Beneath an Outhouse, a 19th Century Brothel’s Secrets Are Revealed

By Anna Goldfield | March 7, 2018 3:48 pm

Life in an 19th century Boston brothel. (Credit: Boston University/YouTube)

For Jade Luiz, a graduate student in archaeology at Boston University, historical archaeology is all about detective work. Through piecing together historical documents and archaeological finds from the outdoor toilet, or privy, of a former brothel near Boston’s North End, she’s been reconstructing the lives of women who participated in sex work in the mid-1800s.

Louisa Cowen, for example, who in 1856 took over as the madam of 27–29 Endicott Street—the brothel behind which stood the privy—typically presented herself as a respectable widow, according to historical mentions of the brothel and census records. Given her status, she likely wore black clothing and adorned herself in somber black jewelry. Her tombstone names her as the wife of Henry Cowen, a Boston house painter who predeceased her. Whether or not the two had been officially married remains unknown. What Luiz does know is that Louisa Cowen became very successful.

The artifacts from the Endicott Street privy are remarkably complete, and the collection is large. According to Luiz, it looks “like someone was going through closets and dumping everything they couldn’t sell into the privy to seal it off.” She places the timing of this wholesale deposit of household goods to shortly after the property changed hands in 1876. An embossed glass bottle with that date found at the top of the privy heap makes this timeline likely. Despite the fact that these goods were discarded as trash, they now offer clues to the personal etiquette, household ambience, and daily lives of the working women of Endicott Street.


By the 1850s, Boston’s North End, which had been a wealthy neighborhood in the early days of the city, had become a hub of middle-class businesses and immigrant workers. The brothels along Endicott Street were more respectable establishments than those along the harbor a few blocks away that catered to a rougher crowd. Some of the clientele of 27–29 Endicott Street were probably middle-class businessmen who arrived from the nearby rail depot.


For the women of Endicott Street, presenting themselves as clean, fresh smelling, and disease-free was of utmost importance. Bone-handled toothbrushes, American and French perfume bottles, lotion and tooth-wash bottles, and a number of glass syringes that may have been used for douching speak to the women’s high regard for personal hygiene.

When I ask Luiz which of the pieces in the collection are her favorites, she fondly describes two small glass seed cups. The cups would have been kept in bird cages that may have hung in the parlor of the Endicott Street house—or the birds may have been companions to some of the women and kept in their rooms. The small seed cups hint at what the rooms of the Endicott Street house might have been like, with songbirds chirping in the low-lit, perfumed interior.

And while most boardinghouse residents of this era complained of too many stews and cheap roasts, and expressed their longing for a roast chicken, the fare at the Endicott Street brothel was “a little fancier,” says Luiz. “It doesn’t look like typical boardinghouse food.”

From the hundreds of cherry and peach pits to a variety of nuts and animal bones, it’s clear that the women—and perhaps their guests—ate well. Smells of pork chops, pig’s feet, and the occasional roast bird likely mingled with the fragrances worn by the brothel residents.

Luiz sometimes holds onto tiny bits of information for years, she says, gradually bringing together the fragments to re-create life stories. These stories offer a counterpoint to the perception of sex work in history. “These women tend to be portrayed in one of two ways,” she says of historical records of brothels and sex work in America and Europe. “There’s either this moralizing censure and desire to save the fallen women, or they’re being eroticized for the titillation of the public.”

The story of Cowen, Luiz continues, is a perfect example of a woman who made an economic decision to enter a profession in which she could thrive. In the 19th century, a sex worker could earn as much in a single night as a factory worker could make in a week. After moving from rural Vermont to Boston’s Endicott Street, Cowen quickly became quite prosperous. By the time she died in 1865, she had paid off the mortgage on her family’s farm in Vermont and was able to leave a wealth of expensive goods, clothing, and jewelry to her siblings. According to probate records from the year she died, Cowen left “all of her black jewelry”—her trappings of widowhood—to one of her sisters.

When Luiz found a broken black cross among a few pieces of lost or discarded jewelry in the privy deposits, she wondered about its meaning and origin. “I can’t be sure, but I like to think that maybe that piece once belonged to Louisa as part of her black collection,” she explains. “That’s my other favorite artifact.”

The physical objects that were a part of the daily lives of the women of 27–29 Endicott Street are a reminder of the humanity of these individuals. By reconstructing the stories of the women who lived and worked in historic Boston, to some extent bringing them back to life, Luiz wants to show that sex workers were—and are—real people.


This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology
  • OWilson

    “In the 19th century, a sex worker could earn as much in a single night as a factory worker could make in a week”

    How little has changed! :)

    • Uncle Al

      In the 19th century, there was no income tax for factory works.
      There remains no income tax for sex workers. Given a choice…

      • OWilson

        Which is the smart choice, a week on the assembly line and sharing half your pay with gravy train politicians, or a well compensated evening with the top politician himself?

        • Mike Richardson

          Stormy Daniels was certainly well compensated, wasn’t she? 😉 I guess some things never change.

          • OWilson

            Some people prefer low level employees!

            You don’t have to pay them! :)

            Just drop your pants in front of them, and order them to, “Kiss it!”!

            Stormy, bless her, never got the kind of money Slick had to pay State Employee Paula Jones! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            And neither instance is something that should be defended or dismissed, right? :)

          • OWilson

            Bill Clinton was defended!


            Remember what you said about his brutish behaviour, or do I have to repost it here?


          • Mike Richardson

            I’m not interested in your out of context attempts at distorting the record, and I’m not defending anyone’s behavior here. But your classic “what about Clinton” sure looks like defending Trump’s immoral behavior, Bigly! LOL! 😀

          • OWilson

            You ran knee jerk into that one without thinking. Lol!

            Then your failed liberal moral equivalency attempt to equate attempted rape by a President of a low level unwilling employee, then lying through his teeth about it, for which he was Impeached, Fined and Disbarred, with consensual sex with a porn star is noted!

            But failed, bigly! :)

            “He (Slick Willie) will forever carry the Mark of Cain!” – Senator Charles (Chuck) Schumer, remember?

          • Mike Richardson

            So you’re cool with Trump cheating (again), this time shortly after the birth of his last child? I’m not defending Clinton, but lying’s nothing new for you. Maybe you and Trump have more in common than just personality. 😉

          • Purgesecretsociety

            Trump is saving the country, who cares that he has sex with beautiful women? Oh, that’s right,there aren’t any pretty libtard women.

          • Mike Richardson

            LOL! He’s “saving the country” from ” libtard” people, eh? Oh, it’s no coincidence that the acronym “MAGA” pronounced phonetically sounds like baby talk. Thanks for the laugh. 😀

          • OWilson

            Unemployment down!
            Record low unemployment for blacks!
            Black home ownership up
            Food stamp usage down!
            ISIS on the run!
            A New and Improved Iraq – ABC
            Afghanistan’s Improving Ways – WP
            Tax Reform and Lower Taxes
            Wages up!
            “Impossible” (Krugman) GDP growth!
            Stock market records
            Illegal border jumpers down
            Major Liberal Swamp Draining in Fake News Media, Hollywood, and Washington!
            World Respect Again!
            Finally progress on the N. Korea problem
            New Supreme Court Picks.
            No new hard drive crashes and wholesale destruction of government records in major government agencies.

            And my favourite, less rioting, looting, cop car burning and violent ransacking of neighborhood Mom and Pop stores, even if as you say, “It is only property, not worth losing a life over”

            My other close favorite:

            No rounding up and “bringing climate deniers to justice”, (Jews next?)
            Free speech lives!

            Now that IS saving us from socialist Progroms!

            From a conservative viewpoint, unbelievable progress in one short year.

            For a socialist, communist, islamist, Fake News specialists Bernie, Hillary, Obama supporters or Swamp dwellers, pretty devastating, I’d say!

            With that record they cannot let him coninue into 2020 election season, so they have to slash and burn and hope they can Impeach him, on some phony Russian hoax.

            Their only chance!

            Can they do it?

            Well, they managed to sell the catastrophic man made global warming hoax for quite a while.

            PT Barnum was right!

          • Mike Richardson

            Here’s some other accomplishments:
            – An ever-growing list of indictments, and a total of five guilty pleas from “the best people” Trump chose for his administration
            – Record number of resignations from more of “the best people”
            – eviscerated Environmental Protection Agency funding and spending on monitoring the climate
            – Major cesspool filling with violations of ethics involving conflicts of interests and profligate spending by department heads
            – World dismay that someone so woefully unsuited, both tempermentally and intellectually, now sits in the office of the Presidency
            – thanks to his tendencies to speak and Tweet falsehoods on a daily basis, over 2000 recorded lies a little over one year in officee
            – largest one-day stock market drop in history
            – And, perhaps illustrating why Trump should perhaps visit brothels to do all his grabbing, 19 women have now accused him of unwanted physical advances and assault (but it’s only bad if a Democrat does it, right?)

            So. Much. Winning. 😏

          • Purgesecretsociety

            Butthurt is a wonderful thing if it is a liberal experiencing it.

          • Mike Richardson

            Though you might be a hemorrhoid, you’re not hurting my butt. 😁

          • Purgesecretsociety

            The nice thing about a basement is it’s cool in the summer.

          • OWilson

            If he has one it is probably wet!

            He told us that he lives on low level land in SE Louisiana, and has been flooded out at least once, despite government flood warnings.

            He says all low lying coastal land will be washed away by his global warming, but he re-built in exactly the same spot!

            Go figure!

          • OWilson

            I admitted it would be “devasting” for socialists, islamists communists and other assorted left wingers.

            And especially for government Swamp workers like you!

            You made my point!

            Thank you!

          • Purgesecretsociety

            After the list of accomplishments by Owilson, below, your woefully weak baby talk comment is an embarrassment to all basement dwellers.

          • Mike Richardson

            Oh cool, he likes you now. Poor you. Since I don’t like repeating myself, you can read my response to him below. I think I’ll leave you two celebrate the accomplishments of Trump in this appropriate thread about things found “beneath an outhouse.”

          • OWilson

            So who was it brought up “STORMY DANIELS”, again?


          • OWilson

            What goes on in a marriage is between them, and not one of my pressing concerns.

            Go get a street corner group hug.

            Take the CNN crowd with you! :)

            They too look like they never get laid! :)

          • Uncle Al

            You miss the point. Sex-for-hire pays the contractor to go away. If there were any incident at all, Stormy Daniels broke the contract. Her John, were there one, has no contingent liability thereafter.

            YouTube v=kWGO3ePMcMg Give me that Indian, to preform an unnatural act. Gimme the horse, too, for the act.

          • Mike Richardson

            Actually, her “john” did not sign the nondisclosure agreement. Hence her current lawsuit.

          • Wayne Emerson

            Clinton broke the law. Trump didn’t.

          • Mike Richardson

            I guess we’ll have to see what Robert Mueller has to say about that, right? 😉

            M.A.G.A. — Mueller Ain’t Going Away

    • Ken Albertsen

      ….or in a month

  • AlDavisJr

    Fort Laramie Three Mile Hog Ranch. A different kind of brothel. Soiled doves are people too…..

  • Lorie Franceschi

    Asked this question while in my younger years while attending college, “how does something such as a seed cup make someone think that there birds singing and chirping away?” Do they have a written description about how life was at the brothel? Always got the same dumb answer. “It is what “I” think it was like.”
    I would return with a comment along the lines of “I disagree with you. It must have been like this…” Always got dirty looks from my instructors. Of course the snowflakes, not their name back then, would be horrified that I would talk like that to someone in a supposedly authority position.
    Anyway, a sex worker would make more than someone working in a factor as a factor worker made barely enough to survive from week to week.
    Also there were few if any assembly lines in the 1860s and those that were around we would have a difficult time recognizing.

    • OWilson

      I love the old victorian shocking pictures of the debauchery and, gasp!, dancing, depicted above.

      It looks almost innocently childlike, compared to the debauchery that any child can find online today!

  • Ken Albertsen

    I’m writing a book about sex-for-hire places in S.E. Asia. I may include this article, with reference to its source, of course, ….as comparative reference.

  • Ken Albertsen

    Many folks were sired by client/sex-workers. What % of those alive today? I’d say 100% have at least some dilly-dallying in their ancestry, going back 3,000 years.

  • Purgesecretsociety

    In 1876, my grandmother was born. …..not there, I hope.


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