Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Fast Women of New York (Vintage 1869)

by Stephen J. Gertz

Society to-day in New York means everything and anything...The members of it are chiefly concerned in the important item of living, although some of them live at a fast dying rate. The rage of the hour with the masses is display, ostentation, dress and the gratification of all the animal desires. Toes are educated more than hands, and the tongue talks vastly more than the brain thinks. Polish, etiquette and accomplishment are of more value than honesty of purpose and a good common sense education. There are exceptions to this rule, as there are to all rules, but this is the way we look at the masses.

Society of to-day represents the highest perfection of our Anglo-Saxon civilization as developed under a republican form of government in the New World. While there is much in it which is worthy of all admiration, there is much which is crude, false, foolish, wicked and deserving of our censure. It is now content with nothing short of what money can purchase....As the love of money is the root of all evil, so society which is built on money has much in it which is evil...

Thus begins The Women of New York: Or the Under-World of the Great City. Illustrating the Life of Women of Fashion, Women of Pleasure, Actresses and Ballet Girls, Saloon Girls, Pickpockets and Shoplifters, Artists' Female Models, Women-of-the-Town, Etc., Etc., Etc., a grand tome from 1869, a significant time in American culture when, weary of war, seeking pleasure, and greater personal freedoms, the average American city dweller's manners. mores, and values began to dramatically shift. The emergence of the working woman, freed from domestic chains, created great anxiety amongst religious leaders, moralists, and culturally conservative citizens. 

The Women of New York is just one of the many books that were published in the late 1860's-early 1870s that warned of a cultural Armageddon in the making. It, amongst these other volumes, constitutes nothing less than the origin of  the culture wars in the United States, now in their 151st year.

The Belle of Fashionable Society.

After a discussion of the good old days and an enumeration of the various types of society, the pseudonymous George Ellington gets down to business: the ladies of New York who exemplify the New Woman, to wit: whores and, due to their modern behavior, the nearly so if they're not careful. The shop girl - a new phenomenon - is just one step up from the streets.

At the Races - "Liquoring Up."

The book is divided into  eight sections: Women of Fashion; Women of Pleasure; Married Women; Wicked Women; Female Artistes (Ballet-Girls; Female Models; Actresses); Life in a Female Seminary; Other Women (i.e. physicians; "strong-willed women"); Female Institutions.  Married women do not escape Ellington's  indictment; the chapter titles to that part of the book tell the tale: Matrimonial Infelicities; Marriage à la  Mode; Married Intrigues in Middle Life; Married Liaisons; Separation and Divorce in New York; "Fast Women." There's no escaping the author's scorn; these women are wicked.

Fast Women at the Races.

But not as wicked as "Wicked Women," which include Female Astrologists; Female Clairvoyants; Female Adventurers; Female Pickpockets and Shoplifters.

A Stylish Mamma.

Beware the "fast woman."

"They indulge in all the 'manly sports' which it is possible for women to indulge in, and their philosophy or belief, if they have one, is to eat, drink, and be merry. They are of the world, worldly, and prefer to live and enjoy the present...

"The number of these fast women in New York is perfectly astounding to persons who really have a chance to know. There are, of course, a great many good women in New York who are not fast [slow women: "not so fast, buddy!"]...Fast women are not necessarily bad - they may be virtuous, they may scorn or pity the cyprian - but whatever they may be in that respect they are 'fast,' and lead an exceedingly rapid though short life."

One of the Few Good Mammas.

The above may be one of the few good mammas but I suspect Sylish Mamma is having a better time; "one of the few good mammas" could use a stiff drink to loosen-up; any stiffer in appearance and she might be confused with a caryatid.

The Queen of the "Underworld."

"Out of doors, on the streets of New York, under the light of the gas-lamps, the denizens of the under-world may be seen in even greater numbers than in the fine houses..." And so we are introduced to "Nymphs du Pave,"  a delightful euphemism for streetwalkers; the pavement-pro has never sounded so exotic.

A Female Gambling House on Broadway.

"Women of all classes of society in New York use stimulants and narcotics to a greater or lesser extent but the demi-monde in particular, above and beyond all others, are addicted to these unwholesome and life-destroying habits. If the women of fashion are compelled to use various kinds of opiates to induce sleep, how much more are the women of pleasure, whose life is one continued round of dissipation all the year through, and who never know what rest is...This practice is about as common as eating among them, and is indulged in by all classes of women-on-the-town, whether they be high or low.

"Hasheesh was the favorite drug with these women some years ago but it is no longer thought much of...Laudanum is a favorite drug with the demi-monde, and some of them carry its use to a fearful extent."

Female Models and the Artist at Work.

"To be a model female requires considerable good sense and qualities of the head and heart. To be a female model one can get along without any of these qualifications, so long as she possesses a fine, voluptuous form."

It should be clear by now that this book could have been written yesterday. The Culture Wars, modern greed, and the place of women in today's America can be traced in a very straight line back to this, and other, similar books of the era, a time when the new was outpacing the old at breakneck speed and the old had a bad case of the willies. Women were beginning to think and do for themselves.  Next thing you know they'll want to vote. Call the Riot Squad.

ELLINGTON, George (pseud.). The Women of New York: Or the Under-World of the Great City. Illustrating the Life of Women of Fashion, Women of Pleasure, Actresses and Ballet Girls, Saloon Girls, Pickpockets and Shoplifters, Artists' Female Models, Women-of-the-Town, Etc., Etc., Etc. With Numerous Engravings. New York: The New York Book Company, 1869. First edition. Tall octavo. 650 pp. Frontispiece, 43 full page engraved plates.



  1. Priceless is the history of attitude!

  2. You make it all sound so interesting, maybe something to check out for myself.


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