The Archaeology of Prostitution and Clandestine Pursuits

Rebecca Yamin and Donna J. Seifert

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Case studies of nineteenth-century sites from New York City to the American West
“This fascinating book explains how urban archaeologists use material remnants of the past to understand the otherwise hidden aspects of life, including sexuality and agency. . . . Rigorously researched.”—Choice  
“A gem of a book. . . . Many historical archaeologists will recognize Yamin and Seifert as uniquely qualified to discuss these topics. . . . The authors present data in new ways and provide interpretations that both expand anything they have previously written about and go into richer detail than they have before.”— American Antiquity  
“Successfully integrates and synthesizes not only three decades of the authors’ pathbreaking research, but the equally important archaeological work of more than 20 other archaeologists.”—Antiquity  
“This important book will be a source of engaged discussion in courses ranging from historical archaeology, archaeological theory, the politics of archaeology, and gender and sexuality.”—Historical Archaeology
“A compelling and insightful analysis of unconventional and clandestine pursuits in nineteenth-century America. This work assesses individual agency within specific social, political, and economic contexts and illustrates that ‘free will’ is always constrained in some way.”—Deborah L. Rotman, author of The Archaeology of Gender in Historic America  
“This fascinating book shows how archaeology can contribute a more complex and nuanced picture of prostitution’s practice in the American past than what we infer from the popular historical narrative.”—Diana diZerega Wall, coauthor of The Archaeology of American Cities

The Archaeology of Prostitution and Clandestine Pursuits synthesizes case studies from various nineteenth-century sites where material culture reveals evidence of prostitution, including a brothel in Five Points—New York City’s most notorious neighborhood—and parlor houses a few blocks from the White House and Capitol Hill. Rebecca Yamin and Donna Seifert also examine brothels in the American West—in urban Los Angeles and in frontier sites and mining camps in Sandpoint, Idaho; Prescott, Arizona; and Fargo, North Dakota. The artifact assemblages found at these sites often contradict written records, allowing archaeologists to construct a more realistic and complicated picture of daily life for working-class women involved in commercial sex.  
Recognizing the agency involved in practicing a profession that has never been considered respectable, even when it wasn’t outright illegal, Yamin and Seifert also look at the agency of other individuals who participated in illicit activities, defying society privately or even publicly. The authors demonstrate the various ways disempowered groups including immigrants, African Americans, women, and the poor wielded autonomy while constrained by cultural norms. They also consider similar, contemporary expressions of agency, with particular attention to ongoing arguments surrounding the legalization of prostitution. Juxtaposing today’s debates alongside the clandestine pursuits of the past reveals how dominant moral standards determine what individual choices are publicly permissible.   
Rebecca Yamin, retired senior associate and principal archaeologist at John Milner Associates, is the author of Digging in the City of Brotherly Love: Stories from Philadelphia Archaeology. Donna J. Seifert, retired senior associate and principal archaeologist at John Milner Associates, is a former president of the Society for Historical Archaeology.  
A volume in the series the American Experience in Archaeological Perspective, edited by Michael S. Nassaney  
Publication of the paperback edition made possible by a Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 
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