A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from August 25, 2007
Red Light District

The origin of the term “red light district” is unknown. The term “red light district” is cited in Lousville in 1896, Denver in 1897, and New York City, Houston and San Antonio in the year 1898. In 1900, New York police made a major effort to clean out the “red light district” of the lower east side.

A “red light district” is where shady transactions occur, such as prostitution, drug use, and gambling. Red lights sometimes were used at these establishments, but not always. One theory is that the red lights were lanterns used by visiting railroad men.


Wikipedia: Red Light District
A red-light district is a neighborhood where prostitution and other businesses in the sex industry flourish. The term “red-light district” was first recorded in the United States around 1890, and derives from the practice of placing a red light in the window to indicate to customers the nature of the business. The color red has been associated with prostitution for millennia: in the Biblical story of Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho aided the spies of Joshua and identified her house with a scarlet rope.

Some say the origin of the red light comes from the red lanterns carried by railway workers, which were left outside brothels when the workers entered, so that they could be quickly located for any needed train movement. Others speculate that the origin comes from the red paper lanterns that were hung outside brothels in ancient China to identify them as such. It was said that the lights were thought to be sensual.

In more recent years the red-light district term has its name from the red lights that hang from the district’s brothels.

A Treasury of Texas Trivia
by Bill Cannon
Plano, TX: Republic of Texas Press
1997
Pg. 10:
Reference books and lore alike attribute the origin of the term “red light district” to Texas. It’s said to have been coined by railroad men after their practice of hanging signal lanterns by the front doors of local brothels while visiting.

(Oxford English Dictionary)
red light
The sign of a brothel. Freq. attrib., as red light district, etc.
1900 N.Y. Jrnl. Nov. 19 (caption) Children of the ‘red light district’. 1900 Boston Transcript 4 Dec. 14/3 The disorderly houses in the ‘red-light’ district were all closed last night.

17 September 1896, Wheeling (WV) Register, pg. 4:
Louisville, Ky., September 16.—At an early hour this morning Carrie Jennings, colored, in a fit of jealousy, stabbed Monroe Bell, colored, aged 32 years, to death and then fatally shot herself in the head. The tragedy occurred in the Red Light district on Green street, between Seventh and Eighth streets. 

3 December 1897, Denver (CO) Evening Post, pg. 10:
On His Way Home in Baldwin:
Unfortunately, Kelly’s Way Led through the Red-Light District

a1898 W. C. Brann Brann the Iconoclast (1911) II. 99 The Post next proceeded to publish a directory of Houston’s redlight district, giving names and addresses of the “madames,” the number of their “boarders” and the condition of the merchandise thrown upon the market.

2 June 1898, San Antonio Daily Light, pg. 5, col. 4:
Another attempt was made by a hack load of Rough Riders last night to take in the red light district and shoot out the lights after the fashion of the wild and woolly Occident, but a few shots brought out the mounted police and the Rough Riders succeeded in making their escape across lots in the darkness.

27 November 1898, Philadelphia Inquirer, pg. 7:
CHAPMAN’S GOOD WORK
He Is Going Through the “Red
Light” District With a Fine-
Tooth Comb

NEW YORK, Nov. 26.—Chief Devery to-day detailed several men from other precincts to help Captain Chapman in getting evidence against keepers of disorderly houses in the Twelfth precinct, as policemen of the Eldridge Street Station are all well-known in the neighborhood.

Even the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has failed to get legal evidence to convict proprietors of “cafes” which harbor young girls, as was shown to-day, in Essex Market Police Court.

17 February 1899, Naugatuck (CT) Daily News, pg. 3, col. 3:
Watson Schermerhorn, a New York police detective, has devised a machine for melting the frost on a window pane over a space as big as a silver dollar so as to permit the industrious searcher for vice to see from the outside of any cafe or other place of entertainment what is oing on inside. The machine has already been tried in the “red light district” in New York, which is now receiving so much attention from the police. 

14 March 1899, San Antonio Daily Light, pg. 12, col. 1:
A jury in Justice Sweeney’s court heard the testimony in a fighting and abusive language case this morning in which a number of women of the red light district were involved, and gave a verdict of not guilty.

13 March 1900, Philadelphia Inquirer, pg. 1:

STARTED IN NEW YORK
The Haymarket Closed, Its Proprietor Arrested
“Red Light” Characters Driven Into the
Street and Gamblers Indicted
(...)
Police Captain Diamond and a squad of his men from the East Fifth street police station visited every resort in the famous “red light” district to-night, driving the people into the street. Considerable excitement occurred at McGurk’s, where over one hundred men and women were ordered out.

28 April 1900, Marion (OH) Daily Star, pg. 1, col. 2:
New York, April 28.—Considerable comment is heard among the delegates to the ecumenical conference over the character of the “Guide to New York” prepared for their benefit by the hospitality committee. Some of the more straight-laced are shocked by it, particularly by the chapter headed “A ramble at night.” They say it was probably taken bodily from a guide book prepared for a drummers’ convention or some other secular and unregenerate gathering.

The “Ramble at night” takes the trusting missionary first to the Red Light district on the lower East Side, up the Bowery and through Chinatown. He is informed that opium smoking rooms are called joints, where it costs $1 to hit the pipe.

Posted by Barry Popik
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (0) Comments • Saturday, August 25, 2007 • Permalink