"Everybody's Doin' It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840-1917" by Dale Cockrell; W. W. Norton & Company (288 pages, $27.95)
Sex, booze and Irish jigs. That may not have the punch of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but the urges were the same.
It didn't matter what parents, politicians or police said. This generation wanted pleasure, and it wanted it now. Except now was the 19th century.
Dale Cockrell's "Everybody's Doin' It" tells the tale of "Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840-1917." It's a history as contemporary as last night's warehouse party.
Sure, some details changed over the years. Initially, the mood-altering substance of choice was booze. Fiddlers supplied the music. And the love was anything but free.
But even more than 100 years later, those old New Yorkers' search for pleasure feels familiar.
Cockrell begins his book in the early 1830s. Just over the last half-century, New York had suffered through two wars, burned in the first and blockaded in the second. By now, its citizens were eager to have some fun, if they could.
Except some people declared they couldn't.
The Rev. John R. McDowall arrived in Manhattan in 1830, fresh from Princeton Seminary and determined to minister to the poor. Instead, the Presbyterian clergyman became fascinated by prostitutes and porn.
He tried to save the souls of the first, through prayer. He tried to outlaw the second, by reprinting graphic examples in his crusading newspaper, McDowall's Journal. Instead, his publication was banned for obscenity. By 1836 he was defrocked.
He died the same year.
Others took up his crusade against vice. They even mimicked his methods: Decry the lusts of men. Grieve over the ruination of women. Legislate against the bars and dance halls that enable them.
First, though, describe it all in as much titillating detail as possible.
By the 1840s, McDowall's journal was replaced by a rash of moralizing weeklies, hypocritical papers like Rake, Libertine and Whip. They regularly ranked the city brothels, noting the employees' specialties. They even provided addresses.
After all, how else could their innocent readers know which neighborhoods to avoid?
There was a lot to cover. By 1848, at least 1,500 bordellos operated in New York. And it isn't as if they had a monopoly on places selling sex.
Back then, the line between bar and brothel was as thin as a silk stocking. If there was liquor, there was music. And if there was music, there were women eager to dance with patrons.
Nothing was free, though. The house expected the man to buy the lady a drink afterward. And anything else? Well, that cost extra.
But the couple could always save on a hotel room by finding a dark corner. The boldest had sex right on the dance floor.
When Charles Dickens took a tour of America in 1842, he made sure to visit Five Points, the dangerous slum made infamous in "Gangs of New York." Dickens frequented saloons filled with jugglers, acrobats, and an organ-grinder with a monkey. And, he danced with a prostitute named Amanda Flagrant.
He also noted something remarkable about New York's rude but vibrant nightlife – blacks and whites hung out.
Races crowded together in the same ghettos, sharing space and their traditions of music and movement. The Irish brought fiddles and jigs. The blacks contributed banjos and high-stepping dances.
Some places, like the Black-and-Tan on Bleecker, specifically welcomed mixed crowds. Soon, a black-and-tan was any bar or dancehall where color didn't matter.
The lack of segregation, tough, bothered some of the supposed do-gooders more than the availability of easy sex. And the more freedom African-Americans acquired, the more easily outraged white reformers became.
By the 1890s, the Rev. Dr. Charles Henry Parkhurst of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church was one of Manhattan's leading scolds. One night, accompanied by a private detective, he slipped off his collar for an undercover tour of the city's dens of iniquity.
The two men observed dances where "vice, brazen-faced, tried to thrust itself upon innocence." They saw a heavily rouged woman wearing a low-cut blouse which had "no value as a concealment of her buxom personality."
But he and the detective saved most of their astonishment for a dancehall on West 27th Street, where they were shocked to find, not just underage patrons, but interracial couples.
The two men's tour ended in a nearby bordello, where for a pricey $15, the girls performed a nude "dance of nature" and a high-kicking can-can. Afterward, Parkhurst's escort was persuaded to crouch on the floor for a game of naked leapfrog.
That was enough for the minister, who announced it was time to go.
Still, it was the race-mixing that rankled the reformers. Although New York had passed a law in 1873, guaranteeing "full and equal enjoyment of any accommodation, advantage, facility or privilege," many whites drew the line at seeing the races fully and equally enjoying each other.
Black-and-tan clubs soon came under scrutiny. Black-owned establishments were explicitly targeted. Authorities ordered the elegant Marshall's Hotel on West 53rd Street to segregate patrons. W.E.B. Dubois asked the authorities to reconsider but was ignored.
"From a cellar-way leading to filthy underground apartments came the noise of a piano," wrote missionary Helen Campbell in 1895, describing one saloon. "The place was filled with the fumes of rum and tobacco... White and black mingled indiscriminately."
Despite regular calls for reform, for a few more years New York remained what some considered a cesspool of vice where others lived out fantasies. It was pretty available, considering the numbers.
A study in 1912 counted 15,000 professional prostitutes in Manhattan. Those in bordellos saw between 10 and 30 customers a night, charging anywhere from 50-cents to $10.
The prostitutes didn't have to share earnings with a madam. And cheap rooms were easy to come by.
Easier than ever. Although New York's blue laws had long prohibited selling booze on Sundays, in 1896 hoteliers won an exemption: If you had more than 10 beds, and served food, you could serve liquor, too.
Smart saloon owners quickly hung up a sheet, threw some cots behind it, laid out a few stale sandwiches, and declared themselves innkeepers. Men ignored the food and guzzled the beer, then retired to the back with a "waiter girl."
Nightlife choices abounded. The fancier bars boasted full-scale shows or singing servers, like young Irving Berlin. The more notorious spots hid in tenement basements. They were nicknamed dives because you had to go underground to find them. Places called slides catered to gays.
By World War I, though, all began to change.
Racists shut down the black-and-tans and reformers went after the most obvious bordellos. Ragtime - an African-American invention that had drawn crowds, particularly in the gay bars - was going out of style. The Temperance movement was growing.
Meanwhile, the War Department - worried about the corruption of sailors and soldiers - pushed cities to shut down their red-light districts.
It had been almost 90 years since Rev. McDowall first preached against Manhattan as a hotbed of seduction and sin, but change had finally come. The age of lousy hooch, loud music, and randy coupling was ending. The reformers had won, and they could all give themselves a pat on the back.
After all, they didn't know the Roaring '20s were just around the corner.
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