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April 15, 2024

Vintage Portraits of “Working Girls” in Sallie Shearer’s Brothel in Reading, Pennsylvania From the Late 19th Century

These portraits of the group of women who lived and worked at a brothel in Reading, Pennsylvania, circa 1892. Taken two decades before the famous E. J. Bellocq photographs of the 1913 sex workers in Storyville, New Orleans, these photographs are the earliest known body of work on this subject in the United States.

People in the know about Berks County history have long been aware that Sarah, “Sal” or “Sallie,” Shearer ran a bordello around the turn of the last century at Eighth and Walnut streets in Reading, Pennsylvania. Sal Shearer, who found a means of survival, indeed empowerment, while her husband frequented the salons of Paris. William I. Goldman, a prominent photographer of Reading’s upper class, who quietly documented Sal’s girls in stylish, if revealing, fashion.

Reading’s golden age of industry was in full swing when Sal Shearer was madam of what, by all accounts, was a stylishly furnished brothel that catered to the city’s upper crust. The Reading Railroad was at the zenith of its economic power, and the city was awash with steel factories, knitting mills and the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer.

It’s not known exactly how or when Shearer got into the business, though she’s listed as a dressmaker in a city directory in the 1880s. Neither is it certain if she offered favors or simply managed the brothel. Either way, she prospered.

An article in the Reading Eagle on Aug. 18, 1898, quotes a Reading police officer as saying, “The house of Sallie Shearer is magnificently furnished. The finest carpets cover the floors, beautiful mirrors adorn the walls and the rooms are beautifully decorated.”

Sal Shearer ran a classy brothel in a wealthy section of Reading and, as her fortune increased, she bought a handsome house for her two boys and drove around the city in a stunning black carriage driven by a pair of matched horses and decorated with black silk tassels.

A passage in “A Wide Open City,” a landmark study of prostitution in Lancaster, suggests how brothels like Sal’s operated. “The police know I’m here, know I keep a quiet house, no fighting, only sell drinks to regular trade, never ask any questions,” a Lancaster madam said. “Too many businessmen come here for them to touch me.”

William I. “Billy” Goldman was as prominent and established as could be imagined. His obituary in the Reading Times says he was a charter member of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, a 32nd Degree Mason and member of the Rajah Temple, and treasurer of a chapter of the Pennsylvania Photographers Association.

In his studios, which were in various locations, he did portrait photographs some of Reading’s finest families. There was another, less visible, side to Goldman: He was an admirer of the female form.

It was uncertain if he was a client of Sal’s, but he gained her confidence and she who allowed him to photograph the women she employed both in her brothel and at his Reading studio around 1892. Goldman, who never married, left no survivors when he died in January 1922.

You can find more of photographs of “working girls” taken by William Goldman here on Wikipedia page.


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