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A guide to Philly brothels - circa 1849

An 1849 travel guide for men visiting Philadelphia aimed to make sure visitors really felt at home.

Library Company curator of printed books Rachel D'Agostino with the rakish review.
Library Company curator of printed books Rachel D'Agostino with the rakish review.Read moreRandi Fair / Staff Photographer

AN 1849 TRAVEL guide for men visiting Philadelphia aimed to make sure visitors really felt at home.

A Guide to the Stranger was the 19th-century equivalent of Trip Advisor - only, instead of rating restaurants and room service, it reviewed brothels. The document has generated buzz since it was posted online by its owner, the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The Library Company is a research library founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin. It's open to anyone with a research project and also hosts exhibits throughout the year. The Library Company houses more than 500,000 American historical documents - but some of these items are a lot more salacious than your high school history book.

In addition to A Guide to the Stranger, the collection has more than 400 city-specific street guides. Primarily published by doctors, these advised visitors on baseball schedules, popular attractions and what to do if you contracted a venereal disease or found yourself struggling with male impotence - all in one pocket-size book.

A Guide to the Stranger - author unknown - is a bit more focused in its mission.

"In publishing the book, the author most respectfully informs the public that he has, as near as possible, given a correct list and description of the greater portion of Houses of Ill-Fame in Philadelphia," the pamphlet begins. "Some people may think that this is the most virtuous place under the sun, but let them look over these pages, and perhaps they may open their eyes in amazement at the amount of crime committed nightly in this City of Brotherly Love."

The guide, subtitled Pocket Companion for the Fancy, Containing a List of the Gay Houses and Ladies of Pleasure in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, helpfully distinguishes the finer adult establishments from the less-than-desirable ones. (Keep in mind: Prostitution was legal when this book was circulated.)

Poorly rated businesses were marked with an "X." The blacklisted brothels include Mrs. Hamilton's house at 152 Locust St., because she had become "bald and toothless" over the years, and Sarah Ross' house on Passyunk Avenue, where the girls are "ugly, vulgar and drunken."

Other places had much more favorable reviews, like Miss Mary Blessington's house on Wood Street: "This young and beautiful creature is as snug a lump of flesh and blood as ever man pressed to his bosom."

Reddit users have discussed the document on the site's r/Philadelphia page and's history blog, the Vault, posted about it in September.

Some sites display current-day images of former bed house sites, such as the one at 8th and Arch that's now a PennDOT Driver License Center. (Feel free to insert joke here, Pennsylvania drivers.)

For those curious about the full text, keep in mind that some of its language may be misleading to the modern reader.

Rachel D'Agostino, curator of printed books at the Library Company, said mentions of "gay houses" don't imply homosexual prostitution but rather places of jovial - ahem - entertainment.

"Bed houses" frequented by "married ladies" weren't just sleeping quarters, either. They were available to rent by the hour and largely used by married people having affairs.

So where would a traveling gentleman find a guide like this?

D'Agostino said it's likely they were distributed in theaters, popular meeting spots for johns and prostitutes in the 19th century. Prostitutes would offer services in the theater's third tier and often leave with a customer after the performance.

The physical copy of the pamphlet lives at the Library Company's building at 1314 Locust St. It's in incredible condition given its age (and wherever it may have traveled), down to the original sewn binding.

A small strip at the bottom of the front page is cut off - an alteration that D'Agostino said was likely intentional, maybe to remove a name. D'Agostino said the document's small size - only about 5 by 3 inches - speaks to the subject matter.

"Things like this, that were generally not to be public, that people would want to keep hidden away - birth control manuals, things of that sort - would very typically be small like this," D'Agostino said. According to Library Company records, the pamphlet was purchased in 1972 from a book seller.

The establishments mentioned in the pamphlet are mostly in the modern-day Center City and South Street neighborhoods. D'Agostino said this pamphlet wasn't "outing" any brothels. Most people would have known what kinds of businesses were at these locations.

"This isn't like exposing addresses that people didn't otherwise know were brothels," D'Agostino said. At the time it was released, "no one's going to look at this and say, 'I had no idea that went on there.' "