Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2035th Meeting

Speaker: Donna J. Seifert, Archeologist, John Milner Associates, Inc.
Topic: “Within Sight of the White House: The Working Women of Washington, DC”

The President, Ms. Enig, called the 2035th meeting to order at 8:17 p.m. on December 2, 1994. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2034th meeting, prepared by Mr. Russell, and they were approved. Ms. Enig then read a portion of the minutes from the 426th meeting, November 24, 1894.

The President introduced Ms. Donna J. Seifert to discuss “Within Sight of the White House: The Working Women of Washington, DC”.

Ms. Seifert said she wanted to look at a familiar neighborhood from a different point of view, the “worm's eye view of history” she has as an archeologist. The neighborhood is the area of the District of Columbia bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue, Constitution Avenue and 15th Street NW, now known as the Federal Triangle, but referred to in the later half of the last century as Hooker's Division.

Ms. Seifert read two written accounts of activities in the neighborhood. The first was a letter written by a man who as a 13 year old boy in 1913 had accompanied a family friend briefly visiting a house “off Ohio Avenue”. Ohio Avenue was then a street below Pennsylvania running through Hooker's Division. The second account was a deposition given in the investigation of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. The deposition was given on April 15, 1865 by Ms. Nellie Star then about 20 years old who worked in a house at 62 Ohio Avenue. She testified that she had known John Wilkes Booth for about three years. He visited the house often, the last time being two weeks previously, but she had “not been on good terms with him for over a year.” From records it can be established that the house at 62 Ohio Avenue was purchased in 1862 by Nellie Starr's mother, Ellen Starr, and that it was run by another daughter of Ellen Starr, Mary Jane Treakle [1]. The area acquired the name Hooker's Division during the Civil War when large numbers of troops were quartered in the District especially in the area immediately to the south. The name may have been a double-entendre on the name of General Hooker to the soldiers from New York City where Hooker's Point had been a red-light district before the war. It was from this area, however, that the name survived in its modern usage.

From the period immediately after the Civil War time until about 1890 the neighborhood was predominantly working class with small businesses, family houses, boarding houses and houses of prostitution. The houses of prostitution were listed in a Provost Marshal “inventory of bawdy houses” in 1865, and in the census records of 1870 and 1880 under the designation female boarding houses, the same designation used in the Storyville section of New Orleans. Prostitution was listed as an occupation for women in those census records. The relevant records of 1890 are lost, and it was from about that time that the character of the neighborhood changed to being predominantly a red light district of brothels. By the 1900 census almost all the buildings in the neighborhood were listed as female boarding, and few family houses and mixed boarding houses remained. The brothels in the neighborhood were closed as a public nuisance by Congress in the Kenyon Act of 1914.

The District Building was constructed just south of Pennsylvania Avenue in 1904 before the brothels were closed. Hooker's Division became the Federal Triangle during the large public works projects of the 1930's. The area of 32 Ohio Avenue was paved over for Department of Commerce parking. Ms. Seifert conducted her excavations in the area during 1988-89. As mandated by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, the primary object of these excavations was to study 19th and early 20th century artifacts that could be recovered. District records helped establish which of the 10 sampled lots were family houses, general boarding, female boarding or small businesses. Artifact pattern analysis generally confirmed with the expected lot usages and showed that in the period from 1865 to 1890 the brothel houses were not especially distinctive in their artifacts from the other houses. After 1890 the artifacts from the brothel lots were more distinctive and indicated an elevation of economic status over the remaining general boarding houses. The relative accumulation of such artifacts as kitchen ware, steak bones, smoking pipe fragments, flower pots, lighting glass fragments was notable in the brothel lots. From the period after 1890 these lots also tended to have fancy black glass buttons whereas the general boarding lots had plain white porcelain buttons.

From these artifact analyses and the supporting documentary records it is evident that this profession, especially in the period after 1890, afforded a middle class lifestyle to women from the working class. Indeed the evidence of the higher percentage of more expensive meat cuts supports the testimony of some prostitutes who said they selected their profession because they were able to eat regular meals of good quality. Before 1900 this selection may have been eased by a “flexible definition of virtue” among the working class that would not have been acceptable for the middle class. These women were making other choices in an era of limited options.

[1] Donna J. Seifert, “Mrs. Starr's Profession”, pp. 149-173 in Those of Little Note: Gender, Race, and Class in Historical Archeology, Elizabeth M. Scott, ed., University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1994.

Ms. Seifert kindly answered a large number of questions from the audience. The President thanked the speaker on behalf of the Society, announced the speaker for the next meeting, made the parking announcement, and adjourned the 2035th meeting at 9:58 p.m.


Respectfully submitted,
John S. Garavelli
Recording Secretary

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