They pose happily before the camera, some wrapped only in a shawl, some with luxury hosiery, others pensive and dressed in nothing. The women are surrounded by curtains and lace, represented doing everything from bathing and reading to grooming in preparation for male clients. Her ease barely dressed in front of the lens is remarkable, her calm faces framed by opulent hairstyles of the 1890s or left seductively on her bare shoulders.
This is the life inside an American brothel of the 1890s, an intimate portrait of a segment of society that is so often held behind closed doors, discussed only in a low voice. And this extraordinary set of photographs, shot for the private collection of a commercial photographer named William Goldman in Reading, Pennsylvania, at the end of the 19th century, was also almost completely lost in history.
Then, an art curator met them at a vintage fair in northern California, which took him on a trip to identify the city, the brothel and the photographer who captured them so intimately more than 100 years ago. Now the photos appear in a new book, published this week, entitled Working Girls: An American Burdel, Circa 1892 – The Secret Photographs of William Goldman.
The photographs were taken two decades before the famous J. J. Bellocq photos of sex workers of 1913 in Storyville, New Orleans, which means that the Goldman images are the oldest body of work known on this subject in the United States.
They were discovered a decade ago by Robert Flynn Johnson, and his book offers a fascinating insight into the lives of prostitutes in the 1890s. Through investigations and clues, Johnson discovered that anonymous photographs depicted women working in a brothel of luxury run by the single mother Sal Shearer in Reading around 1892, at a time when the city was crowded with young railway workers and workers.
William Goldman, a commercial photographer from Reading, Pennsylvania, took private photographs in the 1890s of women who worked in one of the city's most exclusive brothels, an establishment run by a single mother named Sal Shearer, who dressed her daughters as of upper-middle class. class ladies to feed the fantasies of male workers
The photographs were discovered by author and art curator Robert Flynn Johnson about ten years ago at a vintage paper sale in northern California; he had no information about his origin, but he noticed an image showing a prostitute reading a newspaper, the Eagle of the Reading, since August 1892, giving him clues that finally took him to that city of Pennsylvania
Working with local reading historian George M. Meiser IX – who he would eventually dedicate his book to – Johnson traced the photos to Sal Shearer's brothel and identified the man behind the lens as commercial photographer Goldman, who was also a patron of the establishment and kept the photos in albums for his private collection
The photos of Goldman were taken two decades before the famous E.J. Bellocq photographs of sex workers of 1913 in Storyville, Louisiana, which means that Reading photographer's collection is the first body of work known about this topic in the United States.
The girls in the Sal Shearer brothel, explains Johnson, probably charged more for their time than other brothels in the city: $ 3 or $ 4 compared to $ 1 or $ 2, because the establishment catered to a particular fantasy or predilection between the male clientele Many of the men had not yet made enough money to marry and form their own families, and the brothels responded to a definite need in the testosterone-laden city.
Reading, located in southeastern Pennsylvania, about 120 miles from New York and 60 miles from Pennsylvania, was an industrial and railroad center for much of the nineteenth century, especially important for moving coal. The Philadelphia Railroad and Reading (P & R) was one of the first railroads in the US. UU And very successful, although problems arose in the years immediately before the period during which Goldman filmed his photos, when the competition invaded and the railroad company went bankrupt. gaining strength again.
Johnson, author and former engraving curator of the Achenbach Foundation at the Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco, explains that "the city's fathers considered prostitutes … the necessary evil." They considered it an escape valve for the community, so these men would not approach their own daughters and sisters in the street. "
He explains: "At the Sal Shearer establishment, the men came in there and did not want to sleep with a peasant or an immigrant woman, that's what women were, of course," Johnson tells DailyMail.com. & # 39; & # 39; They wanted to fantasize that they were sleeping with the boss's daughter, so to speak, so the lady dressed her daughters as a middle class with very nice clothes and stockings and all that.
"Not only were the men buying sex, but they were buying the fantasy, so the women were in a situation where they were being protected and not harmed in any way, they were paid and they wore nice clothes and makeup and all that. More or less … clothing was a very important aspect of all the fantasy, all the illusion ".
It was a different era, says Johnson, arguing that working in a place like Sal Shearer's brothel was not necessarily the worst option.
"These women in the 1890s, these women did not have many prospects," Johnson tells DailyMail.com. "They were in an urban environment, could work in a hotel, where they would be sexually harassed, could work in a restaurant and suffer sexual harassment, could be a nanny in a house and be sexually harassed by the husband when the wife was not; they could work in a box factory for a dollar a day, or they could become prostitutes, where they would at least be protected and would wear clothes and nice things. "
Burlesque star Dita von Teese, who wrote the prologue to the book, echoes the opinion of brothels as a "necessary evil in the city," where men with certain desires visited women who would force them.
"In this case, it was a man's desire to capture the beauty and sensuality of the women he befriended," he writes.
Johnson says the photographs reminded me of Degas and reminded me of Rodin. They were beautiful and honest, and that's why I had enthusiasm for them. He adds: "What most struck me, no doubt, is that there are photos from around this period or a little later that you do not want to touch with a ten meter pole, or they are pornographic images or … they are the type of French postcard with garlands, the naughty photographs that were made, especially in France, to monetize and sell, and these photographs were never monetized, so we can say … he never published these photographs, these were his private albums
Goldman photographed the girls posing and also performing their daily activities in the brothel, such as reading, bathing and preparing for male clients; By the end of the nineteenth century, Reading was flooded with young single workers, factory employees, and railroads. Johnson says that "the parents of the city considered prostitutes … the necessary evil." They considered it an escape valve for the community, so these men would not approach their own daughters and sisters on the street. "
The brothel was located six or eight blocks from Goldman's studio; Johnson says the photographer "befriended Sal Shearer and befriended the girls, and apparently they were very comfortable with him."
Single women faced few prospects at the time, explains Johnson; sexual harassment of women who work as domestic servants or in restaurants, or could earn $ 1 per day in a factory, but if they worked as prostitutes, they enjoyed a certain level of protection and fine clothing
"There is a lot to learn and (more than anything!) Enjoy this discovery As illustrated by these photographs lost more than a century later, the" social problem "of one period is the cultural revelation of another.
Johnson had no idea of the background story of the photos when he first saw the images at a vintage fair in Concord, California, about ten years ago.
"They reminded me of Degas, they reminded me of Rodin," Johnson tells DailyMail.com. "They were beautiful and honest, and that's why I had enthusiasm for them."
The woman who exhibited the photographs, with an individual price, sold items from the property of her late collecting husband. Johnson – who has published books with other artistic photographs of unknown themes and origins – asked for a better price if she bought the photos wholesale, but the couple collided, and left with only two. It was a decision that he soon regretted.
"During the next two days, I realized that maybe I had made a mistake, that his personality had distanced me from the quality of art," he says. & # 39; So I had [her] card, so I called her and said, "Well, you know, I bought a couple of these pictures at that fair over the weekend … do you still have any of them?" And she said, "Do you have them? You're the only person who's interested in that."
So Johnson drove three hours to see more of the collection and bought about 50 additional photographs, eventually accumulating several hundred as he sought to turn the distinctive images into a book, an effort that became a kind of detective story when Johnson tried to identify the brothel, the photographer and the women captured by his lens.
"One of the photographs was the key to everything else," Johnson tells DailyMail.com. Without that photograph, these would have been beautiful, mysterious and anonymous photographs, period. I would not have been able to connect him with a photographer, a brothel or a city, but one of the photographs … caused one of the prostitutes to read the Eagle from the August 1892 reading.
"I called the historical society in Reading, Pennsylvania, from California, and I said:" What was the name of your newspaper in 1892? "And they said," The same as it is today: The Reading Eagle. "
"And I said to myself: Bingo," says Johnson. "That's where I started my search, and it was like a detective story."
He made several trips to Reading and counted on the help of the local historian George M. Meiser IX, to whom he would dedicate the final book. Her efforts identified the establishment as the one run by Sal Shearer, who had been abandoned by her husband and tried to work as a seamstress, without success, before opening the brothel.
Meiser also helped identify the photographer, a local man who worked in commercial photography called William Goldman, whose naked self-portrait within the photo collection led to his own identification. It turned out that Goldman had been friends with women, fond of private and artistic photo shoots and, apparently, a brothel customer.
"Obviously, if these albums had been released in their community during their lifetime, it would have been a scandal," Johnson tells DailyMail.com. & # 39; It would have gone bankrupt; He would have lost all his clientele, because his profession was taking pictures of businessmen, weddings, school events and things like that, so he was just a professional photographer, and his studio was six or eight blocks from the brothel.
"And obviously he was a patron and he became friends with Sal Shearer and he became friends with the girls, and apparently they felt extremely comfortable with him."
He adds: "What most struck me, no doubt, is that there are photos from around this period or a little later that you do not want to touch with a ten meter pole, or they are pornographic images or … they are the type of French postcard with garlands, the naughty photographs that were made, especially in France, to monetize and sell.
"And these photographs were never monetized, so we can say … he never published these photographs, these were his private albums."
Johnson divided the book into 14 chapters that explore topics such as "Clients," "Erotic Poses," "Art Photos," "Out of Service," and "Parallel Jobs."
"He had used prostitutes for some of his commercial jobs," says Johnson. "He made them pose as Joan of Arc, made them pose as riders, made them pose as Cleopatra, made them pose as the birth of Venus, sometimes made commercial photographs for people's salons, decorative works, but also behind the scenes. scenes he took pictures of them in the brothels and then had the girls go to his studio. He took artistic photographs there as well.
In addition to his own research and impressions in the book, Johnson included writings by von Teese, historian and UC Davis professor Davis Ruth Rosen and Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design at the Phoenix Museum of Art.
The book includes a prologue to the burlesque star Dita von Teese, as well as writings on the sociological history of the professor and historian Ruth Rosen, and Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design at the Phoenix Museum of Art, who explores the history of locker room. Johnson says: "The idea that I made a list of three women authors for this book, I think, was very important … the last time I thought I wanted this book to come out [as] – It's the masculine look, so to speak. I did not want to be accused of being a misogynist healer who decided that I had found some pictures of women without their panties & # 39;
If the images had come out during Goldman's life, they would undoubtedly have caused a scandal and would have lost his job in commercial photography, as well as his position in the local Reading community; therefore, the photographer kept the images in private albums
The photographer also "used prostitutes for some of his commercial work," says Johnson. "He made them pose as Joan of Arc, made them pose as riders, made them pose as Cleopatra, made them pose as the birth of Venus, sometimes made commercial photographs for people's salons, decorative works, but also behind the scenes. scenes he took pictures of them in the brothels and then had the girls go to his studio. He took artistic pictures there, too & # 39;
Burlesque star Dita Von Teese writes in the prologue: "For these hardworking girls who were already going against the fatigue of working hard on a factor or as a domestic, who survived in a patriarchal world for their wit and sexuality, the opportunity Sitting down for Mr. Goldman was very likely not only to thrill, but also to strengthen him. "
"The idea of making a list of three women authors for this book, I think, was very important," Johnson tells DailyMail.com. & # 39; It will be important, because something I wanted, the last time I thought I wanted this book to come out [as] – It's the masculine look, so to speak. I did not want to be accused of being a misogynist healer who decided to find some pictures of women without their panties on, you know?
He adds: "I wrote about the history of art, Ruth Rosen wrote about sociological history, Dennita Sewell wrote about the history of the costumes and Dita wrote about the experience of being the seducer, so to speak, or the interpreter. those things, I think we have really told a responsible overview, the history of these photographs, as well as being only about photographs to look at. "
The new book Working Girls, by Robert Flynn Johnson, is published this week, exhibiting and examining the lives of prostitutes and 19th Century Reading, Pennsylvania
Von Teese, who got involved because she and Johnson have mutual friends, writes in the prologue to the book: "Sexuality is subjective." The last sigh of survival for one woman may be the act of independence of another. be a muse in the eye of the artist.
"This fascinating collection of images found over a century ago could not have originated only as a case study of women employed in a brothel." The local photographer and his anonymous muses seem to mount a contrived excitement, sometimes battling nudity. Degas and in another, more in the spirit of a strip and provoke, there is beauty even in the most mundane moments. "
She adds: "For these hardworking girls who were already going against the fatigue of working hard on a factor or as domestic, surviving in a patriarchal world for their wit and sexuality, the opportunity to sit for Mr. Goldman was very likely not only exciting: it was also enriching. "
And, in addition to shedding light on the intimate lives of women in the 1890s, Johnson said he is satisfied that the meticulous and private work of a commercial photographer will finally see the light; After the release of a book at the Rizzoli Bookstore in New York on September 12, Goldman's photographs will be exhibited at the Ricco / Maresca Gallery.
"When this book comes out, William Goldman will be a known photographer," says Johnson with satisfaction. "I mean, he died in 1922, nobody remembers him I had no children or anything, and I'm giving William Goldman his second act with his secret photographs.
Von Teese writes in the prologue: "This fascinating collection of images found more than a century old could not have originated just as a case study about women employed in a brothel." The local photographer and his anonymous muses seem to mount an artifice excitement, sometimes fighting Degas nudes and in another, more in the spirit of a strip and provoke.There is beauty even in the most mundane moments