One time, in New Orleans, prostitution was legal

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One time, in New Orleans, prostitution was legal and marketed to tourists.

Not exactly the sales pitch you would hear today from the city's tourism gurus. But, for a 20-year period at the turn of the 20th century, prostitution was legal inside the red-light district of Storyville.

"Storyville was a social experiment in the control of vice," says Pamela D. Arceneaux, senior librarian and rare books curator at The Historic New Orleans Collection. "It was established by an act of the city council in 1897 to go into effect January 1, 1898.​"

The man behind the idea was Alderman Sidney Story, hence the name of the district. It was also called "the Tenderloin" (like similar red-light districts around the country) and simply "the District." It was located in roughly the same area as the Iberville Housing Development: Basin St. to North Robertson Street and St. Louis Street to Iberville Street.

Like today, New Orleans was a tourist destination. So, shrewd businessmen added "pay for sex" to the list of things to do for visitors.

"There were these guides: the blue books," says Arceneaux. "And, the blue books were marketing tools that advertised the district--its brothels and services--to men coming to town for a little getaway, as it were."

Arceneaux wrote the book on the blue books called Guidebooks to Sin. She says city officials were trying to turn New Orleans into a winter destination. Adding Storyville as an attraction would appeal to northern men who were escaping cold winters and looking for a way to warm up.

Alas, Storyville would not last forever.

"By 1917, the rising class of moralists--middle class, conservatives, progressives--thought that this sort of containment of vice in a red-light district was ineffective," explains Arceneaux. "So, they were calling not for the containment of prostitution, but the total eradication of prostitution."

World War I was another contributing factor to the demise of Storyville. Arceneaux says the military ordered all red-light districts within five miles of a military installation to close down because too many recruits were testing positive for venereal diseases.

Legal prostitution ended in Storyville in November, 1917. But, some of what city planners learned during its lifetime lives on today.

"Think Bourbon Street," says Arceneaux. "Bourbon Street has inherited the mantle of a raucous entertainment district that Storyville had been."

"New Orleans already had a reputation as a somewhat wicked city. And, the idea of this city ordinance creating a legal red-light district--it sort of underscored the fact that everything goes here. Fun is the watchword."

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