Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Of Milk and Water and Brothels and Ontario Laws

Titanic Fashion. A 1910 cover of the Delineator.  Even "good girls" liked luxury.

Two thirds of Canadians believe brothels should be legal, according to a very recent Reid poll, conducted after a top court in Ontario 'swept aside' (Ottawa Citizen) their anti-prostitution laws, deeming them unconstitutional. What? Ontario the Good?

According to this poll, older folk are more inclined to favour legalizing brothels. (According to the National Post article, this is 'counter-intuitive.' Many more men than women are in favour. (That's not so counter-intuitive, is it?)

Years ago, when I was in college, a male friend of mine suggested prostitution should be legalized (to protect the prostitute) and I didn't agree. I remember my argument, that if they legalized it, soon they'll be advertising for women to enter to the profession. (Sort of what's happened with lotteries.) Back then I believed, as I still do, that there was all kinds of prostitution. The kind I deplored the most: where average women shopped around for the richest husband. To me that was no different than spreading your legs for 5.00.

Well, I sure have gained perspective, if only of the historical and theoretical kind. I've become an historical writer. My story Threshold Girl (available here on pdf for FREE)is about a college girl, Flora Nicholson, in 1910, a nice Presbyterian Girl. Flora had two older sisters and I learned through research that every aspect of their PURE and PROPER lives was informed by the Social Evil, that would be prostitution.

For instance, these girls were teachers in the city and as if teaching 50 kids wasn't hard enough, it was next to impossible for a young woman to find a place to live. They had to find a respectable boarding house and they had to do this through connections. Women could not live alone (brothel!). Boarding house matrons had to be careful, lest they be accused of running a bawdy house. All it would take is one of their boarders to have a man in her room.

(But Marion Nicholson, fed up with being bossed around at 26 by her boarding house matron, actually did manage to rent a house for herself, on Hutchison, Flora and two friends, in 1913. It was an ill fated experiment.)

Ngram. The term "social evil" referring to prostitution peaked in the 1910 decade.

Indeed in 1910, Proper young women did not stop walking in the street, even to talk to a good friend, male or female. That would make them look like hookers.

My story Milk and Water is about City Hall Politics in Montreal in 1927 and has my grandfather, Jules Crepeau, as a main character. He was Director of City Services.

Brothels, or 'disorderly' houses, as they are called, figure largely.

In 1921, I believe, a Dr. Atherton, social activist, described the sorry state of some Montreal prostitutes in a speech to the Canadian Club. He especially described their drug addictions from his informed point  of view as a doctor, ie man of science. This set off a wave of indignation among the beau monde. A Group of 16 (Social Activists) was set up and they petitioned City Hall to set up an Inquiry into the Police, who, they believed, were looking the other way or even profiting from such activity.

This inquiry took place in 1924. It was called the Coderre Commission and included 100s of witnesses. In his final 10,000 page report in 1925, Juge Coderre specifically fingered my grandfather for iffy behavior. But not with respect to brothels, with respect to motion picture houses. You see, ALL THE (perceived) VICES got all mixed up during the commission: drinking, gambling, prostitution. It came down to this, I think: ALL VICE hurts our children, especially our precious female children.

In his report Coderre decried the de Bullion Street prostitute, the bedraggled drug-addled one - as well as the high price courtesan 'who dined in Princely Houses' as he put it. All the same to him. The poor prostitute was a warning to all parents, of what might happen to their kids should procurers get a hold of them. (No one really cared about the children of the poor. They still don't.)

The rich courtesans, well, they were a bigger danger. They broke through class lines. How dare they!
These  women fell into prostitution due to their love of luxury, Coderre claimed.  This was a still common belief among morality types: but that idea got swept away with the new consumerism, where women's vanity began propelling the economy, so it became a 'good' thing.  This  was already starting to happen in 1910.

Anyway, this Coderre Report (as reported in the Montreal Star) made it to the US, and was read out as testimony during their 1926 hearings on Prohibition.

A W. E. Raney (former Ontario Attorney General) told the Senate Hearings that Quebeckers were different, they didn't mind brothels. In fact, he said, Premier Tachereau would like to legalize and control gambling and prostitution as he does liquor. (Quebec had a Liquor Control Board in 1925.)

Oh, and one last comment on Prostitution. In WWI apparently, prostitution was a public service. Some poor girls went to the front and lay on the ground and serviced soldier after soldier (lined up in front) until worn out and someone replaced her. Homosexuality was deeply frowned upon, you see. So this was a way around that. Lesser of two evils.

PS. Out West, in Saskatchewan things were more lax. The 1911 Census shows that Herbert Nicholson, Flora's older brother, was in a rooming house in Qu'Appelle, and that a woman also was staying there! A stenographer. Imagine! And another boarder was a bartender. Herbert's Mother would have been appalled.