A Chelsea block lined with brothels in the 1870s

27thstreetsignToday, 27th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues is kind of a mishmash of wholesale business and small shops anchored on the western end by the Fashion Institute of Technology.

It was a different world in the 1870s, when the block ground zero for prostitution, with 22 houses of ill repute lining both sides of the street.

That’s in addition to dozens of other brothels on nearby blocks. This was the city’s post–Civil War neighborhood of vice, called the Tenderloin, a sinful stretch of 23rd to 42nd Streets between Sixth and Eighth Avenues.

107West27thstreetThe brothels of 27th Street were so notorious, they scored a mention in The Gentleman’s Companion, a guide to prostitution published in the 1870s, reports Andrew Roth in his book Infamous Manhattan.

Among the proprietors listed in the guide are “Mrs. Disbrow, 101; Mrs. Emma Brown, 103; Miss Maggie Pierce, 104; Joe Fisher, 105; Miss Dow, 106; Mrs. Standly, 107,” writes Roth.

Number 107, in the photo, is noteworthy because it’s the only original building left.

“Evidently the author of The Gentleman’s Companion didn’t think too much of the place, since his only comment is ‘the Ladies boarding-house at 107 West 27th St. is kept by Mrs. Standly and is very quiet.'”

“Not much of an endorsement, but better than the review received by her next-door neighbor . . . of which he warns that ‘the landlady and her servants are as sour as her wine,'” adds Roth.

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12 Responses to “A Chelsea block lined with brothels in the 1870s”

  1. ronfwnc Says:

    There was a lot of street prostitution in the neighborhood as recently as the early 1980s. 28th Street between 6th and 7th was particularly bad.

  2. Somebuddy Says:

    Was fascinated by this and I couldn’t resist bringing up the census records for 1870 here (for the even side of the block):


    You’ll see Ms. Dow listed. You’ll also see that many of these houses have African American women listed as “domestics.” Possible that they were, indeed, servants, but more likely that the households were full of ladies of many colors, races and nationalities.

  3. jw phillips Says:

    There were gambling houses and brothels cheek by jowl in this area of the Tenderloin. The saloons along the trolley crosstown 28th Street were owned by a potpourri of ex-black prizefighters and it was still a black neighborhood after the Draft Riots of 1863, which did burn down an orphanage on 8th Avenue for African American Children – where part of FIT stands today. The “white riot” after the Jack Johnson win over the previously undefeated Jim “Great White Hope” Jefferies, who came out of retirement enticed by the largest purse ever offered up to that date. As the bars were replaced by a number of chinese “chop suey houses” and the El loomed dark over 6th Avenue, the neighborhood continued as a demimonde destination through the 20s and 30s, just not a very prosperous one. The early Tin Pan Alley publishers also took a presence in the row houses, now landmarked, between Sixth and Broadway.

  4. Pete Louys Says:

    A friend of mine who lived there in the late ’80s called it Blow-Ho because of the in-car action on the block.

  5. Marco Says:

    I can vouch for ronfwnc’s comment. After a weekend or a day trip into the city, we (my spouse and I) would make a point of driving across to the West Side Highway via Blow-Ho to check out the fashion.

  6. Ricky Says:

    In the early 80’s I worked on West 43rd between 10th and 11th and there was a lot of “activity” going on around there. Walking to work in the morning you would see lots of used condoms scattered on the sidewalk. More than once in the early evening a man would accidentally leaned against the buzzer to the building and someone in the office would see him being serviced. When the Javits Center opened in 1986 business moved south to help celebrate the opening,

  7. The Flatiron street where pop music got its start « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Pan Alley was in the middle of the Tenderloin neighborhood, a derelict district of gambling houses and […]

  8. Confusion and despair in the Tenderloin District | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] At night, the Tenderloin was the city’s red-light district at the turn of the century, a center of sex and sin that blazed with light and put high-rolling millionaires in proximity to lower-class drinkers, gamblers, showgirls, and prostitutes. […]

  9. trilby1895 Says:

    For some reason, Tenderloin sex and sin back in the day possesses (for me) a romanticism and fascination that is absent from today’s pursuit of same. In modern times it’s sordid, plain and simple. I wish I were able to visit John Sloan’s “Haymarket” as it was in the painting.

  10. A woman found bludgeoned in a Tenderloin hotel sparks the trial of the century | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] in room 84 of the Grand Hotel, in the middle of the Tenderloin—Gilded Age New York’s vast vice playground of brothels, dance halls, theaters, and gambling […]

  11. The final days of a 44th Street Gilded Age gambling house | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] like Canfield’s were the flip side of the Gilded Age—the not-so-secret gambling houses, brothels, and music halls that paid police and politicians to look the other way in the Tenderloin and other […]

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