Working Girls

From Brothels to Burlesque

Image: William Goldman, 1892.

BY: Jes Zurell

If you discover century-old photographs of brothels and decide to publish them in a book, as Robert Flynn Johnson did, you’d do well to get Dita Von Teese to write the introduction. Leave it to the ladies to contextualize scenes of our foremothers.

Once upon a brothel, circa 1892, a brothel in Reading, Pennsylvania enraptured a commercial photographer named William Goldman. He documented the intimate lives of the brothel’s women with complete submission to detail–their beauty routines, their time spent reading between johns, their sisterly bonds–in a book, entitled Working Girls: An American Brothel Circa 1892–The Secret Photographs of William Goldman.

More than one hundred years after Goldman developed his shots, and in a very different world, Working Girls speaks to the sociological role of photography in the most unlikely of places. Johnson connects the images of women to the most prominent fine artists of the time, including Picasso and Degas.

Several women aside from Dita Von Teese lent their pens to the project, including Ruth Rosen and Dennita Sewell, so that readers absorb the photos in the most clear and undiluted translation possible. We’ll leave it to you to pick up a copy of the book and peruse the Pennsylvania brothel on you own, but for now, check out this preview of our favorite images from the book.

This peep show is on us.

Photo of prostitute at a brothel in Pennsylvania, 1892.
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania. 1892. William Goldman.

 

antique photo of a woman at a brothel
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania. 1892. William Goldman.

 

antique photo of a woman at a brothel
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania. 1892. William Goldman.

 

vintage photo of a woman at a brothel
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania. 1892. William Goldman.

 

vintage photo of two topless woman at a brothel
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania. 1892. William Goldman.

 

vintage photo of a woman at a brothel
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania. 1892. William Goldman.

 

vintage photo of a woman at a brothel
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania, 1892. William Goldman.

 

antique photograph of a topless woman in the 1890s
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania, 1892. William Goldman.

 

antique photo of a nude woman
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania, 1892. William Goldman.

 

antique photo of a nude woman tailoring the hem of another woman's skirt, 1892
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania, 1892. William Goldman.

 

antique photo of a woman wearing underwear and a tablecloth
Image: Redding, Pennsylvania, 1892. William Goldman.