In the late 19th century, prostitution became an increasingly prevalent issue in St. Louis. Unable to control it, city leaders agreed the best option was to regulate the industry to contain undesirable behavior and prevent the spread of venereal disease. On July 9, 1870, St. Louis approved the Social Evil Ordinance, making St. Louis the first in the nation to legalize sex work. Following similar legislation in Europe, the ordinance required sex workers to register with the Board of Health, undergo routine medical examinations, and pay a monthly fee. Money from fees helped with the construction and upkeep of the Social Evil Hospital, a facility located four miles away from the city limits. Sex workers who failed their examinations were sent to the Social Evil Hospital, where they were confined and treated for their illnesses. The hospital and a nearby House of Industry served as spaces where reformers taught sex workers “respectable” skills in hopes they changed their lifestyle. The efforts, however, were unsuccessful.
Despite the Social Evil Ordinance’s initial support as a progressive solution to “immoral” behavior, it soon came under fire. In April 1874, city leaders nullified the ordinance. The Social Evil Hospital was converted into the Female Hospital for New Mothers until the building was demolished in 1915. This failed experiment serves as an example of how one of the country’s largest cities addressed the spread of venereal diseases and illicit behaviors.
Subject: Prostitution; Health care
Contributing Institution: Missouri Historical Society
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Region: St. Louis Metro