Book examines early reformers 'hysteria' over vice in Philadelphia

Regina Broscius
August 03, 2015

James Adams, lecturer in history at Penn State Abington, recently published Urban Reform and Sexual Vice in Progressive-Era Philadelphia: The Faithful and the Fallen (Rowman & Littlefield). His teaching and research focus on the Gilded Age (1870s to 1900) and the Progressive Era (1890 to 1920) in the United States.

Q: What is the historical setting for this book?

A:  During the Gilded Age, society had idealized a woman's demeanor as extremely feminine. But society was changing, and working women and immigrants became more visible in the cities. The reformers - the progressives - held onto this ideal of womanhood and saw urban areas as filled with vice and immorality, luring in these women. Prostitution became their focus.

A hysteria developed over alleged white slavery - women being kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Activists gave speeches and the wives of public figures lobbied their husbands to do something, anything. About a dozen films were made on the subject, and they easily compare to what we know as exploitation films. People began conducting surveys of prostitutes, and the federal Mann Act was passed to address prostitution and immorality.

"The ultimate irony is that you can't really match the stories to reality. There isn't evidence to support their argument."

James Adams

Q: From what point of view did you explore the reformers' actions?

A: I examine the interplay between gender stereotypes, cultural assumptions of vice, legislative policies, and political activism that led to widespread hysteria over prostitution during the Progressive Era. The root of the problem was that people were operating in old cultural stereotypes.

The public outrage became a cultural touchstone. The ultimate irony is that you can't really match the stories to reality. There isn't evidence to support their argument.

James Adams book illustration

The Gibson Girl illustrations began appearing in the 1890s as the personification of the feminine ideal. The stereotype led social reformers to set out to save women and return them to their pedestals. 

IMAGE: Charles Gibson

Q: What is the argument that you advance in Urban Reform?

A: Progressive era reformers believed they knew what caused prostitution and that shaped their reforms. They were operating under a set of assumptions based on how they viewed the world and how people looked. Their reforms were primarily ineffective. Red light districts were mostly eliminated, but they just went underground.

"Every few years or so the United Nations, the European Union, or the United States comes out in the media highlighting women who are tricked into prostitution. It's an important issue, but the sensationalism is eerily similar to the progressive hysteria."

James Adams

Q: Did the efforts at reform stop after 1920?

A: No, even though the hysteria died out, laws such as the Mann Act remain today. It became an issue of segregation, too, and the Mann Act was used against interracial couples. It continued until the Great Depression when everyone stopped caring about the issue.

Q: Was the climate in Philadelphia similar to that of other cities?

A: Yes, even as late as World War I. South Philadelphia was the center of naval shipbuilding, and there were concerns about prostitutes. Essentially, any prostitute within a certain distance of the Navy Yard could be charged with a federal crime. The mayor of Philadelphia and the city director of public safety were charged with enforcing it, but they couldn't find any crimes. The Navy police took over that area of the city to enforce it - it was almost like martial law.

Q: Why did you focus on Philadelphia?

A: The roots of this study are from graduate school when I first heard of white slave hysteria during the Progressive Era. I wrote a paper and found some incredible original records in Temple University's Urban Archives. There were handwritten documents from the Midnight Mission, a reformatory for teenage girls. One girl was sent there because she was cutting classes and another for stealing pennies and staying out late.

Q: Does your premise tie into current issues?

A: Yes, every few years or so the United Nations, the European Union, or the United States comes out in the media highlighting women who are tricked into prostitution. It's an important issue, but the sensationalism is eerily similar to the progressive hysteria. 

One of the biggest problems today and for the progressives then is that the evidence is anecdotal. The women and the accused often vanish before the larger problem can be solved. We need to do something about it. 

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017