A “soubrette” is what a female stock character in opera and theatre was called in the late 1800s and early 1899s. New York City had a “Soubrette Row,” where women employed in these entertainments lived. In 1889, the New York (NY) Herald stated that Soubrette Row was on “the east side of Broadway, between Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eighth streets.”
The Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1883, at 1411 Broadway, on the block between West 39th Street and West 40th Street. A second “Soubrette Row” existed on West 39th Street, and it was also scandalous as a place of prostitution. “‘Soubrette Row’ in West Thirty-ninth street is no more,” The Evening World (New York, NY) declared in August 1894. The term “Soubrette Row” was never an official one, and it was rarely used by 1930.
A soubrette is a type of operatic soprano voice often cast as a female stock character in opera and theatre. The term arrived in English from Provençal via French, and means “conceited” or “coy.”
Old Fulton NY Post Cards
19 May 1888, The National Police Gazette (New York, NY), “Maska and Faces,” pg. 2, col. 4:
The fellows used to call that floor “Soubrette Row,” and they were right.
Old Fulton NY Post Cards
28 May 1889, New York (NY) Herald, “Trouble in ‘Chippy Manor,’” pg. 2, col. 6:
‘Chippy Manor,” be it understood, is on “Soubrette row,” the latter place being the east side of Broadway, between Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eights streets.
Old Fulton NY Post Cards
2 June 1889, Buffalo (NY) Courier, “The Stage,” pg. 10, col. 3:
Dunlop’s Stage News says that part of the block on Broadway between Twenty-seventh snd Twenty-eighth streets, in New York, is known as “Soubrette Row,” and at this time of the year it is filled with actresses built on the soubrette plan. It is a colony by itself that flits around the corridors and up and downthe stairsat any time of day or night, and in any costume, from a full evening toilet to a loose Mother Hubbard and slippers. Last week the community was thrown into consternation by the arrival of a new comer, with two pugs, a parrot, a French maid, and no mother, and a committee was appointed to investigate, but the fair interloper moved before the committee got in its deadly work. At the present writing, “Soubrette Row” is in great tribulation and sorrow, with feelings not unlike sitting on a volcano about to erupt. The “interloper” was a female reporter sent for one of the big New York dailies, and she promised to"rip open” the “Row” and “burn up” its inmates.
27 May 1893, The Illustrated American, “A History of Seven Days,” pg. 633, col. 1:
A YOUNG woman who has recently made something of a social sensation in San Francisco, where she paraded as the Countess Vesta de Henroit, turns out to be plain Miss Vesta Hastings, considerably better known on “Soubrette Row” in New York city than on the Neva in St. Petersburg.
29 July 1894, New-York (NY) Daily Tribune, “A Daughter of Thespis” by John D. Barry, pg. 18, col. 3:
“Between Twenty-fifth and Twenty-third sts.,” he laughed; “Soubrette Row, a newspaper man that I know calls it.”
22 August 1894, The Evening World (New York, NY), “Left Soubrette Row,” pg. 1, col. 4:
There is sorrow and sadness in the Tenderloin. “Soubrette Row” in West Thirty-ninth street is no more.
Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, Volume 28
By New York (State). Legislature. Assembly
Albany, NY: James B. Lyon, State Printer
Q. You were the captain of the Twentieth precinct, were you not? A. Yes, sir.
Q. And that precinct included Thirty-eighth street—West Thirty-eighth street? A. From Seventh avenue.
Q. From Seventh avenue, west, and that street included the well known row of flats called “Soubrette Row?” A. No.
Q. It did not? A. No.
Q. Did you ever hear of Soubrette Row? A. Yes, sir.
Q. Where is it? A. I don’t know.
Q. You have heard it? A. Yes.
Q. Is it in your precinct? A. Not that I know of.
Q. You never heard that? A. No.
Q. Was it in Thirty-ninth street? A. There were flats in Thirty-ninth street which got that title through some people of your profession; some of your aides; men in your employ.
Q. It was generally referred to in the newspapers as Soubrette Row. A. I don’t know; I don’t know any dependence in the newspapers.
Q. Was it commonly referred to as Soubrette Row? A. I don’t know.
Q. Were there not flat houses let out in furnished apartments for prostitutes, in that street? A. By Ellis, yes.
Backstage at the Opera
By Rose Heylbut and Aimé Gerber
New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell
On Seventh Avenue, there were low, ramshackle shops, occupied chiefly by clothing-dealers and petty tradesmen; and in Thirty-ninth Street stood a row of flats of none too savory a character, and delicately styled “Soubrette Row.”
A Pickpocket’s Tale:
The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York
By Timothy J. Gilfoyle
New York, NY: W. W> Norton & Company, Inc.
By the end of the century, in the elite brothels along West Thirty-ninth Street adjacent to the Metropolitan Opera House, known as “Soubrette Row,” one could purchase opium along with sex.
Ephemeral New York
November 28, 2013 at 4:59 am
A sinful side street in 19th century New York City
Amid all this sex openly for sale, one street stood out: 39th Street west of Seventh Avenue, nicknamed “Soubrette Row.” (a Soubrette is a saucy, flirtatious girl.)
Here, around the corner from the elite new Metropolitan Opera House (left, in 1904), the bordellos were run by French madams.
The girls they managed specialized in some, um, scandalous practices for the era.
By the 1890s, the houses on West 39th Street, “‘were known all over the country,’ according to one observer.