I have learned about the history of commercial sex in Lancaster from reading the records of the anti-vice investigators who visited Lancaster for a month in 1913. Seven hundred (or so) pages of these typed records survive in the Law and Order Society Collection at LancasterHistory. The anti-vice agents were undercover. The men posed as traveling salesmen, while the lone woman on the team pretended she was looking to buy a brothel or take over the management of a brothel. They spent their days and nights talking to waiters, brothel keepers, full-time sex workers, bar tenders, and bellboys to find out how commercial sex worked in Lancaster, which was then infamous as a “wide open” city for prostitution and gambling. 

These investigators kept meticulous records. When they returned to their hotel rooms (at the Wheatland Hotel on North Queen Street), they organized their notes into typed affidavits, so they would be useful for future court proceedings, such as liquor license hearings, for example. These affidavits often appear to be transcriptions of conversations, but they probably were not. An out-of-town businessman would not have needed to take notes during a chance meeting on the street. It seems unlikely, then, that the reports are accurate accounts. They are one person’s recollections of an exchange. The prostitutes and bellboys have no chance to correct the accounts. Despite these limitations, the records do offer glimpses of the personalities and aspirations of the people working in vice in Lancaster. 

Here is one example. One agent, Paul Kinsie, described what happened when he was hanging out on N. Queen Street downtown:

A young woman passed me by and said, “Howdy do.”I then greeted her in the same manner and although the girl did not stop I considered that the way in which she approached me, a total stranger, was enough to warrant my engaging her in conversation. I followed on and as I drew near her she stopped and turning said, “Oh, are you going my way?” I replied, “That depends wholly upon which way that is.”
She replied laughingly, “The straight and narrow path.”

This conversation appeared in an affidavit in the special file for one category of women in Lancaster: charity girls.  The charity girl (also known as treating girl) was not a sex worker who exchanged sex for cash; rather, she was a young woman who offered sexual favors for theater tickets, a restaurant meal, or consumer goods. 

On November 3, 1913 one investigator reported that she found more “charity” girls on the street than prostitutes.  “Charity” girls walked in pairs; they appeared to be school girls, shop clerks, or factory workers. The investigator explained, “They dress modestly, very little paint and powder, but [are] decidedly bold in their flirtations.” Like a woman who would say “Howdy do” to a stranger.

After their humorous exchange about the “straight and narrow path,” Paul Kinsie takes the woman he’s just met on Queen Street to dinner at the Crystal Restaurant. During their meal together, she reveals that she earns $5 working as a clerk at the Lancaster Candy Company. The suggested living wage for women, according to reformers who pushed for an increase in wages for women, was $6.50 per week. Unlike many other single, wage-earning women, Anna still lived at home and kept the $5 for herself. 

The rise of the charity girl in the city depended on several other developments. The number of young women earning wages increased significantly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Historians estimate that, in major cities,  more than half of single women, between the ages of 15-29, worked for wages around 1900. The increase in wage-earning women occurred across immigrant and racial lines among the working class. These working women largely gave their pay to their families, so they had little cash for themselves. Thus, while they gained money and some freedom through their jobs, they actually had little money for themselves. At the same time, commercial amusements such as movie theaters and dance halls emerged as popular nightlife for the urban workers. Movies, dance halls and other popular theater often promised romance and these venues offered space for unsupervised, mixed-sex interactions. 

The Crystal Restaurant, on the 100 block of N. Queen, is on the right (1922) Photo: LancasterHistory

Reformers who were concerned about prostitution were also upset about the immorality of commercial leisure in general. They worried that the charity girls would become full time prostitutes, partly through the corruption of city nightlife. 

Back to Anna and Paul’s outing. They leave the restaurant and walk up and down Queen Street. Anna reveals that her steady boyfriend is in New York, where she wishes she was also. Then they see a couple in a passionate embrace. Paul’s notes describe what happens next:

Anna said, “That’s my long suite, that mushy stuff. I could live on that stuff.” 
From this moment on Anna seemed to be an entirely different girl. 
She said, “My steady fellow and I used to go out every night and
since he’s gone a thing like that which we just saw sets me crazy.” 
I said, “Well aren’t you and I out now?”
She said, “Of course, we’re not in, but I wish we was.” 
I, pretending ignorance, said, “You’re a funny sort of a girl,
first you want to be out then you want to be in.” 
She hesitated a moment and, in a very low tone,
whispered, “That’s the way it goes. You’re a funny fellow.” 

The agent noticed how her mood changes. She seemed pensive, perhaps reluctant, as they banter with each other. Paul Kinsie also explained some of her hopes: she wants to escape the boredom of a routine of work and home. She even dreams of getting out of Lancaster altogether. It’s not difficult to imagine the frustrations of a young candy store clerk in 1913.

After some back-and-forth about whether or not they would find a quiet hotel room, they agree to part ways. Paul Kinsie promises he’ll call on her another night. Anna says he can find her at the Lancaster Candy Company. She wouldn’t give her home address. 

Paul Kinsie concludes his report with this summary judgment: 

ANNA HARTMAN is apparently 21 years of age, about 5’6″ tall, and weighs about 135 pounds. She is fairly well educated but it can be seen that she comes from people in very poor circumstances. ANNA is a typical “charity” girl and I am positive that should she ever lose her  position she will enter the life of shame. It needs but one person to give her money for her services and I am most certain she will deviate from her “straight and narrow path.”

In other reports, the agents’ evaluations of these young women are even harsher. They declare the charity girls coarse, ugly, weak-minded, unintelligent, and unstable. Anna escaped the worst of their judgments, at least on this particular evening. There would be plenty of time later for additional scrutiny.

Resource List

Fronc, Jennifer. New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Odem, Mary. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1995. 

Peiss, Kathy. “Charity Girls and CIty Pleasures.” OAH Magazine, vol. 15, no. 4, 2004, pp. 14-16.

Wood, Sharon. The Freedom Of The Streets: Work, Citizenship, And Sexuality In A Gilded Age City. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

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