Researching the Oldest Profession
1/1/2008
Read between the lines to find prostitutes in the census.
 
What do the terms fast life, bawd, bawdy house, house of ill fame, house of ill repute, concubine, courtesan, soiled dove, cyprian and hadot have in common? Enumerators used all of them — and more — as job descriptions for prostitutes in the 1880 US census.

If one of these words appears by your ancestor's name, you might wonder what led her to that means of supporting herself. People then had bad luck and made questionable choices just as they do today. The husbands of prostitutes in the 1870 or 1880 census, for example, may have been killed in the Civil War.

For the most part, US censuses counted prostitutes the same as anyone else: In the 1870 enumeration for Ohio's rural Van Wert County, Susanna Stevenson, age 35, is listed as a prostitute, as is her 16-year-old daughter, Nancy, and 25-year-old neighbor Anna Myers. In some cases, though, you may have to read between the lines. The 1860 Yreka County, Calif., census lists a residence of Chinese women (each recorded simply as China Woman) ages 19 and 20, all with the occupation unknown. (The same census taker recorded miners as John Chinaman.)