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”SIDEWALK’S QUEENS ”: THE ECONOMICS OF
POPULAR PROSTITUTIONS IN FIN-DE- SIÈCLE
Alexandre Frondizi, Simon Porcher
To cite this version:
Alexandre Frondizi, Simon Porcher. ”SIDEWALK’S QUEENS ”: THE ECONOMICS OF POPU-
LAR PROSTITUTIONS IN FIN-DE- SIÈCLE PARIS. The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of
Prostitution, 2016. �hal-02145841�
”: THE ECONOMICS OF POPULAR PROSTITUTIONS IN FIN-DE-
Alexandre Frondizi and Simon Porcher
Fin-de-siècle Paris was the symbol and one of the world metropolises of public
prostitution. However, the analysis of its economy has gone largely unnoticed in the social
sciences literature. For historians, the profound influence of Michel Foucault’s work on
researchers who studied sexualities which are framed and marginalized by the technologies of
power may also account for this absence
. The impact of virtualities conveyed by readily
available sources, such as regulations, official speeches or the innumerable books and papers
authored by physicians, policemen and others hygienist essayists, moralizing likes with a soft
spot for the picturesque, is altogether undeniable. Although a few paragraphs were dedicated
to brothel owners, historiography has failed to address the role of the economic agents of
Paradoxically enough, economists neither studied until recently the economics of
prostitution which is based on markets as other informal activities. Sex workers cluster in
some districts to be visible to their buyers and generally align their tariffs but can compete on
their specific characteristics or the services they are willing to provide. This concentration of
This expression comes from a letter of an inhabitant of the district of La Goutte d’Or, APP, JC, BM2, carton 51,
Boulevard de la Chapelle, Dosier général, Lettre, 26 avril 1913. Some elements of this chapter have recently
been discussed in FRONDIZI, Alexandre and PORCHER, Simon, “Informal Urban Economy: a Historical Approach
of Paris Street-level Prostitution (1870-1914)”, Robert B. Shuman Award of the best student paper, Academy of
Management, Boston, August 2012.
Alexandre Frondizi is a Ph.D. candidate at Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po; Simon Porcher is research fellow
at IAE Paris, Sorbonne Business School.
FOUCAULT, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Translated by Alan Sheridan, New York:
Pantheon Books, 1978 , pp. 333; FOUCAULT, Michel, The History of Sexuality, vol. I, An Introduction,
Translated by Robert Hurley, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978 , pp. 168.
sex workers can generate negative externalities for the neighborhood, positive externalities for
some shopkeepers and the development of informal economy. The Belle Epoque is an
interesting time period to study when one considers informal economy. For the first time, the
whole economy became formal as France was turning into an industrialized country. In such a
context, it was therefore surprising to witness the development of an informal economy which
was becoming visible to both the population and the authorities. Being characterized by a
clear development of the outdoor prostitution phenomenon, this period has spurred debates
between historians. On the one hand, some like Corbin (1978) argued that the gentrification of
Paris led to an increasing activity in unregulated prostitution based on seduction. On the other
hand, Harsin (1985) argued that legal and administrative changes liberalized the access to
keep bars while shopkeepers or landlords involved in prostitution faced diminishing entry
costs of prostitution as associated penalties and punishment became smaller. There are
however no clear-cut answers to this debate, neither from an historical perspective nor from
an economic point of view.
This chapter aims at understanding the economic rationalities of the different actors of
the informal public prostitution network and at measuring how their behavior impacts the
financial considerations of the other actors of the urban economy. This chapter follows an
economic history perspective which enables us to show that the meaning of prostitution varied
largely depending on the immediate socio-geographic context. It also gives us the tools to
fully grasp the complexity of an economic configuration based on power struggles and
dynamics, without simplifying them. We feel the economic issues which are street
prostitution specific but which also enlighten other issues of the modernization of urban
economies in the Western world are best apprehended by a thick description of the economic
practices which built up a local space – the working-class La Goutte-d’Or district – where
streetwalkers were remarkably numerous
. This sort of historical ethnography is the result of a
thorough consultation of testimonies bequeathed by all those who were concerned by the
dynamics of sex trade. The echo chamber created by these archives of the Préfecture de police
– the headquarter of the Parisian police – sheds light on an economic reality in which a variety
of figures intervene : prostitutes and clients, procurers and madams, wine merchants and small
local business-owners, watchmen and policemen, landlords and building owners
interests of these economic agents combined very differently and were at times
complementary and at others strictly antagonistic. One needs to explore the way these
strategies shaped and structured the local economic space, notably by untangling the more or
less conflictual ties between the informal economy of public prostitution and the formal
economy of the district.
THE STREETWALKER, AGENT OF A BAZAAR ECONOMY
One needs to start with the peripatetitians’ place in the urban market before moving on
to the actual relationships they entertained with other economic agents of the public
prostitution. Describing their practices, and attempting to see how the latter might fit in longer
term professional paths will allow us to qualify the status and the economic activity of these
women who offered sexual services to Parisian passerbys.
“Landing on the sidewalk”?
GEERTZ, Clifford, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of Culture” in The Interpretation of
Cultures: Selected Essays, New-York: Basic Books, 1973, pp. 3-30.
The chapter uses information sources come from qualitative records of arrests from the Préfécture de Police de
Paris, the highest police administration at the regional level and letters of complaints from neighbors directly to
the Préfet de Police and records of surveillance and raids from the brigade mondaine, the vice police squad in
charge of regulating and enforcing prostitution.
For more methodological details and non-economic dimensions of public prostitution, see the original work
from which this chapter is built on : FRONDIZI, Alexandre, Histoires de trottoirs: prostitution, espace public et
identités populaires à la Goutte-d’Or, 1870-1914, Paris: MA Dissertation at the Doctoral School of Sciences Po,
2007, 331 pp.
According to Simmel (1988), one of the keenest observers of the birth of capitalist
metropolis, 19th century society coerced a group of women into sacrificing their bodies to
satisfy the sexual urges of young bachelors, which preserved the bourgeois conception of
. Although this interpretation somewhat exaggerates their passivity in the process,
the fact remains that street prostitutes were subjected to a double economic exploitation.
The street prostitutes’ age, their social and geographic origin coincide with the beliefs
of the day, that is that women turned to prostitution because of a shortage in urban work
available for them. It might be more adequate to talk of a “partial validation”, whereby
prostitution would not be a mere mechanical effect, but the result of a choice under
constraints. In any case, it was the product of a choice under a bounded rationality. Being
excluded (unemployed) or sidelined from the urban economy which offered them part-time
jobs (off-season) and apprentice salaries which made them dependent on their spouse or their
family, some young workers used prostitution as a way to achieve financial independence.
This professional alternative allowed them to leave the stifling and often exploitative
domestic economy of working-class families. That was also true of women who were also
excluded from the marriage or cohabitation due to their young age
. The act of leaving
prostitution has received less scholarly attention and reinforces the hypothesis of limited
rationality, since the streetwalkers did not hesitate to leave the profession when the job market
had something more favourable in store for them. A vast majority left the profession when
between the ages of 25 and 35, when marriage prospects were better suited to their interests.
Such is the story of one of the prostitute observed in the archives, Hélène Legagneux, who
SIMMEL, Georg, “Quelques réflexions sur la prostitution dans le présent et dans l’avenir” (1892) in Philosophie
de l’amour, Paris, Rivages Poche, Petite Bibliothèque, 1988, pp. 11-31.
For a study of working class’s matrimonial strategies and logics, see FREY, Michel, “Du mariage et du
concubinage dans les classes populaires à Paris (1846-1847)”, Annales. Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations, 33/4,
1978, pp. 803-829 ; COTTEREAU, Alain, « Vie quotidienne et résistance ouvrière à Paris en 1870 » in POULOT,
Denis, Question sociale. Le sublime ou le travailleur comme il est en 1870 et ce qu’il peut être, Paris, Maspero,
coll. Actes et mémoires du Peuple, 1980 , Étude préalable, pp. 34-37 ; BATTAGLIOLA, Françoise,
“Mariage, concubinage et relations entre les sexes. Paris, 1880-1890”, Genèses, n°18, 1995, pp. 68-96.
started as a prostitute when she was 19 and who first married six years later a mover who
worked in the neighbourhood. She then married a delivery coachman and “did not seem to
prostitute herself at that point and only seemed to take care about her household”. Three years
later she found herself at the head of a business selling “potatoes among other things”. But
this store was “in reality a lair for procurers and painted girls”
. Therefore, stopping to sell
one’s body publicly did not necessarily mean leaving the informal economy of prostitution
altogether. Quite the contrary, it could mean climbing the hierarchy in this sector, it is likely
that a former streetwalker used the social capital she enjoyed to become one of its
entrepreneur. Such an observation limits the duality of the marriage and the prostitution
markets (Edlund and Korn, 2002) and the diminishing value of prostitutes on the marriage
market (Posner, 1992).
The fact that prostitution appeared as a professional alternative at a given points in
time shows that for some workers, prostitution was part of a continuum of dependence. By
securing their financial autonomy, it brought a solution to the generational, gendered
inequality of domestic economy and of the urban market of formal work. However, these
young women were exploited further because they tied new bonds of economic dependence.
Of course, they depended on the clients, without whose demand they could not survive and
who rented and consumed their sexual services. Feminists and radical anarchists of the day
noted that many women provided similar services as those offered by prostitutes without
receiving any kind of revenue, exposed as they were to owner demand at work or to conjugal
duty at home. They also depended on all those who perceived a sizeable portion of the
streetwalkers’ revenue: cabaret and hotel owners who, as we will see later, were merchants of
informal prostitution, but also procurers. These young men shared the streetwalkers’ social
APP, JC, BM2, carton 38, 42 rue de la Charbonnière, Rapport du Service de sûreté, 18 janvier 1895 et carton 19,
40 rue de la Charbonnière, Lettre et Rapport du Service de sûreté, 8 juin et 29 juin 1896.
and professional background and had chosen pimping and petty crime for the same reasons
they had chosen the sidewalk. They lived largely on the income of their “marmites”:
I am turning to you, writes prostitute Marie Thérin, to warn you of the deeds of
my friend Mr Eugène Vaulayen in the past tree years I have been living with this
man who is nothing but a pimp, unfortunately and since I engaged in
prostitution and was threated to be beaten, I did not dare to speak.
This man only lived on the money I brought him back and on some other traffic
which is just as dishonest
This man has lived his whole life on the money which came from prostitutes
For a long time now I have wish to lead another life, he left to look for another
So since I am free today, this is why I am writing to you
Would you please call for me in his presence and then I will tell you everything,
but please do so discreetly so that it causes me no harm, so I can still find work,
sadly enough mister commissioner, there are too many people of this kind and
too many poor girls who are forced and threatened to enter prostitution to ensure
him of a revenue […]
As this testimony shows, public women entertained complex, ambiguous relationships with
their pimps who were both protectors and predators, “lovers” and exploiters, procurers and
procured. At all rates, their bodies were subjected to a double merchandization since they
depended on other agents of public prostitution.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 30, 3 rue Stephenson, Lettre, 15 décembre 1926. We decided in this chapter to correct
the numerous spelling mistakes as they were difficult to export from French to English, not without regrets.
Supply creates its own demand
The Parisian society was both capitalist and patriarchal and women who were on the
game faced two exploitation systems which combined. The first was the formal and domestic
economic system from which they were excluded or which left them underpaid. The other
was the informal prostitution economic system, which led them to sell their bodies doubly.
This is concurrent with the male supremacy which characterized 19th century sexual
ideology, in which women were entirely passive
. These features might have led a number of
specialists to underestimate the agency of the streetwalkers themselves, which cannot be
doubted upon from the moment one studies the public offer of sexual services.
Thanks to an analysis of the circumstances which presided over the entering or leaving
of prostitution, we have already shown that a limited rationality intervened when choosing the
sidewalk. This professional path gave women and their procurers the financial individuality
and the economic existence which domestic economy and the formal work market
respectively denied them. This accumulation of wealth inevitably aroused jealousies and
temptation among neighbors. Workers complained to the police and often expressed their
legitimate anguish at the thought of having their children tempted to enter sex trade because
they were exposed to status symbols – clothes, jewelry, knives, gramophones, motorized
bikes etc. – which were showed off by prostitutes and procurers on the neighbourhood’s
sidewalks. In the socio-economic context of the district however, the official statistics and the
career of certain streetwalkers show that there was nothing so extraordinary in the story of
, the most famous Parisian prostitute in literature, whose upward mobility from the
WALKOWITZ, Judith R., “Dangerous Sexualities” in A History of Women in the West, vol. IV, Emerging
Feminism from Revolution to World War, edited by Geneviève Fraisse and Michelle Perrot, Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 369-398.
Quotations are drawn from ZOLA, Émile, L’Assommoir, Paris, Pocket, 1998 , pp. 337, 372, 417, 420,
422, 429, 440-446. Readers can see in the details of this novel – Zola’s first bestseller and his first novel to be
translated in English – a thin understanding of popular and public prostitution. In a following novel, Nana,
sidewalk to high-end prostitution, moving relentlessly from an exploiter to another. Far from
becoming the passive victims of their procurers, in return they demanded their protection
against all those who could become a liability to their profits – competition, noisy neighbors,
the police – and as police reports and letters of the various people who benefited from their
trade certify, they did not hesitate to set one against the other, to change “pimps” or to find
new places to solicit or turn tricks, so as to improve their working conditions and maximize
Nevertheless, the agency of women who offered their sexual services stands out when
one analyses the inner workings of the public prostitution market. It is on that specific point
that many researchers have denied 19th century streetwalkers any form of agency. They
believed that the fluctuation and the very existence of a market of prostitution were based on
demand only. Although this idea might be coherent on the scale of a global, theoretical
prostitution market, it is invalidated when one looks at the exchanges between providers and
consumers of sexual services from an ethnographic perspective. Prostitutes no longer appear
as a mere merchandise at the disposal of a predisposed clientele: thanks to a distinctive hexis
and a wide array of proven seduction techniques, they managed to turn the man in the street
into a client, whom they sometimes pickpocketed during the trick. They did so by “swaying
their hips along the sidewalk, by impudently catching the passerbys by the arm, and by
teasing them with their proposals”; this forced physical promiscuity with “the potential
was part of a proactive soliciting. It is actually the originality of this unadvertised
relationship between providers and customers which prompted the legitimate parallel between
the public economy of sexual services and the bazaar economy. Just like the merchant who
has a spot on the “primitive market”, the providers did not go through these substitution
readers can discover the next stage of the prostitutional career of the main character. Furthermore, readers can
find a thick description of the financial issues of high-end prostitution, the novel being dedicated to this world.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 27, 23 rue de la Charbonnière, Rapport du Service mixte des garnis, 14 novembre 1904
et carton 60, 96 boulevard de la Chapelle, Rapport du Service mixte des garnis, 6 juin 1905.
public spaces which are characteristic of modern urban economy to advertise, create or make
demand soar, on the contrary, their services were presented out loud and de visu on the
. Just like him, they used verbal or physical interjections which sometimes
annoyed the onlookers. They first needed to draw the customer’s attention, before they turned
it into a need or a desire for consumption which they simultaneously offered to satisfy. Just
like him, again, they did not hesitate to haggle over their prices and to adapt them to the social
profile of the passersby so as to talk them into accepting their offers. As a matter of fact, the
archives show prices varying between 1.5 and 2.5 Francs per trick, showing a price variability
depending on the client and perhaps on the seasonality of demand.
The streetwalkers behaved just like the agents of a bazaar economy. In short, the way
they worked on the Parisian sidewalks shows that contrary to what traditional representations
suggested “the men’s looks and desires” did not “drive the business”
, supply also prompted
demand on the public prostitution market.
NEGATIVE EXTERNALITIES OF PUBLIC PROSTITUTION
Although a parallel can be drawn between a streetwalker and a merchant in a bazaar
economy because their respective productivity depends on their ability to foster demand,
street prostitution nonetheless dealt with rather original merchandise. Other agents in the local
economic space often bemoaned its ‘original’ externalities on their own business. Behind a
moral discourse, they actually condemned the negative impact the activities of streetwalkers
had on their trade.
For an anthropological analysis of the bazaar economy, see GEERTZ, Clifford, “The Bazaar Economy:
Information and Search in Peasant Marketing”, The American Economic Review, vol. 62 (2), 28-32, 1978, and
for a economical analysis on street-level contemporary prostitution, see LEVITT, Steven D. and VENKATESH,
Sudhir A.,“An Empirical Analysis of Street-Level Prostitution”, 2007, working paper.
CORBIN, Alain et PERROT, Michelle, “Des femmes, des hommes et des genres. Entretien avec Alain Corbin et
Michelle Perrot”, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, n°75 (July-September 2002), p. 176.
The impact of street prostitution on regulated brothels
Naturally, the district’s brothel owners were the interest group which fiercely and
systematically denounced the financial downsides of the streetwalkers’ activity, since they
were both the natural competitors of public prostitution as well as the official representatives
of the formal economy of prostitution, in a country which was reglementarist in terms of sex
Town councils were in charge of a regulated market of prostitution until April, 13
1946 when the “Marthe Richard” bill was adopted, which put an end to the “French system”
by outlawing brothels nationwide. Within this framework, in return for their observance of
administrative regulations, brothel owners enjoy a sex trade monopoly. In their frequent
letters to the Parisian chief police officers, they demanded the protection of the public agents
in charge of monitoring the prostitution market and they denounced the illegal competition of
streetwalkers. Although they complained about the expenses and the losses resulting from
their strict observance of the rules (for instance, underage prostitution and clients), they
seemed to have lost all faith in a legalist solution to their complaints. In reality, they doubted
the capacity and the good will of those who would be in charge of enforcing the law in the
field. The members of the vice squad were themselves agents of the informal economy of
prostitution, and had very specific interests to advance. Not only through the financial effects
of their repressive role, but especially through the source of their revenues. Their professional
raison d’être and their salary actually depended on the perpetuation of illegal prostitution, all
the more so since they drew illegal financial profits out of it, a situation which was well
known to the residents. Let alone the confirmed cases of bribery and organized pimping
which must have been more present than what the biased sources from their own corporation
reveal; these policemen could sell their professional secrets and legal loopholes made it easy
for them to negotiate a selective application of the law with street prostitutes and owners of
places where women solicited or turned tricks. At all rates, the brothel owners were the
official entrepreneurs of prostitution, and it is clear from their complaints that they insisted
less on the illegal character of the activity than on the successful competition of the
Competition raged between agents of the informal economy of public prostitution and
caused landowners or wine merchants to send the police letters to give away the local
colleagues, as investigators often found out. It did however changed nature when it was
confronted to the members of the formal economy of sex trade, who on the contrary,
completely took on the responsibility of the financial stakes contained in their plaints:
Right opposite the brothel I own, 25 rue de la Charbonnière, is a hotel, located
at 22 of the same street, several women solicit clients there but also in front of
my building, they take clients back to the hotel I mentioned. Two former of my
own, whom I have just dismissed, have even sought refuge there and exercise
the same kind of activity.
I pray you will accept my complaint and will restore order in this case,
considering the loss it causes me.
If this letter is a somewhat classic grievance, one which was often expressed by official
brothel owners, it is however original because it shows that streetwalkers - through their
freedom of circulation for instance - incited prostitutes in brothels to emancipate. What
systematically caused them “a commercial liability” and “financial liabilities”, and went as far
as dragging them “on the brink of the financial precipice”, was the monopoly of soliciting
APP, JC, BM2, carton 14, 22 rue de la Charbonnière, Lettre, 6 février 1888.
merchandise which the non-official competitors enjoyed. These entrepreneurs explained they
fell prey to a disloyal competition: unlike the landowners who benefited from the sexual
services which the prostitutes offered in their institution, they could not get directly in touch
with the passersby to offer their services:
No man can approach my door without being called or even dragged away from
my house. I have no other defense Monsieur le Préfet than filing a complaint
with you, since my regulations do not allow me to put a woman on my threshold
or at one of my windows.
Hence the Madame’s implicit suggestion to go back to the time when brothel owners had the
right to use “walkers” (marcheuses in French) on their premises. Since the red light and the
emphasized number at the location on the street did not do enough for publicity, having these
“solicitors” – whom the manager of the house of prostitution did not shy away from using, if
the hotel owner is to be believed – would be a way to establish an illegal, but at least fair
The impact of street prostitution on shopkeepers and annuitants
Aside from brothel owners who were in direct competition with public prostitution to
satisfy masculine demand of sexual services, the latter also affected the finances of other
actors of the urban economy. In fact, the local business owners’ and landlords’ complaints
were the result of the original intervention of streetwalkers on the urban space, a highly
APP, JC, BM2, carton 65, 74 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 25 octobre 1906.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 65, 74 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Rapport de l’Officier de paix du 18e arrondissement, 26
When it came to describing the perverse effects of the informal economy of
prostitution on their affairs, a number of parallels can be drawn between the grievances of
local businessmen who were outside the sex trade circuit and those of brothel owners. Both
suffered from the impact of the streetwalkers’ activity on the passersby, as these words of a
piano and organ manufacturer show:
These girls […] stay around and solicit […] without any shame and in a
provocative manner, in spite of all the observations which are made to them or
to the landlord who supports them and makes it possible for them to parade at
his terrace, even to insult the passersby and to go as far as slapping her in the
face in front of my shop. My shop is located a yard away from Monsieur
Duluc’s liquor place and that is where I have music instruments. No client can
stop in front of my shop without his being called out by those impudent girls.
The display in shop-windows appeared trivial in comparison to the means deployed by public
women, and the same craftsman added a few months later that “if someone stopped to look at
his shop-window, they had to leave shrugging because they were so obsessed by these girls’
. Even the shopkeepers with a loyal clientele, like this café owner, were
worried about the prosperity of their businesses:
The public women who are constantly in front of my building […] will not
leave. This is a great liability for me, because they call out to all my clients.
They say they will not come back because of these women.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 19, 90 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 15 mai 1900.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 19, 90 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 27 août 1900.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 15, Boulevard Barbès, Dossier général, Lettre, 27 mars 1903.
In fact, all the misgivings about a loss of actual or potential clients revealed the
incompatibility of two economic conceptions of the urban space: while for certain the latter
constituted the “primitive market” in which supply played a very central role, others
understood it as a “modern market” in which supply respected the free circulation of potential
consumers. Hence the ever-growing number of conflicts opposing two groups with
antagonistic economic and spatial logic. Although letters to the police and insults were
symbolic ammunition, they nonetheless had financial effects:
A corridor separates my shop from that of a wine merchant. Not only is his
institution a meeting point for girls of ill-repute, it is also located in front of my
very door, in front of my shop-windows. Scandals break on a daily basis from
eight in the morning until eleven in the evening.
My clients cannot enter here without being approached by these women.
In the past few days, when my wife commented on the situation and the owner
of the place and the streetwalkers called her all sorts of disgraceful names.
There are other instances of this. The streetwalkers did not hesitate to threaten the noisy
neighbors “because they thought it was harmful for them and their business and that men who
saw women at the windows on the other side of the street did not dare to enter this
. Nor did they shy away from requiring “of their dishonourable
company that they smash the shop-windows of the shop-owners who tried to get rid of
The recurring clashes between members of the public prostitution and local
shopkeepers show that the urban space was still a highly disputed ground. Of course on the
APP, JC, BM2, carton 19, 90 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 28 octobre 1898.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 19, 90 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 23 juillet 1893.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 58, 1 rue Belhomme, Lettre, juillet 1891.
district scale, all actors fought over the population’s attention or its consuming urges. On the
metropolitan scale or on larger ones, capitalism shaped and organized the city spaces into a
hierarchy. Yet, the representation of spaces played a central role in the social and spatial
segregation that is an inequitable distribution of functions, resources and prices. Local
authorities have long been aware of this phenomenon and now hire regional administrators or
call in territorial marketing agencies. If the reputation of the Goutte-d’Or district was a pull
factor for men in search of cheap sexual services, it was a push factor for the potential clients
of local businesses. Some of the residents of the district usually decided to move to adjacent
streets because they were deemed more peaceful and more appropriate for shopping. Such
was the case of charwomen who “no longer dared to venture in these areas” when they did
. The reputation partly explained the social structure of this residential district
since it had a determining influence on the setting of land prices and therefore on rents as
well. Prostitution was a bone of contention on this very point. It did not so much conflict with
the financial interests of the shopkeepers as with those of the landowners who
Naturally my lodgers leave or threat to do so when they are exposed to all the
repulsive things which take place across the street. I find it very unpleasant to
suffer from this unproductiveness only because the house I rent out is just by the
The author of this petition – which was signed by about twenty shopkeepers and landlords –
complained about the departure of certain tenants, which led to deep mutations in the social
composition of the apartment buildings he owned. A woman of private means explained that
APP, JC, BM2, carton 51, Boulevard de la Chapelle, Dossier général, Lettre, 29 août 1910.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 19, 90 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 23 juillet 1893.
working-class families – “tenants with children” and “decent lodgers” – gradually moved out
of her apartment building
. If the number of prostitutes tarnished the reputation of the
neighborhood and meant a real-estate liability for some, it simultaneously enabled poor
workers to find cheaper accommodation. On a market where housing turnover was a
requirement, these complaints echoed the landlords’ realization that their property was being
devaluated compared to other Parisian districts because rent prices had dropped. This is all the
more true since local realities and images opened up new social and professional horizons for
Another three traffic shops have opened on the street (27), right opposite the
house I own (24) It causes me considerable wrong for my rents as I have vacant
rooms and shops. Any kind of business is rendered impossible by this crowd of
girls and procurers who start at 8 in the morning and finish at 3 or 4 am.
As this other man of individual means unwillingly explained, the vacant rooms and shops
could be rented out and become easily profitable. Provided of course that one adapted to the
local economic context and turned a previous negative externality into a positive one. To put
it differently, instead of hitting the finances, sex trade could bring in a lot of money to the
shopkeepers and the local landowners.
POSITIVE EXTERNALITIES OF PUBLIC PROSTITUTION
The “impending ruin” that the plaintiffs saw for themselves was usually part of a
rhetoric exaggeration to rouse the sympathy of the speaker, to persuade him of the urgency of
APP, JC, BM2, carton 62, 60 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 25 février 1913.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 51, Boulevard de la Chapelle, Dossier général, Lettre du 10 avril 1903.
the situation, to have the police intercede on their behalf in the conflict which opposed them
to concurring economic agents. A financial loss must have been at the origin of their
complaints, otherwise how could one account for them? A plausible explanation would be
that they shared space with and envied other shopkeepers who got richer each passing day
thanks to public prostitution instead of losing money. Not only was public prostitution better
suited to the local context, it also had a dynamic of its own which led it to gradually take over
Wine merchants and slumlords
Hotelkeepers, cabaret owners and dancehall managers of the Goutte-d’Or district did
not leave women solicit clients in front of their buildings out of charity. The interest was
entirely financial. This probably explains why information on the economy of street
prostitution is more easily found when reading historians of Parisian cafés than when reading
historians of sex trade
These shopkeepers benefited directly from the presence of the streetwalkers, their
clients and procurers who ordered drinks and slept in furnished rooms just like any other
client. They claimed the illegal right to host this numerous clientele, which was probably
composed of heavy consumers, just as this former prostitute turned wine bar owner explained:
My trade compels me to receive all manners of persons who stroll by the
Boulevard de la Chapelle; of course, there are public girls among my clients,
and my interest is to receive them like the rest, without granting them more
liberty in my house for all that.
HAINE, Scott W., The World of the Paris Café. Sociability among the French Working Class, 1789-1914,
Baltimore Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, chapter 7, “Women and Gender Politics.
Beyond Prudery and Prostitution”, pp. 179-206.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 38, 42 rue de la Charbonnière, Lettre, 9 décembre 1898.
This other woman, a cabaret owner and landlady “could not believe that the meaning of the
bill was to forbid the shopkeepers to sell when no scandal or complaint had been reported to
These testimonies show that the managers proposed a sui generis
interpretation of the police regulation. This interpretation was based on the distinction
between prostitute as a merchandise and prostitute as a client, and shed light on an inner
contradiction in the police regulation:
Women in the streets are all the more tolerated that the préfecture issues them
cards and that as people in charge who are subjected to hierarchy we are hit
constantly. I’ve been addressed several fines.
However its subtlety resided in that it fitted perfectly with the core values of the
reglementarist system, which did not repress prostitution in itself, but only its public
component. These demands especially concealed the more active part that these shopkeepers
played in the sex trade business. Just like a landlady who placed a prostitute at a house of
prostitution in exchange of a commission of 70 francs, some took advantage of their ties with
streetwalkers to act as an intermediary in the placement of some of their clients in maisons
closes of the Paris area. This landlady used the young woman’s “utter destitution” as a
pretext, and explained that it was “out of charity that she had placed her” at the only manager
of a prostitution house she knew of. Their correspondence shows that certain shopkeepers
enjoyed a wide network of local partners to whom they could address their “special delivery”;
or in the landlady’s words to the owner of the house of prostitution :
APP, JC, BM2, carton 65, 74 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 4 juillet 1907.
APP, JC, BM2, 22 rue de la Charbonnière, Lettre, 26 février 1914. Giving cards mean that police registered
If however, it is troublesome for you to pay the due price of placement and
expense of the young lady, just send me a note and she will be placed
One thing is certain: public prostitution did have positive externalities for wine merchants and
slumlords in the urban areas in which this informal economy thrived.
Landlords and cabaret owners did not only benefit from their everyday contact with
streetwalkers, they made money out of prostitution itself. Since they witnessed every single
step of the prostitutional process, from the offer of sexual services to its ultimate
consumption, contemporaries saw in the owners the true entrepreneurs of public prostitution.
“You are here faced with, how shall I put this, merchants? After all, this is a form of business
which makes you rich” or so did this member of the Conseil de Paris think as he spoke of the
landlords of the Goutte-d’Or disctrict to the assembly
. Apart from asking prostitutes to talk
customers into ordering drinks in their cabarets or even in their rooms, the shopkeepers made
money out of certain soliciting spots. Women paid a fee which enabled them to offer their
services from the thresholds and windows of the stores, which gave them access more quickly
to a shelter during police raids. There was no comparison between soliciting and tricks, which
constituted a far greater source of revenue for merchants. They rented out their hotel rooms or
the back room of their wine bars based on a complex price scale. The streetwalkers could pay
1 franc per 15-minute trick maximum, which meant giving away half of their service’s price;
they could also subscribe to an average flat rate deal of 3 francs for a night, 5 francs a day, 9
francs a week or 28 francs a month with an extra 50 centimes per trick. This is yet another
proof – as if any was actually needed – of the economic rationality of the agents in the sex
APP, JC, BM2, carton 1, 42 rue de Chartres, Rapport Service mixte des garnis, 16 juin 1903.
Bulletin municipal officiel, mardi 18 mars 1913, p. 1581.
trade business. All attempted to maximize their profits through limited risk taking. The
flexibility of these flat rates allowed the economic agents to adapt to the fluctuations of the
practice, which varied intensely depending on the time of the day, of the week, of the month,
but also on the working hours of clients and their paydays. It fitted perfectly with the vast
range of streetwalkers, who had more or less experience, who had more or less circulation
facilities, and were more or less determined to have busy days. As for hotelkeepers, they used
fixed revenues in order to reduce their dependence on the financial situation; to foster the
streetwalkers’ loyalty, but also to beat off competition from their local colleagues. However,
if one looks at the great number of tricks which were turned in the furnished rooms of the
neighborhood, the variable income of these flat rates is likely to have brought in more to their
owners. Of course critical distance is required when studying the declarations of certain
residents, for instance when they describe the constant “comings and goings, all day long” or
when they claimed that “[everyday] more than two hundred women entered the place and
prostituted themselves there”
. It was common for policemen to spot between five and ten
venal couples in a hotel during raids or to spot about the same number of couples entering in a
. The significant number of venal couples spelled considerable capital inflow
for those who rented out rooms. Prostitution was taken into account in the landowners’
budgets, which included potential 5 francs fines which they could be charged for not abiding
by the law. Such was the case for this hotelkeeper:
On October 22, the commissioner staged a police raid in our neighborhood and
gave fined shopkeepers who had public girls on their premises. Since he found
one in my institution, I deem it fair to receive the same treatment as the others,
APP, JC, BM2, carton 34, 88 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 27 août 1894 et carton 51, Boulevard de la
Chapelle, Dossier général, Lettre, 26 avril 1913.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 20, 108 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Rapport Commissaire de la Goutte-d’Or, 19 janvier
1899 ; carton 10, 116 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Rapport Service mixte des garnis, 20 décembre 1912 et carton
58, 1 rue Belhomme, Rapport des gardiens de la paix, 24 novembre 1891.
but there must be a mistake because I have been fined twice for a single person
instead of only once like the others. Is it because the girls were not registered in
the police records? I did not think it was my responsibility to do so since I did
not accommodate these girls.
Not only did these managers admit to renting out rooms to venal couples whom they did not
accommodate, but the fines they received were felt to be a fair punishment, or even some sort
of tax on their sex trade revenues.
The « red light district » of fin-de-siècle Paris
For the landlords, the thought-out diversion of their hotel rooms was profitable and
they took on responsibility for it. What best reveals their degree of involvement in the
informal economy of public prostitution is the way they fitted out their shops entirely for
prostitution purposes. Taking into account these new commercial spaces is all the more
heuristic as it brings the dynamic relationship between sex trade and shop business to the fore.
In neighborhoods which were popular with prostitutes, local cabaret and hotel owners
got in the use of reserving specific areas in their buildings for tricks, such as the first floors of
furnished apartments or rooms looking onto the courtyard in cafés or dancehalls. However,
fitting out of the ground floor which looked onto the street and converting it into rooms where
priced sexual services were performed was entirely new in fin-de-siècle Paris. Prostitution
shops developed in the Parisian landscape and widened the range and terms of sexual services
public offer. These shops were mentioned in a previous testimony of a landowner who
complained about financial loss; these shops resemble these of Amsterdam in the
APP, JC, BM2, carton 39, 98 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 28 octobre 1891.
At this number [27 rue Charbonnière] a former shop which is now closed has
been converted by the owner into a house of rendez-vous. He fitted three doors
in the said shop; each opens on a bedroom and in front of each bedroom stands a
woman who accosts passersby.
These shops made up of “three or four compartments”
opening on the street, heralded the
advent of a new form of public prostitution, characterized by an unprecedented, maximum
proximity between the locus of solicitation and the place where tricks were turned, between
the public space of supply and the private space of consumption of sexual services. This
spatial setting gave public women more freedom, since they settled there more durably than in
other places and since they no longer had to pass by the owner’s or the cabaret manager’s
desk before a trick. It marked above all the crossing of a commitment threshold to the
informal economy of street prostitution:
These shops belong to the hotels and bar owners who also hire theprostitutes
who work there ; there is a day team and a night team, with a shift usually
occurring around six in the evening. It is clear that prostitution is a lucrative
buisness. From a moral point of view they are procurers, but we lack substantial
proof to charge them with pimping. On the other hand, it is a rare thing to find
underage prostitutes on their premises;they keep breaking the terms and clauses
of the police regulation dated February, 15 1910.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 34, 88 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 22 juin 1903.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 51, Boulevard de la Chapelle, Dossier général, Lettre, 29 août 1910.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 51, rue de la Charbonnière et Boulevard de la Chapelle, Dossier général, Rapport du
Commissaire de la Goutte-d’Or et de l’Officier de paix du 18e arrondissement, 24 avril 1913.
“Hassled by the policemen about the women who stayed there”, the landlord, who had been
renting out “rooms in exchange of 5 francs a day with a permission to perform their special
trade”, shamelessly asked the Préfet de police to “let him have a hearing about the rooms he
owned on the ground floor looking onto 27 rue Charbonnière”
. In trying to make the offer of
sexual services grow, these owners really did deserve the title of merchants of public
prostitution. They actually liked the idea of being associated to owners of “maison de rendez-
vous”, such as this letter of a woman to the Préfet about her prostitution shop shows:
With your consent I ask the favour to own a “maison de rendez vous” 23 rue
I have made a similar request about six weeks ago, and it has remained pending
to this day.
I vouch to strictly abide by all police regulations.
This former prostitute turned cabaret owner wished to run her business out in the open,
although the terms and the sociology of this form of street prostitution might have differed
greatly from the “maisons de rendez-vous” system.
The development of prostitution shops is not only relevant because it attests to a new
form of public prostitution sustained by dedicated landowners and wine merchants in fin-de-
siècle Paris. It also reveals the conquering dynamics of the streetwalkers’ activity and
substantiates the complaints of shopkeepers, since prostitution shops were replacing more
traditional businesses. A police investigation confirmed the indignation of a resident who
noticed that on “78 boulevard de la Chapelle, a tailor had just been expelled in order to put
APP, JC, BM2, carton 34, 88 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Contravention, 7 juillet 1903 et carton 34, 88
Boulevard de la Chapelle, Lettre, 9 mars 1911.
APP, JC, BM2, carton 27, 23 rue de la Charbonnière, Lettre, 5 mai 1903.
two new business premises in place” which were destined to sex trade; the change in trade
was the result of an alleged impossibility to find another kind of tenant
. The police
commissioner and the district officer, who were fine connoisseur of the local economic
reality, reused this excuse and turned it into a general theory about the commercial changes in
Trade is so to speak non-existent in this part of the Goutte-d’Or disctrict, so
much so that most shops which are not rented by bar owners would be vacant if
the hotelkeepers and the bar owners had not thought about turning them into
room for public women.
The landlord gave the same explanation when accounting for his involvement in sex trade :
Mister Besombes declared he had no other choice but to turn two shops into
rooms because they were located near the rue de la Charbonnière, and business
is rendered impossible there due to the number of girls who solicit at every
door. And he adds that in order for the rooms to be a fruitful investment, he
rents them out to prostitutes.
The pattern seemed clear: sex trade was taking over traditional trade which was experiencing
serious difficulties due to the offensive practice of streetwalkers. For some it was a vicious
circle and for others a virtuous one, prostitution bred prostitution: “the small housekeeper had
APP, JC, BM2, carton 57, 21 rue de la Charbonnière, Rapport de la Police judicaire, 20 janvier 1915.
APP, JC, BM2, rue de la Charbonnière et Boulevard de la Chapelle, Dossier général, carton 51, Rapport
Commissaire de la Goutte-d’Or et de l’Officier de paix du 18e arrondissement, 24 avril 1913. Police officers of
the Préfecture working in the district made the same point : “As they could not use shops with an entrance rue de
la Charbonnière, most shopkeepers rented it to prostitutes […].”. Ibid, Rapport du Service mixte des garnis, 24
APP, JC, BM2, carton 34, 88 Boulevard de la Chapelle, Rapport du Service mixte des garnis, 18 juillet 1903.
to leave these ladies the floor”, explained a neighbor very simply
. In truth, the shops did not
disappear altogether, rather they became specialized in the trade which was best adapted to
the district’s economic environment, in the only trade in which the proposed merchandise
walked over to the potential client. This reconversion of shops for the most lucrative trade
was part of a profit-maximizing logic.
CONCLUSION : INFORMAL ECONOMY AS AN INHERITANCE
As a group of tenants staying in the Goutte d’Or district put it “It was as though one
was instantly transported to some reserved neighbourhood of Toulon or Marseille”
image conveys a sense of the progressive monopoly of the urban space by sex trade. The
development of prostitution shops brought us to draw a parallel between the commercial
condition of the Goutte d’Or district at the turn of the 20th century and the red light district of
Amsterdam. A comparison between these places and spaces adorned with red lights – that is
to spaces which were officially dedicated to regulated prostitution by public services – tended
to minimize the role played by the agents of the informal economy of public prostitution in
this new business configuration at the local scale.
We believe that likening the streetwalkers’ role to that of an agent in a bazaar
economy enables to better grasp the complexity of public prostitution as well as the economic
issues at stake. These “queens of the sidewalk” were the agents of the economic and urban life
in Paris. It was the way they performed their job which rendered their services, their trade
more appealing, because it was less risky as well as more profitable, than businesses in formal
urban economy. The shop-owners and the landlords were part of this informal business,
gambled on it, and shaped the present but also the future of a Parisian district. They
drastically transformed the economy, the social composition and the reputation of the Goutte-
APP, JC, BM2, rue de la Charbonnière et Boulevard de la Chapelle, Dossier général, carton 51, Lettre, 17
APP, JC, BM2, carton 51, Boulevard de la Chapelle, Dossier général, Lettre, 23 juillet 1904.
d’Or. Their gradual monopolization of the commercial and public place left a long-lasting
imprint. Since history can help decode the economy of a place, let’s just say that the share of
the informal sector in today’s Goutte d’Or district economy is very probably a legacy of the
dynamic turn towards informal public prostitution which was taken at the end of the 19th
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