houses and bawdy sexual behavior in 18th-century Philadelphia? If you think this sounds like an oxymoron, think again.

At Philadelphia's historic Stenton mansion some time ago, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America sponsored a talk by Clarissa Dillon, Ph.D., a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and an expert in 18th century English domestic practices in Pennsylvania. Dillon, a retired teacher of 31 years, looked every bit the part: straight white hair with side curls a la colonial fashion, wire spectacles, a plain long Quaker-style dress.

Dillon's facial expressions, mannerisms, and total body language put you smack in the middle of the 18th century. In fact, listening to her lecture I felt as if I was eyeballing the reincarnation of someone from that time who had retained every distant memory.

Life in post-Revolutionary Philadelphia was anything but restrictive.

After the Revolutionary War Philadelphia experienced a sexual golden age, replete with casual sex in alleys, brothels, taverns, and anywhere else that seemed convenient.

Many referred to Philadelphia then as "Sin City."

Although there were many brothels or bawdy houses throughout the city, many of the city's brothels or bawdy houses were located in Southwark, then a home to artisans, unskilled laborers, and mariners.

"The nocturnal culture [in Philadelphia] was boisterous and bawdy," writes Richard Godbeer in his book, Sexual Revolution in Early America:

"Sailors, servants of both sexes, laborers, apprentices, and journeymen drank, sang, and brawled; single, married, widowed, deserted, and runaway denizens flirted, groped, and fornicated. The merrymaking often got out of hand: in March 1799 a young man was arrested for being 'stripped naked' in the street. Highly visible among these carousing pleasure seekers were women working as prostitutes. Readily available in taverns and brothels or outside in thoroughfares and byways, these 'ladies of pleasure,' were 'so numerous' observed one visitor to the city, that they 'flooded the streets at night.'" -- Chapter 9, Martyrdom to Venus: Sexual Freedom in Post Independence Philadelphia, p. 299

The New Republic was living a dream that could not last. Freedom from England did not mean the freedom to do anything you wanted to do with your body. The big Clamp Down would come later, but in the meantime, Philadelphians partied.

Venereal disease, the downside of libertine pleasure, was so common it ran rampant among city residents. Out-of-wedlock pregnancies and little illegitimate children were everywhere.

(If anything is true about this period in American history, it's this: So much for the myth of the "family values" of the nation's founding fathers!)

To handle the venereal epidemic, a Frenchman named Moreau de St. Mery ran a bookstore in the city from 1794 to 1798, which offered prophylactics and "cures" for venereal afflictions.

"But most Philadelphians didn't care," Godbeer writes.

Dillon said that bawdy houses were so common that neighbors generally left them alone as long as no trouble came from them. Trouble in a bawdy house often meant fights, noise, and gunshots. If a house was too troublesome, it was then razed by the neighbors. This was not done out of a sense of moral outrage, but for practical reasons, something that would not be true today.

Godbeer writes that, in the 18th century, men openly associated with prostitutes on the streets of Philadelphia. Financially needy women also slid in and out of the trade. A woman's sexual freedom was complete, and married men could live openly as if they were bachelors. The mid-18th century also saw the proliferation of erotic almanacs, pamphlets, and books. For the first time the lower classes had access to these materials.

All this casual sex led to a high number of illegitimate children. The unbridled atmosphere meant that in 1779 "at least one out of 38 adults was parent of a bastard," reports the William and Mary Quarterly (volume LXIII, No. 4).

Pennsylvania's first divorce law was passed in 1786, but before this law was enacted a husband could freely publish the fact that his wife had abandoned him and declare publicly that he was ending all financial support for her.

But the clock was ticking, and the Big Clamp Down was right around the corner.

The freedom of the wild late 18th century came to a screeching halt in the early 1800s. That's when the middle classes redefined the culture to accept what has come to known as male hypocrisy. These new social guidelines required sexual restraint from women, resulting in the isolation and alienation of the pleasure culture.

"The pleasure culture was relegated to the rabble in the streets... prostitutes were pushed out of legitimate society, and the children born out of wedlock were blamed and punished." (W&M Quarterly).

As the culture was redefined, Dillon said that female respectability was also redefined. A woman could choose only chastity or marriage, and anything in-between was seen as prostitution. Prostitution covered all non-marital sex.

Philadelphia soon adopted a more punitive system: unmarried pregnant women were forced into the almshouse and forced the other children of these women to work to pay off their debts.

Diaries, letters, and published accounts of the goings-on in this golden age of sexual freedom were soon bowdlerized by American Victorians. In many cases these documents were burned in bonfires.

At one point in her lecture, Dillon displayed a replica of an 18th century condom, a larger than usual (one size fits all) linen and lambskin sheath with two ribbons at the end for a snug tie around the penile shaft.

Dillon displayed the artifact with great humor and added that the ribbons could often he found in different colors to approximate the colors of a man's regiment.

At the lecture's end, I asked Dillon how she felt about the decriminalization of prostitution in today's world.

"Well, she said with great ambivalence, "I've been back and forth on that issue. So far nobody has pushed me to the wall about it. But... I don't know."

Not a half bad answer coming from a friend of the Colonial Dames.

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