Where Are the Women? In the “Blue Book!”

I was watching the Antiques Roadshow program on KET last week—the week before the Olympics began. It was an old show from August 11, 2001 titled “Vintage New Orleans.”

If you’re not familiar with the Antiques Roadshow, it is “part adventure, part history lesson and part treasure hunt,” according to the website’s description. Basically, the television crew visits cities across the United States and residents bring items to have experts provide information about them and have the items appraised for both historic and monetary value.

As always, there were many interesting items brought in for appraisal during that particular program, but the one which caught my attention and imagination was a “Blue Book.”

Now this “Blue Book” wasn’t the kind that tells you how much your car is worth. It wasn’t the kind with blank sheets of paper you use to take written tests in college. It wasn’t a guide of government officials or a directory of a city’s upper class citizens.

No, this “Blue Book” was a 1915 printed guide to brothels, prostitutes, sporting houses and other “vice services” in New Orleans.

The appraisal for this little guide book was $5,000 at auction, which may have been a bit optimistic because I found another “Blue Book” from around 1905 that recently sold at auction for a mere $1,200. Still, considering the “Blue Book” originally sold for twenty-five cents, I’d say that was a pretty good return-on-investment!

The auction house, Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers of Boston, New York, Miami, and Marlborough (MA), provided an auction estimate of between $800 and $1,000, but the book sold for a bit more.

md-blue-book-1386Their description of the item follows:

“Blue Book, [Directory and Guide to Prostitutes in the Sporting District of New Orleans]. [New Orleans: no printer, no date, c. 1905], Tenth edition. Small octavo, original tan wrappers printed in blue, text pages printed on coated stock in red and black, stapled; paper wraps breaking along joints, old tape repairs, 5 1/2 x 4 1/4 in.”
The description also included the introduction from the book:

“Why New Orleans should have this directory: First- Because it is the only district of its kind in the States set aside for the fast women by law. Second- Because it puts the stranger on a proper and safe path as to where he may go and be free from ‘Hold Ups,’ and any other game usually practiced upon the stranger. Third- It regulates the women so that they may live in one district to themselves instead of being scattered over the city.”

“Blue Books” were known to be published in New Orleans as early as the 1880s, and possibly earlier.

In 1897, the New Orleans City Council confined prostitution to the sixteen square blocks north of the French Quarter, an area that became known as Storyville—so named for the city councilman (Mr. Story) who wanted to contain prostitution in one area of the city.

I’m not sure Mr. Story was thrilled to have the city’s red light district named for him, but who knows? He may have relished it as his “fifteen minutes of fame.”

Other cities in the United States also had Blue Books. One known example was San Antonio, Texas.

At least one surviving Blue Book from San Antonio, which dates from 1911-1912, includes on page one a Preface, which states: “This directory of the Sporting District is intended as an accurate guide to those who are seeking a good time. To the stranger and visitor while in San Antonio, this book will be welcome, because it puts him on a proper and safe path as to where he may go and feel secure from ‘Hold Ups’ and any other game usually practiced on the stranger. Anyone perusing this booklet expecting to be regaled with lewd and obscene reading matter will be sadly disappointed, as outside of some harmless wit or toasts it contains only what necessary information is required to make it a directory. This Blue Book is at this writing the second one of its kind in the United States, (there being one in New Orleans, La.) and is issued strictly for information purposes, nothing more. – The Publisher.”

So, what does all this have to do with Kentucky history? Or, more precisely, Kentucky women in history? Well, nothing, directly. But the little “Blue Book” on the Antiques Roadshow brought to mind two rather famous—or should I say, infamous—Kentucky woman.

If you know much about Kentucky history and women in Kentucky history, you’ve probably at least heard of a Lexington woman named Belle Brezing (June 16, 1860 – August 11, 1940), who was a nationally-known “madam” said by some to have been the model for Margaret Mitchell’s character, Belle Watling, in Gone With the Wind.

Then there was Pauline Tabor (April 11, 1905 – June 8, 1992), a famous madam (though not a prostitute herself) whose house on Clay Street in Bowling Green was reported to be one of the longest-running brothels in the United States, from the 1930s to the 1960s.

And although no “Blue Book” of Lexington or Bowling Green has ever been discovered (as far as I know), both Belle Brezing and Pauline Tabor’s brick house would have been listed in its pages if there had been one published in either city.

Even a cursory search of the Internet will provide tons of information about both Belle Brezing and Pauline Tabor, so I won’t go any deeper into their lives and times in this blog.

But I did find one unique item which I thought my readers might be interested to see: an 1882 pardon from Kentucky Governor Luke P. Blackburn for Belle Breezing’s indictment by the Fayette County Grand Jury for “keeping a bawdy house.” (See image below.)

The little “Blue Book” appraised on the Antiques Roadshow reminded me that Kentucky women—and all women, in fact—from all walks of life need to be remembered and the stories of their lives need to be preserved for future generations to study and learn from.

Danna Estridge, Guest Blogger


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