Sex Work in 1946 Mardi Gras

by Isabella Nolfe

Like many things in 1946, Mardi Gras had certain expectations that people held it to. Only certain types of people were encouraged to participate in the carnival festivities. Usually, only rich, white women were accepted into the carnival world that has been created in New Orleans. Women outside of Mardi Gras and in everyday life have standards they must live up to or else their lives could take a turn for the worse. During 1946, most women relied on a man (either their father or husband) in order to get by and afford to live a decent life. However, not every woman lived by what society asked from them. In fact, there were thousands of women who provided for themselves through sex work or even B-drinking. The elites that participated in Mardi Gras were not fond of this kind of work or the people that part took in it, but the carnival season was a huge attraction for their line of work. 

Sex work didn’t always involve strictly sex, rather a lot of women would be hired by bars only to flirt with men so they would by them expensive drinks. Women who did this sort of enticing were referred to as B-girls. There was a sort of uproar for women who participated in this line of work to be arrested and taken away for good because they were associated with prostitution. Since some of these women were soliciting or offering sex while flirting, officials would make arrests and have them spend the rest of their lives in jail. Any woman who was acting out of character in any way became a suspect. It was eugenics in a way and a danger to all women. A woman couldn’t flirt and have a man offer her a drink without making herself a suspect. Sometimes officers or even regular citizens would find women they were suspicious of and manipulate them into thinking they wanted to have sex only to report them after. They began to put a price tag on the women’s arrest and would publish ads in the newspaper up to three times a week for their arrest. There was one newspaper from 1946, that described not only four women’s arrests, but the owner of the bar they were working at had been arrested as for allowing b-drinking to take place. Although they did not profit in the same way, women involved in b-drinking faced similar penalties as the club owners responsible for the scheme.

Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans Jazz Collection via Louisiana Digital Library

Storyville was a place in New Orleans where prostitutes resided and did their work. However, in 1917 when prostitution was outlawed, Storyville went with it leaving 300 women out of work. A lot of these women had created a reputation for themselves so they were not welcomed by any other job or men who wanted to marry them. This left them with nothing else to do aside from the sex work that had been working in previously. As you can imagine, there were still a lot of women in 1946 participating in this line of work because it was the only way they could live an independent life. It was a basic act of survival and also freedom. In Christine Wiltz’s The Last Madam, she dives into the life of Norma Wallace, a sex worker, and why she chose the life path she did and what that choice brought her in life.

Norma participated in sex work years and years after it had been outlawed. She said, “Whores make good wives, but madams don’t. When you’re making money in a whorehouse, that makes you independent and hard to get along with as a wife in the first place.” Norma would know this well considering she was married five times, but she made a great point. Norma had been born into poverty, but was able to become decently wealthy all on her own because of prostitution. Many women didn’t want to be controlled and would rather settle for a job where they could have their independence and rise to power without a man by their side controlling them.

Like I stated earlier, the social climate and society had a certain structure in the ’40s that people in power wanted to stick to. Sex workers were a danger or threat to the structure elites in the city were trying to keep up. In a newspaper titled “They Voted for Enforcement,” the author describes how people were scared about the state of America after World War II ended, and people wanted peace restored in society. Therefore, when the election came around, many people voted against gambling and prostitutuion. It was clear that people wanted to punish anyone who was associated with gambling or sex because both of these things were viewed as “indecent” or tainting. People weren’t solely concerned for their image though, they were more concerned for their wallets. With the depression only about ten years ago and just coming out of a war, people were very concerned for where the economy was heading.  Even though sex work was actually a huge attraction for the carnival season, people were concerned that it would drive people away which in turn would drive their money away.For rich people in the city, the economy was at stake if the promiscuous behavior continued. There was also a concern that these women would taint the soldiers that had just returned from war. 

People wanted to turn New Orleans into a “sinless city.” They wanted it to be a place where tourists could come enjoy the holy fun, and hopefully bring their friends back the next year. Mardi Gras of 1946 became a huge intersection between the church and state. However the outlaw of prostituion, and the arrests made years after that was never about true morals, it all came back down to money. The elites didn’t want a good reputation because they truly believed the women’s actions were evil, they wanted a good reputation to keep money in their pockets. It is harder to take control of your reputation if you allow others to have freedom.

Bibliography

“HNOL News_Article_Times-Picayune_published_as_THE_TIMES-PICAYUNE.___December_7_1946__p20 (1).Pdf,” n.d.

Hopper, Hedda. “Looking At Hollywood: Lansbury May Be A Lead.” 03/26/1948. n.d.

Landau,Emily. “Storyville.” 12/19/16, n.d. https://64parishes.org/entry/storyville-2.

“Louisiana Spotlight: Booby Treap-The War on Prostitution in New Orleans.” 6/23/2020, n.d.

“Massive Evacuation Reveals Guns, Syringes, and Sex Hygiene Equiptment in World-Famous Red Light Destrict.” Independent Digital News and Media, December 5, 2018.

“Views on Sundry Topics.” 05/13/1946. n.d.

Wiltz,Christine. The Last Madame. Vol. 1. New Orleans: Faber and Faber Inc., n.d.

“Five Arrested on B-Drink Charges.” New Orleans States. February 21, 1946. America’s News – Historical and Current.

“They Voted for Enforcement.” Times-Picayune. January 29, 1946. America’s News – Historical and Current.