“The Tenderloin was the most famous sex district in New York City history,” wrote Timothy J. Gilfoyle in his book City of Eros. “Sandwiched between wealthy Gramercy Park and Murray Hill on the east and working-class Hell’s Kitchen on the west, the Tenderloin stretched north from 23rd Street between Fifth and Eighth Avenues.”
Amid all this sex openly for sale, one street stood out: 39th Street west of Seventh Avenue, nicknamed “Soubrette Row.” (a Soubrette is a saucy, flirtatious girl.)
Here, around the corner from the elite new Metropolitan Opera House (left, in 1904), the bordellos were run by French madams.
The girls they managed specialized in some, um, scandalous practices for the era.
By the 1890s, the houses on West 39th Street, “‘were known all over the country,’ according to one observer.
“‘The French girls in these houses,’ wrote another investigator, ‘resort to unnatural practices and as a result the other girls will not associate or eat with them,’” wrote Gilfoyle. As the Tenderloin grew, another Soubrette Row popped up by 1901, along West 43rd Street, states Gilfoyle.
The brothels on these Soubrette Rows eventually moved uptown and dispersed, as the the city crept northward and Progressive-Era officials cracked down on sex and sin.
Today, West 39th Street contains the ghosts of the neighborhood that replaced the Tenderloin—the Garment District.
[Right: West 39th Street in 1934, long after Soubrette Row had moved on]