Your Great-Grandma’s Dirty Books
In the early 20th century, out of wedlock pregnancies were explained away as the result of drugs and white slavery, and high times were always followed by disgrace.
A hundred years ago, there was only one way to explain a woman having sex outside of marriage: she must have been drugged, defiled, and sold into prostitution. This tended to happen, we were warned, when girls left home and went to the big city, where the dangers of liquor and dance halls were all too well-known.
This turned out to be mostly nonsense. By the time the Roaring Twenties came along, moral crusaders had basically abandoned the idea—but in their heyday, they managed to crank out some spectacularly lurid fiction about innocent girls led astray. Imagine your great-grandmother, sitting primly in her mother’s parlor, breathlessly paging through these so-called “white slave dramas” in search of forbidden thrills. It always ends badly for these girls—as it had to, given the conventions of the genre—but there was plenty of champagne and seduction to be had along the way.
These books were required reading as I was researching the true story behind Girl Waits With Gun, set in 1914, in which three sisters are threatened with arson, kidnapping, and—yes—white slavery. Fortunately, the Kopp sisters knew how to fight back.
Little Lost Sisterby Virginia Brooks (1914)
“A Serpent Whispers and a Woman Listens,” warns the title of Chapter V. Poor Elsie is promised a life on the stage, only to be led to ruin.
“‘Cabarets?’ The girl’s interest was aroused. ‘What’s a cabaret?’
“‘A cabaret,’ said Druce, ‘is a restaurant where ladies and gentlemen dine. A fine great hall, polished floors, rugs, palms, a lot of little tables, colored lights, flowers, silver, cut glass, perfumes, a grand orchestra—get that in your mind—and then the orchestra strikes up and you come down the aisle, right through the crowd, and sing to them.’
“‘Oh, I’d love to do that,’ said the girl.”
The House of Bondageby Reginald Wright Kauffmann (1910)
Dear Mary is dazzled by New York: “The far-off orchestras were calling her, as if the sound of the city deafened her to all other sounds, as if the lights of New York blinded her to the lights of home.”
She holds fast to her virtue until her first sip of champagne: “She did not like the taste of the champagne, but she knew that she had been very tired, and the wine sent fresh life and energy through her sleepy limbs. She emptied the glass and felt, joyfully, all her fears and regrets slipping for her. Doubt and difficulty were resolved into a shimmering mist, were overcome, were forgotten.”
Her Soul and Her Bodyby Louise Closser Hale (1912)
Pretty young Melissa doesn’t understand the power of her own beauty. “What do I fear when a man notices me? Not him, for I can run away. Myself? Perhaps it is; because the something in me that makes them stare is the something in me that makes me afraid.”
Ah, but then: “He came toward me and toward me. I stretched out my arms, fingers extended, to keep him back. When he reached them he crumpled them up and came on. As his mouth was over mine I threw back my head to avoid him. His lips rested on the hollow in my throat. Then he helped me on with my things, for I was trembly, and, at the door, I kissed him.”
Later, when she is so bold as to ask him over: “He rested his pale grey eyes on me. He didn’t seem to be looking; he was planning. ‘Of course. Expect me any evening.’”
Strangely, Melissa more or less survives this ordeal, making it a rare bright spot in the literature of fallen girls.
Can Such Things Be?by William Gleeson (1915)
Martha comes to Chicago from a small town and meets “a well dressed young fellow” at the train station. It takes nothing but lunch and a stroll through the park to land her in a house of ill repute. Soon enough, a man “past the half century” arrives, “well-groomed, and dressed as becomes a man of means.”
“I have something choice for you,” says the madam. “A lovely girl, fresh from the country. She’s as innocent and tender as a chicken. I hardly think I should introduce her to you. Some of my girls tell me you are very exacting.”
He laughs and says, “Well, Sadie, they all seem very well satisfied when I leave them.”
From Dance Hall to White Slaveryby H.W. Lytte and John Dillon (1912)
With chapters like “The Tragedy of the Telephone Girl” and “The Tragedy of the Factory Girl,” your great-grandmother had reason to dread falling into the arms of a wicked man regardless of her profession.
“Bessie was eighteen years of age and prettier than the general run of telephone operators are imagined to be.”
One night, she “was finally persuaded to try suissesse. The drink seemed perfectly harmless and was pleasant to the taste and smell. Three others followed … To Bessie it seemed that the intermittent clicking of a telephone was in her ear.
“‘Number, please?’ she called.
“There was a burst of laughter as the fresh young man replied:
“‘We’ve got your number, kid: ring off.’”
Suissesse, in case you’d like to be persuaded, is an absinthe fizz.
Amy Stewart is the author of seven books. Her latest, Girl Waits with Gun, is a novel based on a true story. She has also written six nonfiction books on the perils and pleasures of the natural world, including four New York Times bestsellers: The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential. She lives in Eureka, California, where she and her husband own a bookstore called Eureka Books.