A sinful side street in 19th century New York City

SoubretterowsignAside from the Bowery, no neighborhood in late–19th century New York packed in as many saloons, music halls, gambling dens, and brothels—lots and lots of brothels—as the Tenderloin.

“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.”

Metoperahouse39thbway1904Amid 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.

West39thstreetnypl1934“‘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]

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6 Responses to “A sinful side street in 19th century New York City”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    You could wander for blocks in the nighttime and not see another soul in the 1970s. Being alone in NYC, ah bliss… I’m sure that can’t done or felt anymore.

  2. The elegant artist studios overlooking Bryant Park | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] business friends said it was a foolish thing to erect so expensive a studio building in what was then the ‘Tenderloin District,’” he […]

  3. The bloody past of Manhattan’s West 39th Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] 39th Street in the old Tenderloin district also had a dicey reputation—of an entirely different […]

  4. Richard Toonkel Says:

    Any idea why the building at 275 West 39th Street has words of cities and countries on the south facing wall? Thanks

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I know what building you’re talking about—I think it was an ad for a travel or tourism company. I feel like I covered it here many years ago and there was a discussion about it, but I can’t seem to find it.

  5. The neighborhood leveled to build Penn Station | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] It probably wasn’t difficult. With a progressive city cracking down on prostitution and drinking in the early 1900s, Gotham was less likely to tolerate a vice district with, for example, an entire row of brothels like “Soubrette Row” on West 39th Street. […]

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