On Nov. 16, the Friends of the UNO Library presented Pamela D. Arceneaux, author of “Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans,” which documents the history of prostitution within New Orleans.
The event started with an introduction to Arceneaux, a senior librarian and curator of rare books at the Historic New Orleans Collection, where she has worked since 1981. She received her B.A. from University of West Georgia and a Master’s in Library Sciences (M.L.S.) from Louisiana State University. She also received the Lucy B. Foote Award for her outstanding contributions as a librarian in a specialized field.
She started her presentation by reading a few excerpts from various blue books. Published during the eras of heightened debauchery, they are “little guide books featuring directories of prostitutes and advertisements for brothels, liquor and other services in New Orleans’ red light district, known as Storyville,” Arceneaux said.
Demonstrating the flowery language and often-flirtatious nature of these books, she emphasized that “fun is the watchword” for anyone who reads them.
Arceneaux had heard of blue books prior to taking her current job, but her interest was piqued when she discovered a large collection of blue books at the HNOC. She found the language and history of these books captivating.
In 1987, prior to her close examinations of these unique books, she wrote an article about this topic. But some of the sources had become dated or completely wrong. This inspired her to write “Guidebooks to Sin,” and there wasn’t a better time for her to write this book than during her stay with the HNOC.
“Prostitution was largely uncontrolled throughout the antebellum period until, prompted by citizens’ complaints, the New Orleans City council passed an ordinance concerning lewd and abandoned women in 1857,” she said, explaining how Storyville’s famed location came to be.
This ordinance required that prostitutes provide their services in a certain part of the city and required that they buy licenses so that they could provide revenue for the city. This legislature created the the red light district. Because the rule was written by a man named Sidney Story, the red light district was nicknamed Storyville. While it was overturned in 1859, this ordinance would soon be revised and put back in effect in 1865. This red light district would not be closed down easily.
“Prostitution continued unchecked due to pervasive corruption throughout New Orleans justice system and by some of the city’s leaders, most of whom profited in some way by the sex trade,” Arceneaux said.
This corruption was key to the survival of legal prostitution in New Orleans, and most importantly, the blue books that would later act as a snapshot into this time period. New Orleans was the first city in the U.S. to have a red light district, and as Arceneaux said, “It adds to the city’s reputation of being a good-time town.”
“Prostitution was not a crime as such, but considered a vice, a failure of morals,” she said. “Women at this time were not really being arrested for prostitution.”
If women were being arrested, it was for being a public nuisance by engaging in public nudity, having fights or being too loud. Women at the time were working in a different kind of business, and that meant they needed advertisements, connections, and most importantly, a guide book that promised a good time.
“Blue books provided an introduction for visitor and local alike, uniformly marketing a fantasy of sex — glamorous, exotic, and taboo. As well as the opportunity to rub shoulders with the worldly and sophisticated,” Arceneaux said.
Today, the term “blue book” can refer to anything from the little books students take tests with to highly detailed travel guides. Many cities in the late 19th and 20th centuries provided guidebooks that showed where the elite spent their time. These books functioned as directories to sophisticated living.
“The society directories would often have dark blue covers, and often [were] referred to as blue books, perhaps also signifying the blue bloods that rested in them,” Arceneaux explained.
However, by 1908, a new and less morally righteous blue book had made its way into circulation, prompting a name change for the original blue book. (Publishers started calling it the “Elites’” blue book.) The new blue books created a mockery of its predecessor. According to Arceneaux, these books implied that the people who ran Storyville were worthy of visitors’ attention and that the women of the prostitution rings were the best members of society to spend time with.
“The blue book played on this idea of marketing a sexual experience among cultured and refined women in high-class, elegantly furnished venues,” Arceneaux emphasized, while explaining that Storyville wasn’t the only place to publish such guides, but it was the first.
The most notable thing about these books is the lack of names attached to them. Arceneaux pointed out that there were no authors, compilers or editors credited with creating the book. Many people who worked on these books remained anonymous in their contributions, and this is one of the many reasons that blue books are difficult to track.
Many of the women who appear in the blue books seem to go by pseudonyms. Their identities have never been found and remain a mystery to this day. Arceneaux emphasized the mystery of these women and the effects they had on future porngraphic books, such as Playboy, that used the same elitist characterization as did the blue books.
More information about this topic can easily be found Arceneaux’s book or through the HNOC. Follow Friends of the UNO Library through the library’s website to see what events they are hosting next semester. They also provide membership forms that make it possible for anyone to join their group.