Project Reviews

Prostitution in Philadelphia: Arrests 1912-1918
Created and maintained by The Spatial History Project at Stanford University.

The Spatial History Project at Stanford University uses the collaborative efforts of faculty, students, and outside researchers to create spatial visualizations of their research findings. One of these visualizations, Prostitution in Philadelphia: Arrests 1912-1918, plots arrest data for disorderly street conduct for 1,124 arrests out of a total sample of 4,000. Each arrest shows as a single point on a map of Philadelphia. This mapped data will eventually be used to aid in developing a chapter in historian Michael Kahan's book Danger in the Streets. As the Principal Investigator on this visualization project, Kahan has offered viewers the ability to view total arrests for prostitution in Philadelphia in relation to residential, public, and mass-transit areas. Also, the visualization sorts the arrests into three color plots to differentiate arrests of black, native white, and immigrant prostitutes. In addition, the viewer has the ability to toggle the arrests viewed based upon what type of prostitution the prostitute was arrested for, bawdy house activity or street walking. The viewer is then able to gain other personal information about individual arrests by hovering over the dot that represents that particular arrest. These multiple tools allow a researcher interested in early twentieth-century prostitution to analyze arrests based on place, ethnicity, and race.

The single greatest strength of this project lay in its easily navigable format that allows users to sift through large amounts of data in seconds. A similar type of analysis of arrest data without this digital project would take weeks to plot and compare the data rather than simply clicking buttons to achieve the desired comparative view. Furthermore, a paper representation of this information would require the use of multiple pages while the use of a digital format allows for the dynamic representation of different data sets in an instant. In this way, Kahan's project finds its greatest use as a research analysis tool for historians interested in prostitution or Philadelphia. Also, one can see how a professor in an upper level history course could utilize this digital project as a pedagogical tool to help students think about connections between space, race and ethnicity, and illicit sex. However, while the project is versatile and allows a researcher to view several layers of data at a time, a diligent researcher will want to see the original data from which the visualization was created—data not offered by The Spatial History Project.

Unfortunately, the easy style of navigation and user friendly design contained within the Prostitution in Philadelphia visualization does not extend to the larger Spatial History Project site. The main site for the project does not provide a clear path to view its visualization projects. One can view the projects by clicking on the "gallery" link which then allows one to browse the projects; it seems more logical to change the "gallery" link into a "visualizations" link that clearly tells viewers that the link will guide them to the visualization projects. Navigating the projects themselves could also be more direct. While the ability to search by project is appreciated, the other navigation aids left me confused until I experimented with them. However, if one stumbles onto The Spatial History Project without the intention of viewing a specific project, he or she may benefit from this somewhat disorganized browsing design. This said, The Spatial History Project's navigation design problems do not undermine the individual Prostitution in Philadelphia visualization's utility as a research organization and pedagogical tool.

While providing an analytic and organizational aid to historians of early twentieth-century America, this project also builds on previous work done on the history of prostitution in the United States. However, the project is quite limited in its ability to provide enough information to draw any conclusions. Its focus on those arrested for prostitution makes one wonder about the clients who frequented those who had been arrested. Were the men frequenting these prostitutes from the middle-class? Were they blacks, native whites, or immigrants? Furthermore, Kahan's visualization only allows one to view prostitution arrests from streetwalking and bawdy houses while remaining silent on any arrests that may have taken place in the higher-end sex market of kept women who would only see a single client for a prolonged period of time. Furthermore, portraying these women as dots on a map under neat categories of "bawdyhouse" and "streetwalker" suggests that these women were full-time prostitutes rather than part-timers who needed extra money during a particular period. In other words, distilling people down to dots on a map removes historical agency from individuals without giving the slightest nod to their personal economic conditions. In addition, the lack of a greater contextualization of prostitution during the early twentieth century puts this project largely beyond the interpretive scope of someone who is not familiar with the historiography on prostitution and sexuality in the United States.

While the Prostitution in Philadelphia visualization may provide an excellent illustration for the eventual argument Kahan will make in his book, its utility is limited to a research aid and pedagogical tool. This project is easy navigate and may help students to make connections between data and larger historical concepts, but its failure to provide its primary sources for historians and a larger conceptualization of the period for the general reader limits the ultimate utility of this visualization.

Jacob K. Friefeld
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2011