[Ads-l] Antedating "Red Light District" - and a possible explanation of the red light

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Wed Dec 6 20:21:35 EST 2017

I've posted my draft post on my blog about the history of the expression, "Red Light District."


Of particular interest, I found a citation from  New York newspaper in 1898, just weeks after the first appearance of the expression there (it first appeared in Louisville in 1893), that agrees generally with my finding that the red lights originated with oyster saloons and other nighttime dives.  But interestingly, the writer thought that "red light district," as applied to the conditions in New York City in 1898, was a misnomer, as red lights had become more indicative of all-night restaurants catering to night-shift workers, and not so much to prostitution.  This observation seems to corroborate other evidence pointing to an origin elsewhere.

From: Peter Reitan <pjreitan at hotmail.com>
Sent: Monday, December 4, 2017 9:23 AM
To: ADS-L Listserv
Subject: Antedating "Red Light District" - and a possible explanation of the red light

I've found several citations that antedate the earliest use I've seen listed elsewhere.  The "red light" appears to have been a legacy of red lights used to designate oyster saloons, which were notorious dens of vice and prostitution.

Wikipedia places the earliest use of "red light district" in a Sandusky, Ohio newspaper in 1894.  It does not provide a citation, but there was an article about restricting the Salvation Army's activities to the "red light district" on Green Street in Louisville, Kentucky in the Sandusky Register, December 13, 1894, page 2.

Barry Popik's site has an earliest use in September 1896, from the Wheeling (West Virginia) Register, in an article about a murder-suicide in the "red-light district" on Green Street of Louisville, Kentucky.

I've found several earlier examples, all related to the "red-light district" in Louisville.  The earliest is from August, 1893, in a story about two murders commited by the ne'er-do-well brother of a former US Ambassador to Ecuador.

“Finally the funds gave out and the landlord would no longer trust them, so Wing took his young wife to the bordello of Madam Mertie Edwards, on West Green street, the red-light district of Louisville.  There he lived off her shame and loafed."

Cincinnati Enquirer, August 21, 1893, page 1.

The expression appears down-river in St. Louis in Novemer 1895, further down river in New Orleans in 1897, and then further out west in Missoula, Montana, San Antonio, Texas and Perry, Oklahoma in early 1898.  The expression was in use in New York City by late-1898.

The two standard origin stories speculated that the red light came either from railroad workers hanging up their red lanterns outside the brothel so they could be found in an emergency, or from "The Red Light Saloon" in Dodge City, Kansas.  Railroad workers did carry red lanterns and there were any number of saloons called the "Red Light" across the entire US, including several in Kansas, but I think there is an alternate explanation.

I think that the red light on brothels was an extention of red lights long used to designate oyster saloons.  There are references to prostitution and other vices being practiced in oyster saloons as early as the 1820s.  There are references to "showy lamps" and "colored lanterns" in front of oyster houses in the 1840s and 1850s, and frequent references to "red lights" of the oyster saloons in the ensuing decades.

Red lights were so closely associated with oyster saloons by the mid 1870s that one writer wrote a piece about the supposed origin of the lights:

"The reason why oyster saloons are designated by a red light is said to be that in ancient times oystermen had portable furnaces before their booths upon which they cooked the bivalves for their customers.  The light of these furnaces when seen at a distance in the night appeared to be red, and indicated to the public that the oystermen were ready for business.  When these furnaces fell into disuse, and the cooking was done indoors, the red light was still hung out to let the people know that cooked oysters could still be had."

National Republican, October 14, 1876, page 1.

Whether or not that story is actually true with respect to the use of red lights at oyster houses, the widespread evidence of the use of red lights at oyster saloons, and the deep and long association of oyster houses with prostitution, suggest that the red lights of the oyster houses was the source of the practice of using red lights to designate brothels.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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