“A house recommended”: the sensory archaeology of sexuality, embodiment, and creation of space in a mid-nineteenth-century brothel in Boston, Massachusetts
Luiz, Jade Whitney
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Few verifiable first-hand accounts of the lives of past sex workers exist. What, then, were their daily lives like? Can archaeology assist us in understanding the daily lived experiences of sex workers, brothel managers, and visitors to the brothel? Despite excellent research in this subject, archaeologists have yet to adequately address the daily lived experiences within sites of prostitution. Using artifacts collected from the privy feature of the 27/29 Endicott Street house lot in Boston’s North End neighborhood, this dissertation examines the relationships among embodiment (or the exterior and interior experiences of the body), sensual experience, and identity through analysis of “assemblages of practice,” or artifacts used together to accomplish specific projects in everyday life (e.g., personal grooming, presentation of self, dining, place-making). Employing theories of embodiment and an archaeology of the senses, my study of the Endicott Street collection contributes a new methodological and theoretical framework for studying the archaeology of prostitution across time, space, and culture. Through the analysis of household artifacts such as teawares and lighting, geographic location in the city, and historical crime reports, I determined that the brothel environment was constructed both to avoid police notice and to provide an atmosphere of genteel anonymity to its customers. Likewise, the embodied experiences of women working here were as much a part of the brothel’s economy as were services offered in addition to sex. Artifact and documentary evidence suggests that the closing of the brothel and the filling of the brothel privy appear to signify the end of financial prosperity at the property. Ultimately, this dissertation finds that the practice of nineteenth-century sex work involved a careful construction of fantasy for brothel customers, and that this fantasy had the potential to provide financial stability and security for the madam of the establishment, if not for the women working as prostitutes.