Sexual Geography and Gender Economy: The furnished room districts of Chicago, 1890- 1930

Joanne Meyerowitz

Excerpt: pages 45-50

Most major American cities today have a distinct geography of sexuality. That is, one can locate districts and neighborhoods known as the institutional and social centers of various sexual subcultures. Take San Francisco for example, a city known for its celebration of sexual variety. Upscale heterosexual singles live in apartments and frequent bars in the Marina district. Downscale heterosexual men go to porn shops and massage parlors in the Tenderloin. Female prostitutes sell their services at the corner of 18th and Mission streets; male prostitutes sell their services on Polk Street. Gay men congregate in the Castro district, and lesbians meet in the bars and coffeehouses in the vicinity of Valencia Street.

A lesser-known geography of sexuality also existed in early twentieth- century American cities. In 1916, sociologist Robert Park identified what he called "moral regions" of the city, "detached milieus in which vagrant and suppressed impulses, passions, and ideals emancipate themselves from the dominant moral order." Park was not the first to define neighborhoods by sexual behavior. At the end of the nineteenth century, a few urban investigators identified the furnished room districts, or areas where rooming houses abounded, as "moral regions" of sorts, distinct neighborhoods where unconventional sexual behavior flourished. By the early twentieth century, reformers defined a "furnished room problem" more precisely. In 1906, for example, in a study of Boston's furnished room district, Albert Benedict Wolfe lamented the "contamination of young men, the deterioration in the modesty and morality of young women, the existence of actual houses of prostitution in the guise of lodginghouses, the laxity of landladies, the large number of informal unions, the general loosening of moral texture." By the late 1910s and 1920s, more dispassionate sociologists explored "a new code of sex relationships" in the furnished room districts of Chicago. Evidence from newspapers, autobiographies, vice reports, and social surveys also suggests that the furnished room districts were indeed the centers of sexually unconventional subcultures.

By the end of the nineteenth century, most major American cities had furnished room districts. These often first appeared in the city center, and, later, as business displaced downtown housing, moved out farther along major transportation lines. The large proportion of adult residents and the small proportion of children distinguished these districts demographically from other neighborhoods of the city. A residential street in a furnished room district usually resembled others in the city: a typical block would consist of single-family homes, buildings of flats, large tenements, or older mansions. The owners of the buildings, however, converted the interiors into one- or two-room dwellings. They might divide a flat into two or three smaller units or divide a large tenement into an "apartment hotel" with as many as 100 furnished rooms.

In Chicago, three such districts emerged in the late nineteenth century. On the South Side, the furnished room district included major portions of the Chicago black community and also what was, before the 1912 raids, the segregated vice district of the city. On the West Side, the district housed a population of predominantly white service and factory workers. A transient male hobo population congregated on the inner boundaries. On the North Side, where rents were slightly higher, clerical and sales workers lived in rooming houses alongside white service and manufacturing workers, artists, bohemians, and radicals of all stripes. In the early twentieth century, the North Side district included substantial numbers of Irish and Swedish roomers.

These districts burgeoned in the early 1890s when migrants and visitors streamed to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition. They continued to grow in the first decades of the twentieth century. By 1923, the Illinois Lodging House Register reported over 85,000 lodgers in about 5,000 rooming houses in the three major furnished room districts. By 1930, residents of the new small-unit apartments (with private bathrooms and kitchenettes) joined lodgers in these neighborhoods.

Several distinctive features of the furnished room districts fostered the development of extramarital sexual relationships. Most obviously, women and men lived together in houses where most people did not live in families. In these neighborhoods, lodgers found numerous opportunities to create social and sexual ties with their peers. Further, the high geographic mobility in the furnished room districts made informal, transient relationships the norm. One writer went so far as to claim that the entire population of Chicago's North Side furnished room district changed every four months. This high turnover rate created an atmosphere of anonymity in which lodgers rarely knew their neighbors well. Community pressures to conform to conventional familial roles were weaker than in more setteled neighborhoods. And parental authorities were absent. Many rooming house keepers, eager to keep their tenants, refrained from criticizing or interfering with roomers' sexual behaviour. In addition, the predominance of men in the North and West Side districts may have encouraged women to participate in extramarital heterosexual relationships: it would have been easy to meet men and difficult to avoid them.

In any case, the prevalence of prostitution in the furnished room districts created a climate where open expressions of sexuality were common. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the most prominent vice district of Chicago lay in the South Side furnished room district. Brothels were tolerated in sections of the West and North Side districts as well. In addition, on the South, West, and North Sides, some keepers of rooming houses and hotels rented rooms by the hour or night to prostitutes and their customers. After the municipal government closed the brothels in the 1910s, social investigators repeatedly found rooming houses and hotels used for prostitution.

In addition to hotels and rooming houses, the "bright light" centers of the furnished room districts provided settings in which men and women could socialize. Investors who hoped to profit from the demand by lodgers opened cafeterias, cheap restaurants, tea rooms, soft-drink parlors, saloons, dance halls, cabarets, and movie theaters. Residents of the districts turned these institutions into social centers. As one observer noted: "Considerable companionship grows up around these resorts. One is struck by the fact that the same people visit and re-visit the same cabaret time and again.''

On the North Side, Clark Street and, on the West Side, Halsted Street were well known for their nightlife. In 1918, Clark Street alone housed 57 saloons, 36 restaurants, and 20 cabarets.20 On the South Side, the State Street "Stroll" and 35th Street emerged as the "bright light" centers of the black community. Dance halls, restaurants, movies, and saloons for black customers coexisted with "black and tan" cabarets which offered racially integrated recreation. When young men and women who lived with their parents went out for a night on the town and when wealthier people went "slumming," they often went to the furnished room districts of the city.

These areas, it seems, were geographic settings where behavior considered unacceptable elsewhere was accepted matter of factly and even encouraged. In residential communities of Chicago, neighbors often stigmatized sexually active unmarried women. For example, Mamie, a young woman who lived with her parents in a working-class neighbourhood of Chicago, first encountered problems in 1918 when a policewoman reported her for "unbecoming conduct with sailors." Later, rumor had it that her neighbors talked of signing a petition to expel her from the neighborhood. Contrast Mamie's brief case history with the comment of a student of Chicago's South Side furnished room district: "It is said that an attractive woman who does not 'cash in' is likely to be considered a fool by her neighbors, instead of any stigma being attached to a woman who 'hustles' in this neighborhood."

By the early twentieth century, the furnished room districts of Chicago and other large cities were known as havens for women and men who chose to defy convention. In addition to migrants and transients, they attracted women and men seeking adventures and a chance to break taboos in a community without parental supervision. Here interested lodgers could enter peer-oriented subcultures that sanctioned extramarital sexual behavior. A 1918 account of Chicago's North Side shows the complex and casual nature of social and sexual relationships:

[I. and V.] went to the North Clark Street section where they posed as man and wife. They took a couple of furnished rooms. . ., and remained there for two years. Both of them worked, often bringing in as much as $30.00 a week together. They took their meals out and got along very well.

Then two of the girl's sisters came to Chicago to find work and rented rooms next to them. These girls had good intentions but not securing very lucrative positions, they soon learned how to supplement their wages by allowing young men to stay with them.

These girls struck up an acquaintanceship with another girl who used to remain overnight with them now and again when they had been out to a dance or cabaret. J. liked this new girl and as he put it could not "help monkeying with her" and when V. found it out she became extremely jealous and shortly afterwards left him. Her sisters and the other girl followed her.

Other accounts provide additional glimpses of how women formed social networks in the furnished room districts. In 1911, two women, 17 and 20 years old, met at a South Side dance hall. The older woman persuaded the younger to room with her on Chicago's North Side. After they moved in together, they made "pick up acquaintances" with men at dance halls and on the street. Around 1913, Myrtle S., who roomed on the North Side, made friends with a woman at the restaurant where she ate her meals. This woman introduced her to a man, Lew W., with whom she spent several evenings drinking beer. Myrtle testified that she lost her virginity when Lew took advantage of her: "one night she lost consciousness after her drink of beer and awoke next morning in the Superior Hotel." Despite this betrayal, she returned to the hotel with Lew on two other occasions. Later, Myrtle met another man at a "chop suey" restaurant.

Some of the social circles that developed in the furnished room districts were distinguished by unconventional lifestyles, sexual preferences, or political leanings. In the North Side district, for example, a subculture of hoboes congregated in and around Washington, or Bughouse, Square. In her autobiography, hobo "Box Car Bertha" wrote, "Girls and women...seemed to keep Chicago as their hobo center.... They all centered about the Near North Side, in Bughouse Square, in the cheap roominghouses and light housekeeping establishments, or begged or accepted sleeping space from men or other women there before them." The women hoboes whom Bertha described engaged casually in sexual relationships. One woman, she wrote, had "a group of sweethearts," others lived and traveled with men "to whom by chance or feeling they had attached themselves," and still others engaged in "careless sex relations.


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